WASHINGTON — For four years, Col. Robert Susac of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Army fought a bloody war inside the borders of his country. Today, those he fought against serve alongside him.
"We have ex-enemies working together as a team," Susac said at his office at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla. He is the coalition's senior national representative from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The U.S. State Department's human rights reports estimate more than 250,000 people were killed between 1992 and 1995 during a genocidal period in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Susac estimated that 90% of his nation's infrastructure was destroyed during the civil strife that tore his nation of 4 million along three ethnic lines shortly after declarations of sovereignty were issued in 1991 by Bosnia and Herzegovina.
During this period, Susac said, he and other countrymen experienced a slow but steady progression to sorrow.
"After two to three months, you realize what's going on," Susac said of the unrest that took the lives of some of his family and friends. "After three to six months, you ask yourself if God exists," he said. Then many in his country started to plead for international involvement.
"All of these people started to think they were forgotten," Susac said. And, "after some time, people feel really hopeless. The only thing they care about is their own security — their basic needs."
In 1995 after the warring parties signed the Dayton Peace Accord, a NATO-led international peacekeeping force of 60,000 troops entered Bosnia and Herzegovina to monitor the military aspects of the agreement. NATO then established a stabilization force to deter renewed hostilities. In 2004, the European Union sent a peacekeeping force, and today the EU still maintains a presence to ensure peace and stability in the country.
Despite having European forces overseeing the peace in his country and ongoing diplomatic discussions over land rights, Susac said, his country's experience in founding democracy is one that has many parallels for Iraqis.
"There are lessons to be learned from my country," Susac said. "First, [democracy] takes time. We were in the same situation — worse!" But, he added, "even after genocide, we're able to work together."
State Department demographics show that Bosnia and Herzegovina is 40% Muslim, 31% Orthodox and 15% Roman Catholic. Fourteen percent of the population lists other denominations. Ethnically, Serbs make up 37% of the population, 48% are Bosniaks and a little more than 14% are Croats.
"You have three different languages, [Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian], three religions and even different alphabets," Susac said.
Despite the differences, Susac said, his nation's military was able to unite and embrace democratic reform. Today, Bosnia and Herzegovina is a coalition partner and has committed forces to the Global War on Terror. His country helps other nations like Iraq to embrace democracy and combat insurgents, processes that took a costly toll in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
"We're working together as a team," Susac said about his nation's first deployment of troops abroad. "Our guys are professional Soldiers. They are not professional Muslims, Roman Catholics, Orthodox." Bosnia and Herzegovina deployed a 36-person explosive ordnance disposal team in 2005 to Taqaddum, Iraq. It also has a liaison officer in Baghdad. The EOD unit is attached to U.S. Marines.
Susac said his country's force in Iraq often shares its stories of struggle for independence with Iraqis, a common thread which has woven many friendships between the Bosnians and the Iraqis.
"I believe we don't have any problems with the Iraqis because of our similar experiences," Susac said. And he adds that religious commonality also helps. "One-third of our guys in the field are Muslim. They know absolutely everything about the culture." But the most common thread between Iraq and Bosnia and Herzegovina is the struggle for freedom and peace, Susac admitted. Most Iraqis have been dramatically affected by the insurgency or by Saddam Hussein's regime, coalition officials said. Likewise, many Soldiers from Bosnia and Herzegovina also have been touched by their own civil conflict.
"A lot of my guys over there have lost someone during our war," Susac said. He too lost family and friends during the fighting.
"You can replace a car, a house, your belongings," but, 25-year infantry veteran said, "you cannot buy a new member of your family."
Although many of the Soldiers from Bosnia and Herzegovina have "fresh wounds," Susac said, they still manage to serve together and share esprit de corps.
"We must not live in the past," Susac said. He said Iraqis should try to think about the future as they move toward democracy. "You can't change the past."
If Iraqis think about improving the lives of their families, change will take place, Susac said. "Try to provide a better life — think about building democracy — and understand it is a very long process."
"Look at what happened in my country," Susac said. "There is always hope."
He compared the sudden freedom given to Iraqis to the collapse of the Soviet Union where many nations suddenly had freedom and did not know how to proceed.
"It is possible to change something. It just takes time," Susac said.
Susac is Croatian, but he is clear to note that Croatia is where he is from, not who he is.
"This world is very small now," Susac said. "We must all be involved in this problem (terrorism)."
He pointed out no matter whether it's in Iraq, Afghanistan, England or in other places, terrorism, is all the same: "It is all about killing," Susac said.
"Terrorism is not the way people should solve problems," he said.