In a previous column, I noted that Dayton, Ohio, where a racist killer murdered nine innocent people, was the site of a 1995 international peace agreement, the Dayton Accords.
The now-almost-forgotten agreement ended a 42-month bloodbath of “ethnic cleansing” in a part of Yugoslavia called Bosnia. From the end of World War II to the early 1990’s, Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim minorities in Yugoslavia had lived together in peace and amity. Many of us are old enough to remember the good feelings and cooperation of the 1984 Winter Olympics in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo, where, only a few years later, snipers and Serbian army soldiers killed nearly 5,000 Muslim men, women, and children in campaigns of systematic mass rapes and murders.
The rise of a wannabe dictator named Slobadan Milošević, the president of Serbia in what had been Yugolavia, put a torch to longtime underlying tribal hatreds. Milošević fueled his rise to power on a platform of hate speeches calling for the elimination of Bosnians as “internal enemies.” Beginning in 1992, Serbian soldiers laid siege to Sarajevo and began an extermination of Bosnians in a genocide that continued for more than three years.
I had a personal contact with a wounded Bosnian child. The 12-year-old boy and his older brother picked up a Serbian rifle grenade that had landed in their yard. The grenade exploded, killing the older boy and almost severing the left leg of the 12-year-old, whose name was Elvis Muhic. Because of the ethnic tensions, Bosnian parents gave their children names like Elvis to disguise the fact that they were Muslims.
After painful and largely unsuccessful treatments in European hospitals, Elvis eventually came to the Pennsylvania Kiwanis Children’s Heart Program that I directed in the 1980s and 1990s. Over a lot of months, surgeons at Geisinger Medical Center operated to rebuild the bones in the boy’s leg and restore its flesh, which had been just one thin strip of tissue when he and his father arrived in America and I picked them up at the Philadelphia airport.
I saw the day when Elvis and his father boarded the private bus of a volunteer who drove them back to the Philadelphia airport for their return flight to Bosnia. It was a miracle that Elvis Muhic could walk without even a limp, but the pain he suffered up to that time was something that I can’t even describe.
Apart from the dead in Sarajevo, thousands more suffered the pain and agony that Elvis felt. And many still feel it today.
In the May issue of the Atlantic magazine, the great reporter George Packer describes a Sarajevo woman named Aida who, 20 years after the Bosnian war, couldn’t sleep nights. She had survived the war and she didn’t have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Yet, every night, as she watched satellite coverage of our 2016 election campaign, she couldn’t take her eyes off the TV set in her room.
The people at Donald Trump’s rallies were deeply familiar to her — the illogic of their grievances, their rage, their need for an enemy. As she watched, her heartbeat raced, her breathing became rapid and shallow. She began having flashbacks to the years before the tragedy. “Things that were once unacceptable even to think, suddenly became commonplace to say, until every boundary of decency was erased. Trump’s outrages sounded like translations of what the Serbian nationalists had shouted to provoke the unimaginable.”
If we wonder where Donald Trump came from, and where he’s going, I think once again of Steve Bannon, Trump’s last-minute campaign manager and first adviser in the White House, who confessed: “I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
Robert Bomboy has written for more than 60 national magazines and is the author of six books, including the novel Smart Boys Swimming in the River Styx. He taught for more than 30 years in colleges and universities, and he has been a Ford Foundation Fellow at the University of Chicago and in Washington, D.C.