Wars happen quickly. One minute you’re on the subway going to work or impatiently standing in line in a bank, and the next a conflict is outside your doorstep. Over the past three decades, I’ve seen the terrifying velocity of war in the Balkans, in Africa, and in the Middle East.
No one ever believes it will happen; that war will come to their community, so no one ever prepares. Worse, the international organizations meant to prevent war do little to ensure mechanisms that support conflict prevention are in place. Usually they’re too busy appeasing member states who commit acts of war.
I always ask people caught in conflicts the same question: “Why did it take you so long to leave?” Or “Why didn’t you leave when you had the chance?” The answer is nearly always the same: because we never thought it would happen.
I remember summer afternoons in Damascus in 2012, standing on my hotel balcony watching a massive rave below me: partiers were dancing around a pool, beers in hand, rap blaring. On the edge of the city, bombs were falling — I could see the plumes of smoke in the distance. The pool party was an attempt to deny the inevitable and freeze time: a desperate, defiant last chance at normality.
One September night on the Ivory Coast in 2002, I went to bed after a raucous dinner party. I drove home admiring Abidjan, the West African city known as the Paris of Africa. A few hours later, I woke to see red tracer rounds in the blackened sky and child soldiers with Kalashnikovs in my garden.
Overnight, the city collapsed. The television didn’t work — the rebels attacked the TV center. My phone had no signal. Villages were being burnt. Dead bodies were left lying in my street. My guard ran away in terror. A five-year war had begun.
As a conflict analyst, I look at several factors to determine whether or not a country is susceptible. Unstable elections are the first trigger. Referendums that may or may not lead to violence. An erosion of the pillars of democracy; human rights, the rule of law, and freedom of the press. A population divided. Nationalistic rhetoric leading to hate and separation. All these things lead to civil unrest. Backyard wars are how I refer to the series of conflicts that ripped through the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, pitting neighbor against neighbor and turning neighborhoods into battlegrounds.
Will There Be Blood?
We game out all the scenarios, from a surprisingly peaceful transfer of power to violence in the streets
I look at America today, one week from the election. With everything I know about war, I am anxious. The pandemic, George Floyd’s killing, the Russian interference, the Supreme Court, the lack of trust voters have in the government to protect them — all add up to worrisome warning signs.
Last year, I argued that American institutions were too strong for conflict to erupt. Today I worry about the number of guns bought since the pandemic started, the level of disinformation, and the economic disparities. Covid brought all our divides painfully to the surface: who lives, who dies, who gets preferred medical treatment, fresh air, internet for remote learning. Who can pay tuition or afford to flee urban areas for leafy suburbs or the seaside.
No one ever imagines war will come to their country, least of all a backyard war of neighbor against neighbor. But that is precisely what happened in Bosnia Herzegovina in 1992 — a case study I teach my students at Yale’s Jackson Institute. This November marks the 25th anniversary of the end of the Bosnian War. Much can be learned in fractured America today if we look to lessons from Bosnia’s past.
Following the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of communism, the former Yugoslavia broke into pieces. It began when the Bosnian people voted on a referendum to leave Yugoslavia in late February 1992. The Serbs boycotted the vote, calling it illegal.
The Serbs were militarily superior and the hardware lay within the boundaries of Serbia, one of the six republics that made up Yugoslavia. Within weeks of the referendum, tanks rolled down the main streets of the capital Sarajevo; the airport closed; water and electricity went off. Snipers were posed on buildings; hundreds of mortar shells fell on civilian areas. The city became besieged for more than 1425 days — the longest and one of the cruelest sieges in modern history.
By early summer, Serb paramilitaries crossed the strategic River Drina into Eastern Bosnia and began their ethnic cleansing operations. Rape camps were set up in towns like Foca, and women were imprisoned and raped up to 16 times a day. I call Bosnia a “backyard war” because often, when fighting in the trenches that surrounded the cities and towns, the very young soldiers could see their former school friends, their football mates: it was like being in the neighborhood.
