Worlds Apart Review

Former US Ambassador to Austria Swanee Hunt writes hauntingly of the “grand intentions and missed opportunities” that prevented us from protecting Bosnians.

By Joanne Leedom-Ackerman / March 13, 2012

(This review originally appeared in the Christian Science Monitor.)

The city is surrounded. Shelling rains down on the population. Sniper fire, bombs, mortars erupt from all directions. There are no safe havens for civilians; dozens are killed each day. The international community meets, protests, debates what should be done. Powerful players like Russia obstruct action. Sanctions are tightened, but it is citizens who suffer most. Outside nations are willing to offer humanitarian aid, but are conflicted about arming the opposition. The UN organizes peacekeeping forces, but the mandate and rules of engagement are unclear. The siege and the deaths continue … for years.

This description could be from today’s headlines in Syria, but instead it is the siege of Sarajevo in Bosnia 20 years ago. The paralysis of the international community to intervene and prevent the killings of citizens is still haunting.

In Worlds Apart, former Austrian Ambassador Swanee Hunt chronicles her years (1993-1997) on the inside and the outside of the corridors of war in Bosnia. As the US Ambassador located in Vienna, she sat at embassy dinners, met with European and US government officials, engaged in countless discussions of what should be done. She also used her position, both geographic and political, to visit with the citizens of Bosnia dozens of times in the country and to bring citizens outside the country to meet with each other.

“Worlds Apart” – part memoir, part foreign policy text – is narrated in an informal, first person voice, with 80 vignettes that present the story from the inside point of view of citizens, humanitarian aid workers, human rights workers, and journalists and from the outside view of policymakers, diplomats, military leaders, and international politicians, most of whom had limited interaction with the citizens living through the ordeal.

“This is a book about Bosnia – and beyond. Its lessons reach to Egypt, Iraq, Korea, Congo … any place we as an ‘international community’ try to stabilize a chaotic world,” Ambassador Hunt writes in the Prologue. “It is a story of grand intentions and missed opportunities, heroes and clowns, and a well-meaning foreign policy establishment deaf to the voices of everyday people.”

Hunt draws multiple lessons throughout the book, but the overall lesson is that solutions must include both inside and outside actors. Central to the inside group are women who often are willing to set aside the most wrenching experiences in order to restore life for their families and communities. Yet few women are invited to the peace tables, and few are consulted in the processes of peace.

In April 1996, Hunt offered President Bill Clinton two pieces of advice: “We must come up with a more solid approach to the war criminals living within a few miles of the troops…. We need a strongly targeted effort now to strengthen the role of women in Bosnia.”

Among the compelling stories in the book is the author’s harrowing journey from Sarajevo to Lyons, France, where she briefed President Clinton before he addressed the international press at the G-7 meeting. In that rushed encounter, she focused on the Bosnian Women’s Initiative. “These women are working together – across political fault lines,” she told him. “They’re the best story you’ve got.”

“Worlds Apart” is a moving political and personal story, unique in its telling and in its voice. It is rich with narrative details and also with analysis that makes it a valuable text in the literature of the Balkan War. There are many perspectives on that war, and there are those who may take issue with some of Hunt’s criticisms, but she also criticizes herself.

At one point, she visits with theorist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, a mentor and a Nazi Holocaust survivor. She asks if she should resign in protest over the inaction. He answers, “Madame Ambassador, sometimes the right thing to do is only 55 percent right and is 45 percent wrong. It’s hard enough for an individual to act in those situations. For a giant like the US government, it’s paralyzing.”

“Worlds Apart” reminds the reader how difficult and yet imperative is individual and collective action in the face of moral collapse. The most effective action links head and heart – “policies determined in logic-driven consultations and the pathos bred in brutalizing situations…. Only then will we have the intellectual and emotional wherewithal to bring together the two worlds apart, making them one, more just and secure.”

