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Seeing Iraq In Light Of What Happened In Rwanda, Bosnia, And Herzegovina
By Zainab Salbi

Fifteen years ago, two countries that had witnessed the most horrible genocides in the last decade of the 20th century ended their wars: Bosnia and Herzegovina and Rwanda. Through my work with Women for Women International, I have been working in and visiting these countries for years. This year, I got the chance to visit both of them just before I went to my home country, Iraq, another country in which Women for Women International operates and that is trying to define peace and its future.

My visit to Rwanda left me inspired, Bosnia left me sad, and Iraq left me depressed. I found common links between the three, as well as significant differences. Looking back on this journey, I wonder if our global community of nations will ever learn from each other's mistakes or if we are doomed to continue in perpetuity, repeating the mistakes already committed by our peers. At a time when the U.S. role in Iraq is being redefined and Iraqis set off down the path of autonomy, the moment is ripe for all stakeholders to review the experience of Rwanda and Bosnia and Herzegovina, with eyes toward essential lessons we can take from their history of conflict and rebuilding.

There are few essential differences between Rwanda and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Rwanda publicly remembers and remedies; to date, Bosnia has not. I'll tell you what I mean. One cannot traverse Rwanda without a constant and clear reminder of the genocide and of the healing process the country is still undergoing. You see this in the Gacaca courts (a community justice system of publicly accounting for genocide crimes), the anniversary commemorations of the genocide and memorials that both tell the history of what happened and serve as a reminder that we must not allow such a thing to happen again.

None of that exists in Bosnia and Herzegovina. One gets the sense that there is a motivated forgetting, with buildings that once housed concentration and rape camps converted into hotels and the Sarajevo tunnel that was the only entry and exit during the siege all but destroyed. The siege of Sarajevo was the second-longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern war. There is no sense that the story has been told or that history shall preserve it. There is no public acknowledgment of the horrible atrocities that occurred, and it is only remembered by its survivors, what they witnessed of killing, raping, or burning of their homes. Beyond that, there is no telling of the story in a public, historical or memorial way.

The Rwandese, however, insist that they must take full responsibility to rebuild their country as individual citizens; no one will do it for them. The Rwandese refer to this as their dignity, and it is reflected at the national level, through a philosophy that domestic capacity must be strengthened, so that the reliance on foreign assistance can be weaned. Such vision literally transformed the country from a place that had witnessed the worst acts of inhumanity in 1994 to one of Africa's top success stories.

There is no such vision, united leadership or the sense of individual responsibility for public memory in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is quite literally a country divided--the Dayton Peace Accords divided the state into two legal entities; it has dual legal systems, educational systems, economic systems, and a rotating system of leadership. The country is left frozen in time in its sorrow, pain, and corruption, more stuck in poverty than ever before and still divided by many of the same ideas that led to the outbreak of war in 1992. The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina may have ended, but the country is still broken. The international community negotiated the end of fighting but did not create peace. The world has failed to remember Bosnia and Herzegovina, after we promised never to forget.

So, what of Iraq? I visited the country immediately after I left Bosnia and Herzegovina, and I was saddened to see many similarities between the two. Today in Iraq there is no public acknowledgment of our tragedy, no public telling of our history of conflict. The Shi'a still feel that other Iraqis don't understand the injustice they faced during Saddam Hussein's time. The Kurds are secluded in their own enclave. The Sunnis are left angry and confused at their loss of power and have no interest in the histories of the Kurds or the Shi'a; they too want acknowledgement of the injustices they endured during Saddam. There is neither process for nor interest in a public reconciliation, a telling of truths and facing of facts or documentation of history. Without this prerequisite for peace, I can only wonder what future there can be for us.

In Iraq, as it was during my days working in Bosnia and Herzegovina right after the war ended, I am broken-hearted to hear so many objections for focus on the poorest of the poor. Both Iraqi and Foreign programs give insufficient value and focus to the poorest of the poor, choosing instead to build up a dying middle class. I am flummoxed by how the poor are so ignored, a strategy that leaves extremist religious and tribal leaders in a more popular position without much competition, leaving him much political power that I am not sure many want.

