If there is anything I would like the readers to get from my book, Not My Turn to Die: Memoirs of a Broken Childhood in Bosnia (AMACOM, March 2008), it is this:
I realize that what happened in Bosnia [during the civil war in the 1990s] could happen anywhere in the world, particularly in places that are diverse and have a history of conflict. It only takes bad leadership for a country to go up in flames, for people of different ethnicity, color, or religion to kill each other as if they had nothing in common whatsoever.
“Having a democratic constitution, laws that secure human rights, police that maintain order, a judicial system, and freedom of speech don’t ultimately guarantee long lasting peace. If greedy or bloodthirsty leaders come to power, it all can go down.
“It happened to us. It can happen to you.
I know that a lot of people will dismiss this right away. After all, the Western media portrayed us, people from the Balkans, as “savages” who don’t know any better than to brutally kill each other every once in a while.
This portrayal in the Western media was one of the reasons I wrote my book. I wanted to show how my idyllic, peaceful childhood in Bosnia was turned upside down as the civil war broke out. I wanted to show that it was not our “savagery” but political turmoil after the collapse of communism that was exploited by nationalist politicians that divided people according to the ethnic and religious lines.
The bloodthirsty politicians from all sides told their followers that their neighbors and friends were now their enemies who shouldn’t be trusted, and, after some persuasion, lots of ordinary people started believing them.
I was thirteen when the war began. My sister, Sanja, was eleven. My parents refused to believe that politics could drive neighbors and friends to hate and kill one another. We’d never made enemies and we didn’t expect anyone to harm us, so we decided to stay in our home and our city, Gorazde.
But nevertheless, being the same ethnicity as the people who were attacking Gorazde, we endured treatment that no human being should ever be subjected to. Our lives were threatened, we were shot at, terrorized, degraded, put in a detention camp, starved, and eventually stripped of everything we owned.
Often, it was our friends and neighbors who led attacks on us. It didn’t matter that we knew each other for many years. Politics, propaganda, and ethnic tensions easily destroyed relationships.
But you probably still don’t believe that your government, your constitution, your morals and values would allow anything like this to happen in your country.
Ken Silverstein writes in the Harper’s Magazine about Gustave Gilbert’s interview with Hermann Goering, the Nazi Reichsmarshall during a break in the Nuremberg trials in 1946. When Gilbert said that he did not think that ordinary people are very thankful for leaders who bring them war and destruction, Goering responded:
“Of course, the ‘people’ don't want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.”
“There is one difference,” Gilbert said. “In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.”
“Oh, that is all well and good,” Goering added, “but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”
Remember when in 2003 Americans were told by their government that Iraq was an imminent threat and could attack them at any time. So many bought the lie and supported the war. Those who didn’t were called unpatriotic, terrorist lovers.
Violence based on old wounds lives just beneath the surface of the United States or any other ethnically, racially, or financially diverse society. It is only a matter of degree before "citizens" start rounding up "illegals," or "red states" and "blue states" start shooting at each other instead of shouting at each other, or "ecoterrorists" stop marching and start burning things down on a large scale.
What if the police in your country are ordered by the government to start rounding up those labeled as "enemies" in house-to-house searches and the politicians take advantage of the strong emotions and the media blindly follows along, whipping people into a nationalistic frenzy?
What would you do? Would you have the courage to speak out? Would you have the courage to talk down an armed mob?
War can happen in your country, too — wherever you live. Any time, any place. You should understand how quickly your world can change, as mine did, when I was only 13 years old.
You should think now about things you can do to prevent war from happening in your country, to you and your family. Before it’s too late.