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Not Easy Putting Humpty Dumpty Back Together Again

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 19, 2001 – There are many lessons to be learned in Bosnia, according to Ambassador Robert A. Seiple, an advocate for religious freedom.

Although much progress has been made since the warring factions signed the Dayton Accord in 1995, recovering from the conflict in Bosnia based on religion and ethnicity has not been easy, Seiple said.

"When the war was still going, he recalled, "I met a Serbian Orthodox priest, dramatically dressed in his habit at the top and camouflage jeans at the bottom -- with a rifle. That kind of symbolized the role of religion and identity in this conflict.

"By the time it was all over, it was exceedingly difficult to put Humpty Dumpty back together again," he said.

Seiple, a former Marine aviator who flew 300 combat missions in Vietnam, accompanied Deputy Defense Secretary Rudy de Leon to Bosnia Jan. 13, 2001. The ambassador spoke with American Forces Press Service following the visit to Sarajevo and Tuzla.

"When I visited Bosnia the first time five years ago," he said, "it looked like pictures of Berlin after the bombing, except here they didn't have air destruction, so all this destruction came from almost point blank range. You really saw this down in Mostar."

Today, he noted, mines have been swept, roads are open, and people have had the chance to put a roof over their home. "To think that in five years there could be this much progress," he remarked, "someone deserves a pat on the back, much more than the constant criticism that this is for the Europeans to deal with."

From May to September 1999, Seiple served as America's first ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. He joined the State Department in August 1998, initially as the principal advisor to the president and special advisor to the secretary of state for this issue. In October 1998, Congress unanimously passed the International Religious Freedom Act, which in turn mandated the position.

Prior to becoming ambassador, Seiple spent 11 years as president of World Vision, a private organization devoted to international relief and development. He also served as president of Eastern College, an Eastern Baptist theological seminary outside of Philadelphia.

From 1966 to 1969, Seiple served as a Marine Corps A-6 pilot, serving 13 months in Vietnam. "I spent a lot of time after that war reflecting on it, and went back in 1998, as president of World Vision, to open up the country for relief and development. I've been back 13 times since."

As ambassador for religious freedom, Seiple said he built on what he'd been doing in Bosnia with World Vision. The group spent about $25 million a year to redevelop the economy, he noted.

World Vision was one of the nongovernmental organizations focused on civil implementation of the peace accord. Seiple said, in 1995, they began projects like renovating of apartments -- "whatever we could do to give jobs to the local people and get back to some semblance of dignified housing."

Much of World Vision's work was directed at young children, he noted, rather than the elderly. The group determined it was unlikely a 60-year-old, for example, would get over the massive trauma of the war in their lifetime.

"So we rebuilt elementary schools. We did simple things like putting athletic teams together, where on one side you'd have a Croat and a Serb and a Muslim, and you'd just let them go out and play so they'd realize people are people [regardless of faith or ethnicity.]"

Seiple said, an interfaith group within Bosnia, made up of a Catholic cardinal, Moslem imam, Orthodox patriarch, and a rabbi, worked toward reconciliation.

These four, "pretty much led by the Jewish person because he had less blood on his hands I think, tried to create an interfaith dialogue that could begin to pull people mentally, emotionally and spiritually out of the abyss that they were in."

But, Seiple noted, it was hard going because they had all gone through the war. "Trying to reenergize this interfaith dialogue was not easy and it's still not functioning very well, primarily because it was compromised," he said. "Things had changed and everything had gotten tainted. The Franciscans, in some parts of Bosnia were despised. The Muslims in some parts of Herzegovina were despised.

"And you had the worst abuses of religious freedom because, [in Bosnia,] to be identified is to be an enemy of somebody else and the very real possibility of being harmed because of it even after the accords were signed."

Even today, sparks of the religious fire that swept the land remain, he noted. "There are about 1,500 Mujahadeen that came over to help the Bosnians and a lot of them stayed and they're still a problem. It doesn't take much to make mischief there."

After leaving the State Department, Seiple started the Institute for Global Engagement, an organization he dubs "a think tank with legs," focused on international religious freedom. Along with working with host country governments, the group aims to create more sophisticated interlocutors, people who can present faith issues in an emerging leadership.

"For every good missionary story there's a bad one," Seiple said. "There are all kinds of ways to get it wrong. We're looking at new methodology, [employing] common sense, reconciliation and how it unfolds.

"In this world," he stressed, "people who either don't understand it, or don't have the methodology to implement, are going to be fairly irrelevant on the international scene. Bosnia and Kosovo are good examples of why that's needed."

The Balkans "made the case loud and clear" for taking preemptive action, he stressed. "What do you do in Indonesia before it breaks up? What could we have done in Rwanda before it all blew apart?

Once a situation begins to "unravel," he said, "with what people have done, what people have seen and experienced, [reconciliation] will take a generation."

Yet, to use an "ugly metaphor," Seiple said, "you cannot let things simply scab over. They will fester.

"Bosnia is a perfect example of things that were held in place by super power restraint and a couple of personalities," he said. "Tito's gone. The Cold War is over and every two-bit, tin horn despot wants to make something out of his life and so Milosevic takes center stage for a time and creates all kind of havoc by playing on the things that weren't dealt with.

"So you have to hang in," he concluded. "Anything else is to be nave. The hardest thing is to work preemptively because there's no political urgency. Nobody is saying for sure it's going to happen and we can't generate support for it. Most of the time, we wait until the pictures come out and by then it's too late."

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Progress Evident in Bosnia Mission

Click photo for screen-resolution imageDeputy Defense Secretary Rudy de Leon listens as Ambassador Robert A. Seiple speaks to U.S. troops at Camp Comanche in Bosnia. Seiple, who served as ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, noted the progress he's witnessed since the NATO-led peacekeeping mission began there in 1995. He and de Leon visited Jan. 13, 2001, and saluted the troops for what they've accomplished. Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn.  
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