While in Iraq, I couldn't help but be reminded of a Talmudic saying that says "we see things as we are, we don't see things as they are." The Iraqi government, at the national and provincial levels, mainly represents the educated middle class, a class prosperous in the 1970s and 80s, but dwindling since the 90s. Of course, focusing on the middle class is an important measure in rebuilding Iraq, but doing so without focusing equally on the poor, their needs and their socioeconomic and political vulnerability is irresponsible and short-sighted.

An example: On a recent trip to Diwaniya, a local official told me that the Iraqi government is taking public officials for a three week vacation in China. I understand the Iraqi government, which pays its parliamentarians lucrative salaries, desires to invest in rebuilding the capacity of the middle class through exposure and training. What I find it hard to understand is why this is being done with no parallel approach that addresses the immediate and dire needs of the poor.

I am also worried that Iraq is missing critical opportunities to rebuild a decimated economy. Throughout the world, countless opportunities and advances abound in industry and sustainable agriculture--fundamental building blocks of a national economy--but Iraq is slow to take advantage of the trend, and to a certain extent refuses to engage in new and organic farming techniques that can help restore the soil of the country.

But these are characteristics of a new nation challenged by its past and trying to find itself in the future. With all of this, I do understand the limitations of the Iraqi society and government in many ways. After all, this is a country that was completely closed of to any part of the world up to 7 years ago. Things like international news, internet and cell phone only took place seven years ago. However, as for the international community, I do not understand the apparent continuation of a foreign policy doctrine in Iraq that features the same mistakes we should have learned from over the past seven years. The UK is predominantly focusing on higher education in a country where a more pressing problem is that there is no primary and secondary education going on in a sustainable and functioning level. In a survey that Women for Women International conducted in 2008, we learned that 76% of poor and marginalized women are not sending their daughters to school. If we are to rebuild a nation, then primary and secondary school for all girls and boys in the country should be goal number one, while still reasonably investing the building of higher education.

Much of the US policy on development is also focused on the middle class, a class that does need to be rebuilt and maintained of course, but not at the price of ignoring the poor who are the majority of the population and who are very vulnerable to the economic solutions that may be presented by fundamentalist groups. A U.S. official told me that Americans are living "Ground Hog Day" in Iraq, waking up each day with the same conditions and the same mistakes. I am concerned that no lessons seem to be learned, resulting in stalled development. The political will has not been shown yet in terms of investing in the poorest of the poor on the level of willingness to invest in the middle class of Iraq.

Change in Iraq will not succeed without national ownership and leadership. A history of conflict and relative seclusion is not an excuse for Iraqi corruption, lack of vision and sectarian discord. Similarly, great wealth and might does not grant international community an excuse for repeated mistakes and reluctance to own them publicly and correct them moving forward. If the objective is really to stabilize the country, then peace must be comprehensive and inclusive. Peace is not about the end of fighting, rather, it is about the building of a nation, its economy, its institutions and the people's rights and autonomy. There is an Iraqi responsibility to Iraq and there is an international and American responsibility to Iraq; the two are not mutually exclusive and they must be addressed if we are to really have stability in the country.

As an Iraqi, I am sad to see the lack of political will or desire to gather all sectors with the purpose of rebuilding the country, learning from peer countries like Rwanda and Bosnia and Herzegovina. We can rebuild the country. We can restore agriculture, we can restore the greenbelt around Baghdad and eliminate the sand storms. We can get the electricity back, we can get children back to school. We CAN live in peace if we have the willingness, the determination, and the sense of dignity and purpose that one needs to rebuild a country.

This article originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

Zainab Salbi is the founder and CEO of Women for Women International and author of Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam (Gotham, 2005) and The Other Side of War: Womenís Stories of Survival & Hope (National Geographic, 2006). Zainab is interviewed regularly in national and international media outlets included seven appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Ms. Magazine, BBC and NPR. A graduate of George Mason University in sociology and womenís studies, she earned a masterís degree in development studies from the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2001.


Women for Women International is an international non-profit organization dedicating to providing women survivors of war, civil strife and other conflicts with the tools and resources to move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency, thereby promoting viable civil societies. To learn more about the organization and how to sponsor a woman in a war torn country visit: www.womenforwomen.org

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