06/09/2014 02:41 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Blame it on Rio, or Sarajevo?


War more likely in the Balkans or sex in Brazil, turned into an unexpected UN Security Council debate. Is promiscuity for conflict, sex or soccer something embedded in our genes, culture or environment? Some stereotypes perhaps are better, or more accurately less harmful, but in the end they become a hurdle.

Conflict & Ethnic Cleansing as Historically Predestined?

As the citizens of Bosnia & Herzegovina and the broader region suffered through conflicts where they frequently were the targets and not just collateral damage, rationalization for their fate only added to their victimization. Opting to do little to confront the war makers, within the UN security Council it became convenient to rationalize inaction as well as the conflicts and ethnic cleansing that tore the former Yugoslavia apart during the early 1990's as somehow part of the DNA of the region and peoples. The history of region was projected as somehow destined to produce new, ever more brutal killings and conflict. (That Muslims were part of the ethnic/religious melting pot only added to the appetite for bias.) Predisposition toward conflict became the easiest explanation why little would be done to confront the would-be demagogues claiming religion, ethnicity, or sense of national threat or humiliation as camouflage for imperial ambition and perpetuated hold on power. The same pattern now is evidenced from Syria to Myanmar to the Central African Republic to Ukraine, and no corner of the world is immune from such contagion of narrative if left unchallenged. Western Europe's history, perhaps the most scarred by religious and ethnic conflict, now is perceived as most removed due to economic prosperity, the colonization of others, and the blessings of the pan-European institutions and thinking.  

The Slur that Becomes the Ultimate Victimization:

That the big powers (P-5 Veto members of the UN Security Council) would have attributed their inaction to the presumed historical maleficence of the region was to be perhaps expected, and as Bosnia's Ambassador across the UN Security Council's horseshoe table, I responded in the same open debates and challenged each on their own historical blemishes: the collaborators of Vichy France, the genocides and gulags of Stalin, and the brutality of America's Civil war, slavery and eradications of Native peoples. However, the slurs directed at the peoples of the former Yugoslavia also came from some of the Ambassadors whose populations/states had also suffered destructive stereotyping. The Ambassador of Botswana stated in open debate that the UN Security Council was tiring of "babysitting" BiH and the region even as the sieges and deprivations were still ongoing. By contrast, Ambassador Diego Arria of Venezuela, a devout Catholic, made no distinction in the victimization between Bosnian Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox Christians or others. The long history of co-existence and mutual profit from pluralism, from Albania to Macedonia to Serbia was evidence cited by others including then-US Ambassador Madeleine Albright, (who was born into a Czechoslovakia swallowed by Hitler and then spent early years in Belgrade), as well as myself, a child of Sarajevo. The intermingling of traditions, music, art as well as mosques, churches and synagogues is no where more evident than in Sarajevo - evidence of tolerance and coexistence that held the fabric of our society together. My parents, Drs. Aziza and Nedzib, raised me with an appreciation for the diversity and the potential for good which I adapted in my American identity.

Rationalizing Ethnic Ghettos as Solution:

Even after the Dayton Accords, the establishment of ethnic ghettos where previously peoples had lived intermingled became an excuse for a less than nurturing peace to restore normalcy to lives of citizens, political accountability and the rule of law. The slurs did not end with the war, and I was intent on raising the expectations for peace, both around the UN Security Council table and back in BiH and the region. Slobodan Milosevic, the chief architect of the conflict and frequent drinking buddy of wanna-be mediators, still ruled Serbia & Montenegro.

Promiscuous War or Sex?

