Water Only Two Days a Week: What It Will Take to Rebuild Bosnia


IMPLEMENTATION of the Dayton peace agreement in the Balkans will be complex and difficult, but the obstacles may not be as great as widely supposed. Everyone stands to benefit, and this fact will not be lost on the peoples concerned.

Hopefully, there will also be a strengthening of the international community's resolve to protect the broad principles of decency, dignity, and human rights that underpin the Dayton accord.

Real peace and stability will come through socioeconomic redevelopment as much as through diplomacy and military support. For the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina the time has come to overcome a war that was waged against civilians and designed to destroy the very fabric of their society.

During that war, humanitarian aid was commonly blocked in an effort to weaken the health and morale of besieged civilians in Sarajevo and misnamed ''safe areas'' like Srebrenica and Bihac. For nearly four years, children, women, men, old people, and the sick and infirm were systematically denied food, water, medicines, heating fuel, electricity, and freedom of movement.

Even now, in the midst of the harsh Balkan winter, 350,000 people in Sarajevo have water only two or three days a week and natural gas every other day. For thousands of displaced children and adults living in tents and makeshift shelters throughout the region, this winter promises to be especially cruel. Translating the peace accord into action should first of all mean addressing these needs and ensuring protection against the winter.

The human and social costs of the war will be felt long into the future, but peace now opens the door to resettle nearly 3 million people, many of whom were uprooted from their homes at night when maximum psychological damage would be inflicted. Most will return to towns and villages only to find their houses blown up, religious centers razed, and historic sites vandalized. A major reconstruction program should be given high priority as part of the peace-implementation plan.

During 43 months of war most of the ''safe areas'' were continuously attacked. In Sarajevo alone more than 10,000 civilians were killed, and another 61,000 wounded. By the end of the winter of 1993 all of the city's parks and sidewalks had been denuded of trees and shrubs, which were used for heating.

During that winter and the following one, temperatures in the main hospital in Sarajevo remained below 45 degrees F for weeks on end. Hospitals and clinics were frequently targeted, and more than 200,000 square meters of health facilities were destroyed.

Upward of 12,000 of Bosnia's doctors, nurses, psychologists, and medical technicians were killed, injured, or forced to flee. Restoring gas, electricity, and water supplies must be given high priority during peace implementation. Damaged health facilities have to be rebuilt, and new equipment is needed to replace the old.

Although Bosnia's larger cities managed to absorb most of the displaced people, they did so with little time to prepare. Empty apartments were allocated to families, and local people were asked to provide rooms for the homeless.

But the number of displaced was too great. Schools, hotels, idled factories, and warehouses had to be hurriedly converted into shelters. Overcrowding, poor sanitation, and badly ventilated rooms were linked to severe outbreaks of respiratory diseases, gastrointestinal infections, and widespread hepatitis. Without a concerted new housing program, the health of more than 2 million displaced people in Bosnia will remain precarious.

For children and women, the impact of war will require long-term psychological and physical care. For every baby born in Sarajevo during the war, at least two pregnancies were terminated by traumatized women. Sniping, shelling, and trauma made it difficult for women to reach clinics, and many received care after it was too late to be effective.

Difficult pregnancies became even riskier, and perinatal mortality rose everywhere in the country, particularly in the cities and towns under siege. The rates of low-birth-weight babies and of babies with congenital abnormalities tripled in comparison with the prewar years. Maternal- and child-health services deserve primary attention, and everything must be done to ensure sound and healthy development for the children who represent Bosnia's future.

With peace will come a gradual normalization of food supplies and health services. But without an adequate economic base, many families will be unable to afford market prices. Humanitarian food aid must continue for those in need, especially pregnant women, the elderly, the homeless, and others in special circumstances.

The elderly and disabled have suffered tremendously. They often were unable to carry water when it was available, unable to collect firewood, and unable to regularly claim humanitarian aid supplies. A major rehabilitation program will be needed if the disabled and the elderly are to be slowly reintegrated into their communities and allowed to enjoy the fruits of peace.

The war divided untold numbers of families. Thousands of Bosnian men between the ''military'' ages of 16 and 60 were sent to concentration camps, and many of them emerged physically and psychologically damaged. The massacres of Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica and Zepa this past summer have also left deep scars on the Bosnian population.

Sexual violence was a prominent feature of ethnic cleansing. It was used as a means of forcing people to flee or simply as an expression of ethnic aggression and gratuitous gender violence. Today it still haunts the collective psyche of thousands of women and children. Counseling of sexually abused and traumatized families will need to be a prominent part of health and social services for some time to come.

Fortunately there is a good base on which to build. The strength, resilience, and pride of the people of Bosnia will surely stand out in modern history. This was nowhere more evident than with the thousands of health workers who showed incredible courage and dedication, working day and night in difficult conditions without salary through the course of the war. But the fortitude and character of the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina in general was also amply demonstrated over the years of aggression.

If the international community can now rise to the challenge and sustain its own commitment to Bosnia, it will mark a major turning point in the evolution of international humanitarian and socioeconomic cooperation.

The economic reconstruction of Bosnia-Herzegovina and other countries in former Yugoslavia as part of the European community could prove to be the moral and social revitalization of Europe as a whole. It will certainly help solidify peace in and around Bosnia, and throughout the European arena.

A year ago, as I walked in the winter snow of Pale toward the armored car that would take me back to Sarajevo, someone whispered to me, ''Remember, the war is made by less than 5 percent of the people, but has to be suffered by the other 95 percent.''

After 43 months of cruelty and devastating war, peace now makes it possible for the 95 percent to begin the task of rebuilding their personal lives and their country. It will be made all the more possible with the active support of external partners in Europe and elsewhere.

That support should be designed to allow the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina to get on with their lives. It should complement the immense inner strength manifested by the country's people. A major European tragedy has been lived through.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Water Only Two Days a Week: What It Will Take to Rebuild Bosnia
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today