It took over a decade for Swanee Hunt to distill and to write the experiences from Bosnia. That history and its lessons remain eerily relevant today.

When the Crowds Go Home, Ideas Keep Traveling

The crowds have left; the reviewing stands, disassembled. The reflecting pool is frozen with sea gulls light-footing across it. Washington, DC has held its grand party. For three days, everyone was on foot, bundled in coats, scarves, gloves and walking everywhere–to the Mall, to the Capitol, to the White House (or as close as one could get), peering over barricades, hundreds of thousands of people.

Most of those who came to town have returned to all the states in the union from which they came. Those from the more than 100 foreign countries here to watch the Inauguration have also returned. As the full working week commenced in Washington, snow flakes were falling; the sky was cloudy, and the Potomac River, crusted with ice at the edges, waited for spring.

But the spirit remained. And the consequences of this global gathering were only beginning. Among those visiting Washington were women from the world’s conflict regions, women engaged in peace building, who were gathered to share experiences and also to study and watch the U.S. electoral process, particularly as it might apply to their circumstances and lives.

At a conference, sponsored by the Initiative for Inclusive Security, women from Afghanistan, Bolivia, Israel, Kashmir, Lebanon, Liberia, Palestine, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Uganda and other areas came together for training, exchanging experiences, and working on peace initiatives around the globe. After the main conference, a dozen women met in a side room around a table with tea and coffee and strawberries, women from Uganda, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Iran and the U.S. to consider how to get more women in the electoral process in these countries.

The focus quickly turned to the upcoming July elections in the Sudan, where 25% of the seats have been set aside for women. At the table were Josephine Akulang Abalang from the Southern Sudan and Lina Zedriga Waru Abuku from Northern Uganda. These two women live in neighboring countries and regions, both of which have been devastated by years of conflict, separated by a few hundred miles and bad roads, both regions in a fragile state of peace.

Both women have considered running for office in their countries. However, Lina’s husband, who had been an opposition politician, “disappeared” eight years ago, and her children begged her not to take the same risk so for the moment she will stay out of the electoral process, but she is helping others. A lawyer, she manages the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 Project which seeks to empower women for peace and reconciliation.

“We are not victims; we are the stakeholders,” she says and repeats her mantra, “Nothing about us without us.”

She and the other women around the table focused their experience and contacts on Josephine, who may well embark on an electoral bid. At the height of the civil war in 1992, Josephine fled the Sudan on foot, along with 500 students; she was one of only six females in the group trying to get to Uganda. Instead she was captured by the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army and forced into military training, but eventually was released. She made her way to Kenya, where she was awarded a scholarship in Canada and earned a bachelor’s and then a masters degree in international relations. Currently working for the UN and for the government in the Southern Sudan on disarmament, she is the first from her village to graduate from school and would be the first woman from there to run for office.

She and Lina and the women from Sri Lanka and Iran said the impediments for women to seek election were psychological and systemic. “Women are 60 % of the population in the Southern Sudan, but women lack confidence,” Josephine said. “Women think they need certification to run.”

The women around the table representing civil society and experience in their communities began to strategize on how to get the Sudanese women the training, skills, credentials, and the solidarity of a community behind them to run for office.

There are immense challenges facing the Sudanese 2009 elections—gaps in voter education, logistical support for elections during the July rainy season, special difficulties for free and fair elections in Darfur, where rebel commanders didn’t allow the census and large areas continue to be plagued by armed opposition. Aid offered for election procedures has often been held up by the national government. But there are women starting to organize with the hope that at least on the ballot and then in the meeting rooms and around the tables where decisions are made, women will sit and bring to the issues and problems their voices and ideas.

Back in Washington, the women are seeking support –both financial and technical—for their efforts for gender parity in the Sudanese government and in the peace process. The call will also begin to go out to women around the globe who left the Sudan in the wider diaspora to return and run for office.

There is not much time until July, notes Josephine. But the work has begun.