10/28/2013 03:40 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Balkan Thoughts

Twenty years ago a vicious war raged in southeastern Europe. Today the location of global conflicts has shifted to, for example, Syria. Refugees, rival regimes, factions, religions and ample extremism -- the formula is age old. Noted many times, this human savagery does not end.

In the Balkans as in Syria, it wasn't a war of drones or cyber attacks. Quite the contrary, these conflicts have continued what began a century ago or more with many of the same tactics and weapons. Ancient and beautiful cities such as Vukuvar and Sarajevo besieged and bombarded with artillery. Today Aleppo. Villages burned, neighbor killing neighbor, women raped, men and boys herded together into fields for slaughter. This was a barbaric episode and still is.

Lest Americans think they are immune, those of us old enough to remember My Lai will not forget our shame. And in 1950, in the early months of the Korean war, there remain accusations of mass executions of innocent Koreans by American troops at No Gun Ri. My own father told me, haltingly, of some very bad things that happened as he marched toward the Reich in the winter of 44-45.

Lives have been cruelly ended by regimes, militias, armies on far greater numbers in recent memory -- Rwanda, Cambodia are obvious cases.

Now it seems so long ago. Sarajevo's "pigeon square" (sebilj) now bustles with Gucci tourists; Dubrovnik is alive with arts. Mostar has tensely come back to life. In Belgrade, although Kosovo is still a topic, corruption, jobs and upcoming municipal elections are at center stage.

But I do remember traversing the tunnel beneath the Sarajevo airport runway not long after it was completed exactly 20 years ago. And I cannot forget the photos of Karlovac after visiting the front line of devastated houses just south of the city. Today, they are all rebuilt. Children playing in yards.

Time heals, doesn't it?

Alas, I think not. Jews will never forget the Holocaust. Hiroshima and Nagasaki cannot erase memories of atomic bombs. No one will pretend that slavery and the slaughter of Native Americans did not happen. Armenians and Tibetans have their own perpetual memories.

Some renowned scholars and courageous journalists have helped bear witness to inhumanity on many continents. I simply was present, now two decades ago, to see this instance of one more case of inhumanity. Regrettably, I have also seen slaughter in Central America, the Philippines and elsewhere. Too much, too many times I must say.

What we see are not armies and air forces fighting in uniforms a la the Yom Kippur War, or the regiments at Gettysburg, but personal, intra-village, familial slaughter. We still do not truly know how many died in the Balkans, Rwanda, Cambodia, and the list goes on.

The so-called international community is not altogether absent. An international crisis group, conflict prevention NGOs, and entire retinue of global quasi-activists and UN-related agencies try to limit such conflicts.

Not much luck thus far.

When the Serbs bombarded the market in Sarajevo, machete-wielding assassins killed tens of thousands in Rwanda... these are events in recent history. They are within the lifetimes of most adults today. Likewise, we watch events in Syria as Al Jazeera online observers.

Twenty years ago, after a claustrophobic walk through the tunnel in Sarajevo, I tried to find my friend. He had been shot by a sniper the day earlier.

Daniel Nelson heads a consulting firm in Virginia.