Rebuilding Bosnia - a Race Against Time

I thought I was prepared for it after all the television images and newspaper stories. But I wasn't.

The Sarajevo I knew, both from many years ago and as late as November 1991 - when leading politicians still talked of peace and said war would never come to Bosnia - is gone. War has come and gone, and this stunning little city is a shell of its former self.

There is an eerie stillness in the air. The steep hills on the eastern side of the Miljacka River, that for three and a half years were controlled by Serb gunners, now look quietly down on the people below, who are still not sure the peace will really last.

Stores are opening up. Children are returning to their schools. The cafes, where so much of daily life in the Balkans is spent, are again full. It is as if a sigh of relief is heard all over the city. And though the peace may seem as unreal as the fighting sometimes seemed, and life is still very hard, there is new hope. Anything, most Sarajevans concede, is better than war.

The war left 250,000 dead, 200,000 wounded, and 13,000 permanently disabled. It also left more land mines than people; roads, hospitals, bridges, and schools shot to pieces; 70 percent of the livestock slaughtered to feed a starving nation; industrial output 5 percent of prewar output; 75 percent unemployment; and annual per capita income now barely one-fourth of the $1,900 it was before the war.

Bosnia, once a middle-income country with a high level of technical and professional skills, has become a poor country, on a par with some of the poorest in the developing world. And like postwar Europe, Bosnia needs help to start all over again. It cannot do it alone.

Jointly, the European Union and the World Bank have been asked to coordinate this immense task, of a scale not seen since the US Marshall Plan after World War II. The amount of damage is enormous, maybe as high as $50 billion. That kind of money is nowhere to be found, but a start has to be made. The World Bank has estimated that $5.1 billion is needed over the next three to four years for emergency aid to start helping Bosnia rebuild itself. Of this, $1.8 billion is needed this year. That money has been found.

Still, four months after the signing of the peace accord in Paris, and after two donors meetings in Brussels, there is little concrete evidence of economic progress, and little evidence that the millions pledged by the international community have been put to use. You can argue that it's still early, and that the international community has moved fast. Certainly, the World Bank feels it has moved faster than at any time in the past to assist in a post-conflict situation.

But the impatience in Sarajevo is noticeable. The Bosnians are in a hurry, and rightly so. Peace is fragile and needs support from an efficiently run civil-assistance program. It's a race against time and we should all be in a hurry.

The key is job creation. Seventy-five percent unemployment is untenable and potentially dangerous in any country. In postwar Bosnia, with the imminent demobilization of 300,000 soldiers who will all be looking for something to do, it is even more urgent to find more jobs.

"Peace," as World Bank President James Wolfensohn said the other day, "will only be assured if we can get jobs to these people."

Right now, anything, even small public-works projects, will help: repairing the High Court building in Sarajevo; cleaning up city parks and moving 3,000 graves to proper cemeteries; issuing micro-loans to women to start small businesses; replacing thousands upon thousands of broken windows. In the long run, of course, factories need to be rebuilt and foreign investors have to start coming back to Bosnia.

The international organizations are working on many fronts, and we are impatient, too. Our task is complicated in and of itself, but it's made more difficult by various political and administrative problems, many of which are beyond our control. The Bosnian Serbs' boycott of the Brussels II conference was certainly a setback to the assistance planned for their part of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Future funding and reconstruction efforts will certainly be helped by tangible progress this year, and by moves toward cohesion and peace in all of Bosnia.

Just as Bosnia needs the international community, so we need the Bosnians in order to succeed. The international organizations cannot do it for the Bosnians, nor can each international organization do it by itself. We need each other - all of us. That's the message from Sarajevo.

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