- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 16, 2001

The burned library in the heart of Sarajevo is what everyone shows you when you first arrive, even before they point out sites where shells snuffed out the lives of children and grandmothers.
You are told that destroying the repository of this city's cultural heart was meant to break its spirit. But that did not happen. The spirit is still there. There is no question, however, that its spirit was indeed tortured almost to the breaking point. As the United Nations — with the United States following suit — deliberately imposed an arms embargo that hurt mainly the innocent people under siege, the torture went on for several years.
Bosnians are now finally taking responsibility for their own recovery, as well they should. Nevertheless, the international community, hardly an innocent bystander in the tragedy, should continue to lend a helping hand in the painstaking process of reconstruction at least a little while longer.
Of course there are those who say to just forget it, nothing will ever be enough: after all, aren't the Balkans a synonym for interminable, irreconcilable conflict? Look at Macedonia right now; the Balkans will never change. So why bother? But this verdict is not only evidence of simplistic history; it underestimates the resilience of the human spirit that is very much alive in Bosnia.
There is clear evidence of light at the end of this Balkan tunnel, the flame lit by quite ordinary people who are tired of massacres and of hate-filled ideologies proclaimed by their own demagogues. They are tired of the international community's condescending handouts, and would like to take their life in their own hands. Bosnia is beyond Macedonia and can indeed serve as an example to the rest of the region: If its people can survive, so can the others.
My own organization, the International Foundation for Election Systems, one of several USAID-funded nongovernmental organizations, has recently printed several thousand copies of a guide to municipal government, which helps Bosnians figure out who to talk to about improvements in civic life. These guides, which include local government legislation, phone numbers of municipal offices, and detailed local budgets, are used in training people how to demand accountability from their representatives. The citizens now have a useful tool to make specific requests.
Not that Bosnian citizens consider civic participation as a matter of simply asking for money. Everyone is prepared to rebuild, to dig or build or clean or whatever they can do, provided there is some support, if only a permit or some equipment.
It is democracy at work — the reality of it, not just the rhetoric. Nearly 200,000 citizens have now been involved in IFES' program alone. And there are other similar projects, funded primarily by the United States.
In just the past five years, more than 12,000 visits to villages and local communities have resulted in a better organized population, with countless initiatives: sewage systems in place; garbage containers; ambulances provided; programs to help the young, the old, women, the disenfranchised.
And all the "trainers" in this program are Bosnian nationals — Muslims, Croats, and Serbs. Some have worked together for five years. Many witnessed unspeakable acts during the war. Yet all these people have overcome hatred and have learned that once a community understands how to go about getting what it needs, there is no further reason to help.
It is clear to the people of Bosnia that this program is funded by the United States with no intention to promote a particular partisan or political belief. The objective is self-reliance and self-respect. It provides a compassionate, logical blueprint for the entire region, to cushion the impact of the military pullback: It says America is not running out on these people. It is simply taking the next step. It is helping them get on their feet.
The message to the United States from Bosnia is simple: Please believe in us, and we will manage on our own, but do not leave us hanging in the wind quite yet. The twin legacies of communism and a brutal war, exacerbated by an arms embargo, have left us maimed. Give us a little hope, and help us build our future. We can do it, and we will do it, with our own hands. We have the same goal as the United States and we call it the same name: freedom.

Juliana Geran Pilon is vice president for programs at the International Foundation for Election Systems.

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