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Dayton: The Napkin Shuttle


Many of the foreigners who became embroiled in the politics and diplomacy of the Balkan wars of the 1990s have written about their experiences and some are more revealing than others. Richard Holbrooke was the US diplomat who secured an end to the Bosnian war in November 1995 after prolonged talks in a US air force base in Dayton, Ohio. Here he describes how the Muslim (Bosniak) and Serb side began serious negotiations over the long finger of land, which now connects the territory of the Bosniak-Croat federation between Sarajevo and the town of Goražde, which had been besieged by Serb forces during the whole war. Haris Silajdzić, now on the Bosnian presidency was then the Bosnian premier, Alija Izetbegović was then the Bosnian president and Slobodan Milošević was the president of Serbia. Chris Hill was Holbrooke's deputy at the time of the talks.

...the stage was set for an unusual diplomatic effort that was later termed the "napkin shuttle". Leaving Milosevic, I walked across the long dining room to greet Silajdzic. "Are you ready to negotiate right now?" I asked him. "Milosevic is willing to talk about Gorazde." Haris was interested, but when I invited him to join our table, he refused.

I returned to Milosevic, who was eating his steak with Chris Hill. "Silajdzic is ready to discuss Gorazde," I reported. Taking out a napkin, Milosevic started drawing a rough map of the area between Sarajevo and the beleaguered enclave. "We can offer safe conduct along these two roads," he said indicating the two existing routes between the cities, both now under Serb control. Hill and I objected, saying the Bosnians would not feel that "safe conduct" would be very safe in the light of the last four years. "They will need a genuine, defensible corridor," I said. "Okay, then I will give them a kilometer on each side of the road," Milosevic replied.

Carrying Milosevic's napkin sketch across the room, I sat down with Silajdzic, who, after a moment's thought, replied with a countersketch showing a much wider corridor and substantially more land for the Muslims. As the other diners looked on in astonishment, I walked rapidly across the room carrying the two precious napkin sketches, and sat down with Milosevic.

This scene was repeated half a dozen times over the next hour. Neither man would move to the other's table, but they eyed each other carefully across the room. Bit by bit, Milosevic yielded land and territory. Haris went to the phone and called Izetbegovic who told him to keep negotiating. Finally, I said to Silajdzic, "Don't you realize you are gaining something important here? You have to sit down with him. If you come over to Milosevic's table now you might get what you need." Reluctantly, Haris followed me to Milosevic's table. The two men greeted each other in characteristic fashion – Milosevic clapping Silajdzic on the back with false camaraderie, Silajdzic unwilling to look Milosevic in the eye.

To End a War. Richard Holbrooke. 1999.
[pp. 280-1 / The Modern Library, Random House]

April 2007
Tim Judah

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  1. Istanbul: Pamuk's City
  2. Istanbul: Swimming across the Bosphorus
  3. Salonika and the Jews
  4. Salonica: Slaves and Trade
  5. Thessalonika: 1923
  6. Ohrid: Rise and Fall
  7. Tornado of Dust - 1944
  8. Awake Romania - 1989
  9. Novi Sad: Nest of the Serbian nation
  10. Nis: War Capital, 1915
  11. Belgrade and the Selenites
  12. 1996: Serbia Calling
  13. Belgrade Train Station - 1964
  14. Srebrenica: Vengeance
  15. Srebrenica: Blood
  16. Srebrenica: July 1995
  17. Mealtime - Interwar years in Travnik
  18. Dayton: The Napkin Shuttle
  19. London Buses in Sarajevo
  20. The Museum and Bosnian Identity
  21. Foča: The Bosniak
  22. Kosovo: The Swiss Front
  23. Mitrovica: 1908
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  26. Durham in Pristina - 1908
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