Why would citizens in America's heartland think they could strike a chord for peace in the world? "Peace came to our community, and we thought it a significant enough legacy for the world to continue to make it happen," says Tom Young, chair of the Dayton Peace Prize Committee.
The committee is part of a community planning group called Dayton: A Peace Process (DAPP). It has organized a series of high- profile events this fall to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Dayton Peace Accords. The highlight is tonight, when the Dayton Peace Prize will be conferred to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the architect of the accords, which ended the 1992-95 war in Bosnia.
The accords were a last-ditch all-out effort to stop the ethnic cleansing that had claimed more than 300,000 lives and displaced 1 million people. It was "the worst killing ground in Europe since World War II," wrote Mr. Holbrooke in his 1998 book "To End a War."
Holbrooke chose Dayton as the summit site, an unimpressive alternative to opulent settings in Geneva, Paris, or Washington. The Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the largest in the country, provided stark accommodations for the nine participating delegations, sealed off the press, and displayed America's air power. This environment augmented Holbrooke's use of the "Big Bang" strategy - now known in diplomacy circles as a "Dayton" - where negotiators are locked in a room until they reach an agreement.
But even Holbrooke did not anticipate what Dayton had to offer.
Proud that their town had been selected for the summit, Daytonians responded by welcoming the negotiators and then forming human peace chains around the base, holding candlelight vigils, and praying for peace throughout the 21 days of talks. Dayton's ethnic diversity did not escape the notice of the warring Balkan leaders, either.
"I love them," says Holbrooke of the people of Dayton in a telephone interview. "I believe that they are the absolute epitome of the best of America. They just showed what great energy and faith is out there in the heartland, which was dismissed by Washington."
Dayton City Commissioner Matt Joseph offers a more down-to-earth assessment: "People reacted. There was a fire in Bosnia, and it was brought to our neighborhood. We took our garden hoses and tried to put it out. We just acted like neighbors. That's what we do in Dayton. If they're in trouble, we're in trouble."
For 10 years, Bosnia has been at peace, refugees have gone home, and the country is moving toward membership in the European Union. But the country's economy is still recovering from the effects of war.
The Dayton agreement included a constitution and elections, says Margaret Karns, professor of political science at the University of Dayton, and efforts are under way to get Bosnian parties to agree to a simplified governmental structure.
"The Peace Accords stopped a war, but it didn't create a nation," says Mr. Young. Much is being done behind the scenes, and hope remains high, but peace "is a very complicated process."
What happened between Dayton and Bosnia after the accords were reached is especially noteworthy. In looking for ways to keep the "spirit of Dayton" alive, community members established citizen-to-citizen relationships with Bosnians through cultural and educational exchanges, trade missions, and international conferences between policymakers and government officials. Dayton also arranged a sister-city agreement with Sarajevo and hosted a "Concert for Peace" with the Sarajevo and Dayton Philharmonic Orchestras.
"We are 5,000 miles away and made a difference among people no one ever heard of, and almost no one knew what was going on there," says Commissioner Joseph. "We were chosen, and we took up the cause. That really makes me proud. It is the power of the community."
Community leaders created the Dayton Peace Prize in 1999 to recognize individuals who contributed to the peaceful reconstruction of a society torn apart by war. A stipend of $25,000 goes to each recipient, who agrees to donate the money to a charity in the Balkans. The award, which is not given every year, went to President Bill Clinton in 2000 and philanthropist George Soros in 2002.
This year, Daytonians set up a new award, the Peacemaker Prize, which they will present to Farida Musanovic for her role in establishing a humanitarian program in Bosnia and Herzegovina through Women for Women International (www.womenforwomen.org), dedicated to improving the lives of women survivors of war.
"The Dayton Peace Accords represented one of the most important international endeavors for peace in a conflict that had global implications," says DAPP chairwoman Doris Ponitz. "Nearly a decade after the signing of the peace accords, the Dayton community is committed to exploring ways to celebrate peace."
Other observances of the Dayton Accords this year included a peace education seminar and an interfaith worship service and roundtable discussion (sponsored in part by the recently opened Dayton International Peace Museum), which included religious leaders from Bosnia and Herzegovina. The $200,000 cost was raised through ticket sales and donations. Local philanthropists donated money for the Peace Prize and Peacemaker Award.
"We're a large, small town," says Thomas Lasley, DAPP vice chair and dean of the School of Education and Allied Professions at the University of Dayton. "Communication is easily accomplished between and among groups."
Dayton's commitment to peacemaking is the work of countless volunteers whose motivation is best summed up by Young, who participated in the candlelight vigils 10 years ago and is still involved today: "Why do I do this? Because peace in our country and the world has to be a priority."