In 1995, I was a member of a bipartisan Congressional delegation to determine America’s response to the war of genocide being carried out by Serbia, primarily against the Muslim minority in Bosnia and Croatia. The breakup of Yugoslavia had left deep ethnic, religious, and political divides which had broken out among the Muslim and Christian populations in that region.

We flew to Belgrade and in a two-hour meeting with Serbian President Slobodon Milosevic, all 15 members of our delegation stated emphatically that America would not stand by and allow him to continue his campaign of “ethnic cleansing.”

The next day we flew to Zagreb, Croatia, and delivered the same message to President Franjo Tudjman. America was prepared to lead a NATO force to intervene and stop the genocide.

The nwxt day we flew into Sarajevo, Bosnia, and witnessed a city in almost total ruins. The fighting in the city and shelling from the surrounding mountains had destroyed nearly everything. The city was totally divided along ethnic and religious lines, and as our bus moved through the city under heavy Christian or Muslim guard, depending upon which section we were in, we noticed that people were running to the side of the road and cheering. They came from burned out buildings, abandoned rail cars, anywhere that provided shelter for them to live. They knew that an American Congressional delegation was there and we would have something to say about their future.

The security detail did not want us to stop, but we finally convinced them to pull over so we could talk to the people. We pulled into a small town square where, just a few days before, an incoming mortar had killed several people. Within minutes, we were surrounded by people rushing into the square to meet us. In the crush of the crowd one elderly man grabbed my arm. He said to me, “My last remaining brother was killed in this square. We only trust America.” That’s all he said.

We got back on the bus, completed our meeting with President Alija Izetbegovic, and was flying to Germany to meet with our troops when the weight of his words became clear to me. He wasn’t saying the people there were trusting America’s military or economic power to save them. I am convinced he was saying that he trusted the experience of America.

He lived in a beautiful country that had destroyed itself because people would not accept each others ethnic, religious and political differences and chose to kill each other instead. And he knew the story of America, that we had come here from every corner of the globe with all our differences and somehow, for nearly 230 years, we had made our union work. Not perfectly because democracy is always a work in progress. It’s our “experience” in caring about each other despite all our differences that has made America “the shining city on a hill” to the rest of the world. He knew the story of America and that’s why he trusted us. In his mind, if America can do it, so can Bosnia.

We are the “hope of the world,” but only if our union holds from within. Today, we are a divided nation and many wonder if our union is in danger. Abraham Lincoln spoke these words in a speech he gave in Springfield in 1838.

“Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth in their military chest, with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years. At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.”

Glenn Poshard is a former Illinois State Senator, U.S. Congressman, gubernatorial candidate, and is a former President of the Southern Illinois University system.

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