Many of the inhabitants were of mixed background — they were half Croat, a quarter Muslim, part Serb. Some clung fiercely to the fact they were Yugoslav and not identifiable by their religion. Still, they fought for territory, with the Serbs intent on carving out a greater Serbia. Some fought to protect their neighborhoods or their houses. In parts of Sarajevo, there were plenty of Sarajevo Serbs who fought with their Muslim brothers against the Bosnian Serb forces. I remember being in a trench once near Zuc in Sarajevo, and being so close to the Bosnian Serb frontline that we could see their flags. “Hey!” one of the soldiers next to me called out to a soldier on the other side. “How’s your sister?” It turned out he had dated her back in the days before they were killing each other.
The siege of Sarajevo, which I reported, broke my heart. The population — multicultural, sophisticated Central Europeans — burnt books to keep warm, chopped down trees for firewood, made cheese out of rice, lived by candlelight. Without heat, the former winter Olympic city was unbearably cold. Surgeons operated by flashlight with limited medical supplies; hunger and war crimes were rampant. So many people died. I used to go to the morgue every day to count the dead.
It was a desperate time, but people were resourceful: To avoid snipers we grouped together to run across streets. Entrepreneurial men would light one cigarette on a corner, sell puffs to fellow smokers. Black market developed; as well as underground theatre: Susan Sontag arrived to direct Waiting for Godot. Gallows humor kept our flagging spirits going.
Meanwhile, outside of Bosnia, no one seemed to care. The international community bickered whether or not it was a European or American problem. While diplomatic missions failed, more than 100,000 people died (the figure is disputed — some say 250,000) many of them children. Nearly 2.2 million people were displaced.
The same nationalistic rhetoric that marched Bosnia toward a bloody war echoes throughout the U.S.
Only after the brutal genocide of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys, who were marched into the woods near Srebrenica and slaughtered in July 1995, did the world stand up and begin to take action. For me — a reporter who made Bosnia my priority for years — it was unbearably painful. Lives could have been saved if early humanitarian intervention had taken place.
America is not nearly so divided on ethnic lines, and there is no referendum on next week’s ballot seeking the breakup of the nation. But we are deeply divided along tribal lines, torn apart on issues such as race, gun control, immigration, and what kind of country we want to live in. The same nationalistic rhetoric that marched Bosnia toward a bloody war echoes throughout the U.S. Not since the 1860s has there been such deep rifts between neighbors.
The divisions have been building throughout the Obama and Trump eras. Back in 2018, Stanford historian Victor Davis Hanson posed a provocative question in the National Review: “How, when, and why has the United States now arrived at the brink of a veritable civil war?”
Hanson’s argument was that nearly every American institution from late-night television to the Oscars to NFL football had become not only polarized but weaponized. Donald Trump’s 2016 election, he wrote, was not so much “a catalyst for the divide as a manifestation and amplification of the existing schism.”
War happens when large groups of people are willing to engage in mass violence. We’re not there yet: I don’t think many Americans are ready to pick up a hunting rifle to kill their neighbor. At least I hope not. But I worry about the militias and the guns, and a social compact that frays more every day. What happened in Bosnia shows us how essential it is that we open up dialogue and encourage peaceful dissent — long before we get anywhere near the point of self-destruction.
Bosnia should be a lesson for us, a case study in how quickly things can unravel. If talks had been set up after the referendum, and if all sides sat down to hash out some kind of agreement, perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives might have been saved. There are dangerous preconditions for a conflagration, and we are showing some of them in America today: the erosion of our basic rights, the anger, and the tribal divisions. The economic disparity. The desperate need to come together before it is too late.
Our country is traumatized by the past four years. We are suffering from moral injury — we’ve been forced to witness lies and deceit and acts which go against our moral grain. We need to find ways to heal, and to remember conflicts like Bosnia, in order not to repeat them.