On March 13, 1996, my driver and I turned into a dusty road with a hand-painted sign and Task Force Eagle crest marking the way to the air base. It had been a long and endlessly jolting ride across Mt. Majevica and along high ridges from Croatia to Bosnia, skirting holes where landmines had been dug up and finding our way around riverbeds where bridges had been destroyed. The winter's snow was beginning to melt, and while the high mountain roads had been treacherous, everywhere Bosnians recovering from war were at work: burning off fields for planting, painting storefronts in downtown Tuzla, stacking firewood on apartment balconies where electricity was scarce and wood fires remained the only way to stave the Balkan cold.
The base where Clinton has alleged she had to run for cover from potential sniper fire was a Soviet-era MiG fighter base built to house 500 airmen. At that time it had 3,000 military personnel from the United States, Norway, and Finland. The Europeans made fun of the U.S. soldiers, who built air-conditioned hard tents to survive the base's housing shortage and were required to wear "full battle rattle" at all times outdoors. The Scandinavians walked around in soft caps and shorts even. Looking back on my base tour and time with the American soldiers there, the conditions seem positively quaint compared to later embeds at the massively large and often under attack U.S. base in central Iraq of more recent war reporting.
But that is not to say Bosnia was not a hot war. Daily shelling and sniper attacks by Serb and Croat militias were a regular feature in Tuzla-until December 1995. They stopped almost overnight when Bosnian, Serb, and Croat leaders signed the Dayton Peace Accords in Paris on Dec. 14. After nearly a month of negotiations with the leaders in Ohio, the Clinton administration had reason to tout this as a signature accomplishment. When Hillary Clinton claimed her delegation came under attack three months later, she not only was stretching her own credibility but undermining one of few bright moments in her husband's legacy.
Clinton has amended the live-fire version of her Tuzla arrival in a meeting with the Philadelphia Daily News editorial board, telling it earlier this week that "we had to land a certain way and move quickly because of the threat of sniper fire." But her tale of duck-and-cover suggests how she might manage other foreign-policy crises, elevating the danger she faced at the expense of the more wrenching, long-term travails Bosnians were experiencing in March 1996.
Displacement, food and fuel shortages were the norm throughout this region. I entered many buildings for meetings or worship services to find them open to the elements, glass shattered out of all the windows.
The rest of the world was just learning the full scope of what had happened six months earlier at nearby Srebrenica, where Bosnian Serbs attacked a U.N. "safe area" and massacred tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims in the worst war crime since the Holocaust. At the Air Base I learned Tuzla had 60,000 refugees from Srebrenica and later visited with some of them at a hastily prepared refugee camp housed in a crowded and cold elementary school. In Tuzla, the refugees told me, they felt safe from attack despite the miserable conditions. But their families remained in desperate need of food, permanent shelter, fuel, and medicine. International response then was painfully slow and highly politicized. "Help those that come to help us to lay their agendas down," prayed a young pastor named Nikola at one meeting to organize local relief efforts.
At the Tuzla Air Base I received an offer of U.N. transport to my next stop, Sarajevo. I watched the flights from the deafeningly busy tarmac and decided it was actually too easy. I might miss more sights along the way. So I filled up on American cold cuts and bottled water at the mess hall, knowing it would be my last good meal for days. We made the overland journey to Bosnia's bombed-out capital, actually staying with a family in infamous Sniper Alley, where shelling and gunfire also had ceased. Residents were just coming out of bomb shelters and venturing into the streets. Shops reopened but supplies were scarce. With other Sarajevo residents I lived on poached eggs and warm milk during my stay there. Their stubborn survival was the real story, not the arrival of more agenda-laden Americans.