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Peace Is More Than the Absence of War

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I lived a childhood of peace. I experienced war as a teenager. And as an adult, I see how the aftermath of violent conflict transforms communities. Unfortunately, the death and suffering of war does not end when the last bullet whizzes by. Ending a war takes more than stopping the active hostilities. The return to true peace takes many decades.

Bosnia, where I grew up, was part of Yugoslavia, a federation of six republics that also included Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. My parents were middle class people who provided me and my brother with a comfortable life until it was suddenly swept away; my life -- and the destiny of Bosnia -- irrevocably changed course in 1992 when Serbian bombs began falling and hillside snipers made targets of schoolchildren. Over the next four years, nearly 45 percent of Bosnia's 4.5 million residents were made refugees as Serbian forces besieged cities, obliterated neighborhoods and wiped out entire towns. More than 200,000 people were murdered, including thousands of children. Thousands more Bosnian women were raped. The murder of my younger brother Irnis was a devastating personal tragedy, one that was repeated in countless families across Bosnia. The massacre of 8,000 at Srebrenica, a little town in Eastern Bosnia, finally crystallized the horrors of the Bosnian War for the Europeans and Americans, who helped broker peace at the summit in Dayton, Ohio.

The Dayton Peace Accords stopped the bullets. But for countless Bosnians, the end of war brought a peace that has been difficult at best. The country's infrastructure was destroyed -- from hospitals and schools to sewers, roads and power plants. And the people were no less shattered.

Bosnia's tragedy is my personal experience, but Bosnia is not unique in its post-war suffering. Imagine your own community. Imagine a power failure that lasts years rather than hours. What would it mean to you to have no access to clean water? To have the roads shut down? To have all the schools close? To be denied access to hospitals? To have empty stores and no food?

This winter, the United States suffered through several severe winter storms. Some communities lost homes, lacked food, had roads and schools closed and lost access to medical care. News reporters talked about "war zone" conditions for the people living in these areas. And there was a lot of suffering. But unlike a natural disaster, the government isn't there in a war to cope with devastation and care for its people. The government can't mobilize aid when bullets are flying and bombs are exploding.

Imagine a hospital near you and think about the patients they see. In a day, perhaps there are three births, 10 critical surgeries and hundreds of acute medical cases -- cancer, kidney failure, heart attacks. Now imagine that hospital closes and there is no other place for these patients to go. How many of those people will die? And this is just one day; multiply the cost in lives over years. In a war, these types of deaths, caused by the destruction of infrastructure, aren't even counted as war casualties.

After the cessation of active hostilities, it takes years to rebuild hospitals, schools, sewers, power and roads. And it takes decades to address the extraordinary psychological shock suffered by the survivors.

These secondary consequences of war last generations. Children who grow up during a war, grow up with malnutrition, poor educational opportunities and the loss of family members. Too many grow up with lowered physical and cognitive abilities. The generation that grows up during war suffers life-long disadvantages even after the country's physical infrastructure is rebuilt.

In Bosnia, these children, including the children born of rape, have entered adulthood. Will their generation, born into war, be left unscarred? Not likely. How about their children? Only time will tell, but sociological research suggests that the children of parents who suffer trauma in their youth also suffer.

Dr. Barry S. Levy, an expert on the adverse health consequences of war, spoke recently at Stanford University and UCLA as part of a lecture series on health and human rights sponsored by my Human Rights Project. He discussed the multi-generational effects of war. A declaration of peace is only the first step on the long journey to normalcy.

Peace is more than the absence of war. Once the last gun shot is fired, there is still an enormous amount of work to be done. As citizens of the world, we need to come together and offer support to communities ravaged by war. We need a long attention span to generate post-conflict solutions that prevent the costs of war from passing down through many generations of children. These solutions have to address both the broken infrastructure and shattered people: economic help, educational opportunities, medical and psychiatric support, and spiritual healing. Long term multi-faceted solutions are much harder to sustain than quick fixes, but they're necessary to reduce the long-term consequences of war.