Rachel S. Heslin
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In light of the fact that we've already been bombing Iraq for a couple of weeks, this may seem quaintly anachronistic, but when I was reading "Salam Pax's" rant about sanctions (about halfway through the post), I started thinking about my own experience of living in Belgrade under the UN embargo in '93.

It's been almost ten years since I wrote the following, and I'm afraid that, although it may paint a pretty bleak picture of the effects that economic sanctions on a nation can wreak upon general living conditions, it's a lot more difficult to come up with fully-fledged, workable alternatives. I also apologize for having a couple of statistics thrown in without documentation and wish I'd included where I'd gotten the numbers. As an FYI, the "companion/host" I refer to became my first husband, Radomir Vesković.

One of my greatest concerns about this issue is that people will look at Milošević's eventual ouster and claim, "See? Sanctions work!" without bothering to put any energy into trying to refine the application of sanctions to actually affect those in power, rather than "normal" people.

I know it's a bit long for a journal entry. If anyone's interested, I uploaded the original essay as an RTF file you can download and print or whatever.

August 20, 1993
We arrived in Belgrade via train -- not that there was much choice, considering that the airport was closed to international travel. The mass of people at the bus stop guaranteed that we would never get aboard with our five bags, so we walked around the corner and down the street to where the bus would off-load its previous set of passengers at the end of its run. After 40 minutes, the bus came. The driver didn't want to let us or the other three people at the stop get on here, arguing that it was against regulations. Grudgingly relenting, he glared at us as we boarded and took a seat. That evening, we went into town. My companion, a Belgrade native, was stunned at the empty stores that had been full of goods just two months before. He bought me a chevrek, the Serb equivalent of a pretzel without the twist, for 15 million dinara.

October 14, 1993
The government took six zeros off the currency on the first of this month. The only way to get on a bus -- not a seat, just a place to have at least one foot touching the floor as you struggled to hold on to what was left of a grab bar that swayed drunkenly, no longer attached to the ceiling or the side supports, trying to protect your chest from the crush as if you were in the front row of a Megadeth concert -- was to wait three stops before the end of the line. A chevrek now cost 750 new dinara, or 750 million of the old.

One must try very hard to remain isolated from the problems of the outside world when CNN brings the images into our homes. Governments are being pressured to do "something" to stop the violence/feed the children/save the world. But how much can outside influence affect internal conflict? And at what cost? The United Nations passes resolutions condemning actions it decides are contrary to the common good, but it has little effective means to support these resolutions. As it stands, the means of dealing with countries who do not abide by Security Council orders are divided into two alternatives: military force or economic sanctions. Military intervention is clearly a last-ditch effort to be avoided if at all possible, which leaves the "non-violent" method. In some situations, economic sanctions have proved sufficient. South Africa, for instance, is approaching its first multi-racial elections, a landmark that might never have occurred without the economic pressure of the global community. Unfortunately, broad-based sanctions against an entire country have some of the same pitfalls as dropping bombs: namely, that it is mainly the innocent who suffer most. In addition, the ruling government can turn hardship to its advantage, producing the opposite of the intended effect. As we approach the 21st century, there must be better ways of bringing about an end to specific conflicts without completely destroying a country's economy and the lives of those who must live within its borders.

It is difficult to describe what can happen to a city when it loses the resources necessary to its survival. There are no raw materials, so the factories are quiet. Two-thirds of its labor pool is on enforced vacation. Whereas a little over two years ago, the average salary was the equivalent of $850/month, today the average is $20. Gasoline costs 2.5DM (deutschemark)/liter, or about $6.50/gallon and is greatly watered down. People can not drive to work, to family, to the hospital. Public transportation is overloaded to the point of destruction: the few remaining vehicles, shocks crushed to uselessness under the weight of far too many bodies, cannibalize their less-fortunate brethren for spare parts. A woman sitting over the wheel well on a bus was killed when the tire beneath her exploded. Food can not be transported from the countryside to the cities. Inflation for the month of August was 1,886%; by December, the monthly inflation rate had risen to over a million percent. The six zeros taken off the currency in October had no effect, since within three months, eleven more zeros had been added to take their place. Not having been to Yugoslavia before, I did not realize how quickly things had changed since the embargo -- until I found a 1992 one-dinar coin.

Then there are the individuals: Branislava Eleković, a 23 year old pharmacy student. "There is no future for us here. Why should I go to school and get a degree so I can work 40 hours a week and get paid 10 DM a month? I can spend 10 DM a week. What am I going to do for the rest of the month? What if I want to have some ice cream or go to a movie? This is not living. This is just waiting."

Zeljko Šević, 25, the Yugoslav Minister of Youth, read me a letter in which, due to the embargo, his request to participate in a regional conference was denied; a letter very similar to the one I found on my host's desk rejecting his application for employment by a non-governmental peace organization based in the Netherlands, also "due to the embargo" even though he was a private citizen and the embargo was not supposed to apply to individuals. (If it did, Vlade Divac would not be playing for the Los Angeles Lakers.) The overall attitude was summed up by Branislava's room mate, Daniela: "We haven't done anything. Why do we have to suffer?"

The sense of futility becomes even more intense when everywhere one sees glimpses of the few who still possess great wealth, and you realize that those who do have the power and are responsible for national policies are the ones who have enough money and connections to shield them against the harshness of international condemnation.

Sanctions seem to operate on the tacit understanding that the people of the country should rise up against their leaders. However, in a country with a majority of the populace not very highly educated and mainly engaged in agriculture and heavy industry, the leaders can twist the sanctions to their own ends. Those people who disagree with the policies of their leaders feel themselves outnumbered and impotent to change the situation. As of October 1993, 400,000 people under the age of 35 had left Yugoslavia in the prior two years. This is from a country roughly the size of Virginia. Many of those who remain are older people, people without money, and the uneducated. They are either apathetic or nationalistic. They were also confused. No one seemed to know why only Serbia was under the embargo and not Croatia, why the embargo was still in effect, nor what needed to be done to have it lifted. Slobodan Milosević, like Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro, took advantage of the conditions to enhance the righteousness of his martyrdom and increase internal solidarity. Borba, an independent Belgrade newspaper, interviewed some people standing for hours in lines for cigarettes. They only found one man willing to place blame on Milošević, and he was quickly berated into silence by those around him, people who insisted that it was all part of the German- and Croatian-led Western tradition of discrimination against Serbs. One young woman said that yes, she had heard that smoking was bad for her, but this was her way of showing the outside world that Serbs could not be cowed; after the embargo was lifted, then she'd think about her health.

So what can we do instead? Today's technologies could be used to spread counter-propaganda, but it must be created by those who have a deep understanding of the area and the basis of conflict. Recently, in response to the military coup in Haiti, the foreign assests of military leaders were frozen, a move which directly affected those in power without further harming those whose only fault was to live in the country. The founding of an International Criminal Court or an International Court of Human Rights which would have jurisdiction over heads of state and the power to enforce its decisions would limit punishment to those most likely to be at fault. Yes, this might easily be construed as an attack against "national sovereignty," but how long can we sit back and watch national sovereignty be a shelter for those who condone and encourage violence against their own citizens, the very ones whom they are supposed to protect?

Answers are always more difficult to find than questions. There may never be a painless way to stop bloodshed. We must, however, continue to seek out alternatives which minimize the destruction of the innocent bystander.

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