Then-Brazil Ambassador Celso Amorim, (now Defense Minister & formerly Foreign Minister) defined the lack of progress in the normalization of peace as embedded in the region's proclivity for conflict. My reply to this slur was to refer to a film: "Blame it on Rio" (1984 starring Michael Caine & Demi Moore), whose storyline inferred that something about the Brazilian city made it conducive to promiscuous sex, which I thought a much less damning condemnation, if that. Ambassador Amorim asked for the floor again, and visibly fuming declared that this image was unwanted by Brazil and something it was working to erase. Nowhere though did he recognize that his own initial reference was also a stereotype that maligned the citizens of BiH and the region as a whole. Thus, I demanded the floor again and asked whether Ambassador Amorim believed that the stereotype directed at BiH and the region was somehow more OK even as he objected to a Hollywood title and implication of a film as it related to Rio. Ambassador Amorim's failure to retract or even recognize his own biased slur only added to the careless insult. The UN Security Council session concluded without a reconciliation of positions, but the message was that bigotry would not go unanswered. It was a not so infrequent moment of unanimity when Croatia's, Serbia & Montenegro as well BiH's representatives had grown weary of being maligned by such stereotyping. (Ironically, years later during a WTO debate Foreign Minister Amorim was criticized for stating that  EU states and the US applied the same stereotyping as employed by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.) 

Who will you Root for in Brazil World Cup 2014?

Brazil and the states of former Yugoslavia do share much, including a diversity reflecting many cultural influences, a love for music, creativity in film and art, and a proclivity for soccer that is outsized. Bosnia & Herzegovina and Croatia this year have emerged as serious challengers for the World Cup in Brazil. In previous years, Slovenia and Serbia (along with Montenegro) had reached World Cup's final stage. Even before the 1992 dissolution of the country the former Yugoslavia, as one country, had amassed significant success with players from all its Republics including several from my child favorite FK Sarajevo. (The Balkan region as a whole has had other distinctive success including Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Turkey.) Rather than root against neighbors as some presumed expression of historical animosity, I tend to want the best for the teams of the former Yugoslavia and region. Overt employment of soccer as an avant-garde for nationalism is the only turn-off for my rooting loyalties. Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia and my adopted country, the US, will be my favorites this year in Brazil. (However, "American football" remains my greatest love as I earned a scholarship to Tulane University to play the game as cited by President Bill Clinton in his book "My Life".

Coming Together in face of Disaster & Tragedy:

The recent devastating floods that swept through BiH, Serbia and Croatia caused personal tragedy and much loss of property. It will take years, perhaps decades to rebuild lives and property with much assistance needed from Diasporas and international investors. (Donations are still sought by aid agencies - see link below) There was though a blessing: the people of the region even beyond the countries immediately impacted, almost by instinct came together to help, hope and pray for each other.

It went beyond empathy and pierced much of the destructive politics that had consumed goodwill and fertilized fear of the other. The countries of the former Yugoslavia will most likely be as one again, as members of the European Union, and the leaders in Brussels as well as Washington would be wise to see the clear future rather than a past made muddy by those stirring baser instincts. After the recent unrest in Ukraine and again stirring of old passions, the acceleration of European integration is a remedy for the backward stampede urged by the extreme right-wing and xenophobic politicians who would take Europe back to a century earlier.

We Create more than History!

We often forget that besides its outsized history and appreciation for soccer, the peoples of the former Yugoslavia have much to offer. Sarajevo is often credited with "creating more history than it can consume." We are though creators of culture, education and industry - just witness the roll call. Nikola Tesla was an ethnic Serb born on the border of BiH, lived in Croatia and emigrated to the US. In my mind as a young immigrant to the US, he was a model, both as to my origins and as an aspiring American. When I entered a state-wide contest as a 7th grader writing an essay on an "American inventor," I chose Tesla. My essay received acclaims, but I was disqualified because Nikola Tesla was deemed not to qualify as American.

Overcoming stereotypes even more than history is perhaps more of a challenge. Citizens also should ask whether a future Nikola Tesla could come to realization in the region - is the environment for public governance and private enterprise conducive? Films and cultural works from BiH and the region have already gained global recognition from the Oscars to Berlin. Nonetheless, I suspect that most persons of the region would prefer the stereotype attached to Brazil than the Balkans - better to be projected as promiscuous in almost anything other than war. 

Ambassador Muhamed Sacirbey

PHOTO: Courtesy of WikipediA - Theatrical Release Poster