Tom Perko is back in Spokane. He is walking around without fear of being shot or robbed, taking long hot showers and wondering if he should return to Bosnia.
Perko, 38, went to Sarajevo 1-1/2 years ago, just in time to witness the NATO intervention and the former Bosnia’s transformation from a war zone to an occupied nation.
He arrived in Sarajevo in fall 1995 in an armored car. Just hours before he met his co-workers at Catholic Relief Services, Bosnian Serbs shelled a nearby market, killing 37 people.
From that point, everybody he met had been devastated by a civil war so atrocious the rest of Europe wants to forget it ever happened, he said. There were horrible murders, assembly-line rapes and entire towns destroyed, all in the name of ethnic cleansing.
“For the first time I really felt that people can be evil,” said Perko, a Spokane native who has worked overseas for much of his career.
Beginning in 1992, Serbian nationalists began killing Muslims and Croats in an attempt to stake out an ethnically pure territory. The Serbs were supported in large part by the nearby country of Serbia. In response, another nearby country, Croatia, funded an offensive to claim a portion of Bosnia.
Muslims and other Bosnians who didn’t fall into the category of Serb or Croat were caught in the middle of an ethnic war.
“It’s just inconceivable that that could happen,” Perko said. “In a relatively developed country, to unleash that kind of fury, it makes you wonder about the dark side of people.”
The fact that such horror happened less than 50 years after the atrocities of Nazi Germany’s attempt to exterminate Jews is even more astounding, he said.
“I mean, there were concentration camps, mass killings,” he said. “And now there are areas that are essentially ‘ethnically cleansed.”’
When he arrived in Sarajevo, the site of the 1984 Winter Olympics, there was no electricity or running water. The once cosmopolitan city was a battlefield. The streets were lined with barricades to protect pedestrians from snipers. Signs were posted at certain intersections warning of frequent attacks.
“The signs essentially meant run through this intersection as fast as you can,” Perko said.
Perko first worked for Catholic Relief Services, managing humanitarian projects. He later took a management job with another agency supervising postwar cleanup projects.
Perko watched with hope as NATO troops, including 60,000 Americans, rolled in at the end of 1995 to restore peace.
He was disappointed.
The electricity came on and relative order was restored. But the government remains in chaos. While snipers no longer are a threat, carjackings at riflepoint are.
Utilities work relatively well, but not perfectly. To take a hot shower in his apartment in Sarajevo, Perko boils water, then mixes it with cold.
There is little in the way of an economy or jobs. Hundreds of thousands of people are still displaced from their homes. Many of the doctors, teachers and other professionals fled to other countries in Europe and are reluctant to return.
“War criminals are managing the Republic of Srpska (the Serbian region) to a large extent,” he said. “I think the U.S. government and the European countries dropped the ball.”
Immediately after the Dayton agreement divided the country into two regions, NATO could have rounded up the war criminals and taken control of police forces.
Because it didn’t, authorities in different regions are abusing their power and persecuting minorities. As a result, thousands of people still are displaced from their homes.
Perko, a 1977 graduate of Gonzaga Prep, came home disillusioned. After doing relief work in Africa, Central America and Russia, he was surprised to find a system so broken, a nation so demoralized.
He took the job with World Bank, an international development agency funded by several nations, hoping to have more of an impact. He has agreed to another six-month contract, but is having second thoughts.
Doing the work means accepting the country’s many flaws, including criminals running the government and an international community unwilling to get involved.
There is no opportunity for him to express his opinions on how the country is being run. If anything, being critical would jeopardize his ability to do his job.
“It’s a Catch-22. Am I contributing to the problem by passively accepting it? But if I stay, I have a job to do that could really help.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo