From Sarajevo to Syria: Where is the world's moral compass?

CNN's Nic Robertson says he keeps an old map of Bosnia as a reminder of the futility and waste of war.

Story highlights

  • Top diplomats from major world powers have agreed to a "cessation of hostilities" in Syria after five years of brutal civil war
  • CNN's Nic Robertson, who worked in Bosnia during the war there, sees many similarities between the two conflicts
  • Robertson: "With a tenth of the population dead already dead, should the battles end, victory will be a hollow thing"

Nic Robertson, CNN's International Diplomatic Editor, has been reporting from Munich, where top diplomats from major world powers on Friday agreed to a "cessation of hostilities" in Syria, after a brutal five-year civil war. The opinions expressed here are his own.

Munich, Germany (CNN)In my office I keep a map. It's a bit battered now but it is a reminder of the futility and waste of war.

The mountains, the towns, the rivers and roads of Bosnia lie in flat relief today, but there was a time when they stood tall like towering giants pressing in on my every thought.
I could recite the names of scores of obscure villages, knew which was Croat, Serb or Bosnian, where the front lines were and how to navigate the seething deadly patchwork of a country so broken it seemed the conflict would never end.
I dreamed of the day the barricades would be gone, of how glorious it would be to walk Sarajevo's shattered streets from end to end without risk of a sniper's bullet.
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When that day came, and it did, I felt empty. Not emotionally, but physically, a yawning stomach kind of feeling. There was nothing magical about the freedom to roam when so many lives had been lost for simply straying within sight of a sniper's rifle the other side of the divide.
A couple who became known as the "Romeo and Juliet of Sarajevo" were among the first gunned down in the city as the young lovers tried to cross the front line and live the lives the rest of us in Europe were enjoying.
A quarter of a million people died this way. A tide of nationalism swept them up, then spat them out.

When will the madness end?

That's why I keep the map. I might not recall all the names now, but I do remember the wanton carnage, and the wasteful, wasteful loss of life. It's why today I look at Syria and wonder when the madness and killing will end.
Five years of fighting there already, compared to Bosnia's three. And Syria's sectarian and ethnic jigsaw is far more complicated than Bosnia's ever was. On top of that its strife is set amidst a regional bonfire of febrile religious grievances dating back millennia, not decades.
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What ended the war in Bosnia was collective guilt. The former Yugoslavia's European neighbors and their U.S. ally realized after years of hand-wringing they could not turn back the forces of nationalism, no matter how dark or how incestuous they seemed.
Slobodan Milosevic, the one time Yugoslav President who died ignominiously while awaiting trial as a war criminal in 2006, turned out to be a paper tiger. It was he who first unleashed the cruel torments of nationalism.
Communism was dying and he needed to save his political career.
He switched horses, from one -ism to another, unleashing bitter half remembered rivalries.
Once a favored holiday destination, no European who enjoyed the Yugoslav sun could understand how their table waiter had turned on the tennis coach and chambermaid.
So when I look at Syria today and see neighbor pitted against neighbor I am reminded of Bosnia, of barricades, snipers, front lines and wasted lives.
I can't help but wonder, where is the moral compass that directed the world to help cast out Bosnia's demons?

The slaughter that called time

In July 1995 Milosevic's proxies, the Bosnian Serb ultra nationalists, finally went too far. After countless bloody bouts of ethnic cleansing, the brutal massacre of 7,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica over a few days finally tipped the balance. The world called time and airstrikes targeted Serb forces.
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It's an oversimplification, but it was the moment the killing could not be ignored. Mass burial sites could be seen by satellite. No one could turn their backs.
Over Syria now satellites now routinely record demolished towns, mass graves, movements of troops and artillery. Drones add granular detail and ISIS's death cult videos top off the barbarity in such so close up that few dare watch.
Maybe that's the problem; we see too much killing, there are too many images, it's become wallpaper. Surely our moral compass is no less true than it was two decades ago.
Horror and outrage made the world stand up to Bosnia's bullies after that imagination and fear had ballooned to almost insurmountable proportion.

Hollow victory in empty streets

Today it is Russia's President Vladimir Putin whose military stands alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's army. Together they've become a force no nation alone dares challenge. Their power is seemingly set in stone.
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The lesson of Bosnia is a salutary one. Indeed, it had to be learned again half a decade later in Kosovo. Serb forces there butchered a town of innocents before NATO bombing finally helped topple Milosevic from power.
Brutality unchallenged is its own reward. But, with a tenth of the population already dead, victory -- should the day come when the battles end -- will be a hollow thing.
I don't know Syria like I knew Bosnia; the government has denied me a visa for over three years.
Sure I study the maps, but the visceral connection isn't there, my life doesn't depend on making the right turn. It doesn't mean I don't bleed inside for those hundreds of thousands who have already perished. Perhaps my skin is thinner now and I do all the more easily.
But I know I feel emptier for understanding, and wonder when the world's compass will point it home again.