Return to Sarajevo: "I had never seen the city lit up during the war..."
Béatrice Mégevand-Roggo was head of the ICRC's delegation in Sarajevo in 1994-95. As Delegate-General for Europe and the Americas, she recently made a working visit to the Balkans. She gave us her impressions about returning to the Bosnian capital (summary of interview in French).
You were head of delegation in Sarajevo in 1994-95 and you recently returned there for the first time in eight years. How did you feel when you arrived there?
BM: the first impression was entirely visual – first of all we came into the city on a road that had always been off-limits during the war because it ran along a front line, so that in itself was quite impressive. Secondly, we arrived in the evening and for the first time I discovered the scale of the city – I had never seen it lit up during the war.
You met up with some former colleagues – what was that like?
BM: I did meet up with a few of them, but only a few in fact because some of the people from the old times had left the ICRC, or moved away from the city, or even left the country to live abroad. It was quite striking, this movement of people away from Sarajevo after having put up with so much during the war, afterwards they just didn't feel able to continue living there.
It was very moving, a mixture of tears, of pleasure, of e motion and memories, for me and for them. They had seen a lot of heads of delegation come and go but the emotion was very, very strong when we met.
Some of the officials that you dealt with during the war are now detained at The Hague, while others are among the present leaders of the country. At the time you worked there, did you ever think things would turn out like this?
BM: Not at all. At the time we were so absorbed by our daily survival, individually and as a group, by our work to try and help and to be of some use to the victims of the siege. We had no idea how things might turn out afterwards.
It's true though, there have been some rather peculiar moments since then, for example when I have visited some of my former contacts at the detention centre at The Hague. Seeing how things have worked out since the end of the war gives you pause for thought, but at the time we really didn't think of it at all.
What were the most difficult war-time memories and feelings that you re-lived during this recent visit? Do you recall anything in particular which gave you the strength to continue believing in the ICRC's work, despite the difficulties?
BM: There are lots of painful memories. But, strange as it may seem, there are also some good ones – the tremendous human kindness and the feeling of solidarity. The worst: well, the days and nights spent under shelling, the daily violence, the snipers who shot people down in the street...
At the same time, what gave us the strength to continue was the gratitude we felt among the peop le for the little we were able to do for them – providing some water to districts that were entirely cut off, for example. Then there were the messages exchanged [between separated families ] – some of them were very touching and managed to say in a couple of sentences so much about the suffering and the hopes of the civilian population caught up in the war. Many things like this helped us to keep going, both the expatriates as well as the national staff.
How did the present-day life in Bosnia-Herzegovina strike you, particularly the social situation? What do you think about the way the humanitarian consequences of the war have been dealt with by the international community?
BM: I was certainly very struck by the social-economic situation. I don't think it's up to me to judge what has been done, it is never easy to reconstruct a country after such a bloody war that was so emphatic in its objective to separate the different ethnic groups. Re-building is a difficult job and it would be unjust to say what has been well done or not.
There are certainly huge problems, the economic take-off is a long time coming, in fact it's not yet in sight. There is also the continuing polarisation of society, the tendency to split apart even further, and there is a lot of difficulty in following the international community's lead in creating a truly multi-ethnic state – this really struck me.
And of course there is the exodus, the haemorrhage of the country's lifeblood, the educated, qualified young people who are leaving... that's something that is very disturbing.
Interviewed by Annick Bouvier