Dayton — Where peace was chosen over war

Twenty years ago — after 21 days of negotiations — a peace agreement at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base would bring the Bosnian War to an end.

The war claimed more than 200,000 lives and drove more than 2 million people from their homes during the 3 ½ years of conflict, according to the United States Department of State archives. Part of the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and punctuated by mass rape, ethnic cleansing and random shelling of cities and towns, the Bosnian War was one of the worst conflicts in Europe since World War II.

On Nov. 1, 1995, the day the talks began, the Dayton Daily News soberly summed up the situation: “The Bosnian peace talks begin today at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base with cautious optimism. Still the pain of economic sanctions and air strikes make them possible.”

“The three sides — Muslin, Serb and Croat — are still divided by deep and ancient hatreds. Atrocities — the kind that brought about a still active United Nations war crimes tribunal — were contributing right up to the ceasefire at the announcement of the talks. Combatants in Bosnia are armed to the teeth and have a history of revenge. They still covet each other’s land,” the story said.

As the site of the talks, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base ensured security. Warren Christopher, the U.S. Secretary of State and Richard C. Holbrooke, the assistant secretary of state, facilitated the talks and worked toward a sustainable peace.

Mary McCarty, a reporter for the Dayton Daily News for 21 years, was among the more than 300 journalists from around the world who reported on the talks.

“One of the most memorable and shocking things I remember is reporters would be behind the gates at the Hope Hotel and we could see Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic come out for his morning stroll around the perimeter,” McCarty said. “I was thinking here it is a beautiful fall day in Dayton, Ohio, and this murderous dictator is taking a walk 100 yards away from me. It was a very strange feeling.”

Weeks of negotiating led to a breakthrough. Initialized at Wright-Pat on Nov. 21, the treaty was formally signed in Paris on Dec. 14.

McCarty reported in the next day’s newspaper that the talks would have a lasting effect on the city’s public image. “There was a sense of pride that something so positive was happening here. I think the community did like the idea of a conflict being resolved right here in Dayton. It was pretty powerful,” she said.

On the day peace was finally brokered, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said, “I trust that one day, people will look back on Dayton and say, ‘This is the place where the fundamental choices were made. This is where the parties chose peace over war, dialogue over destruction, reason over revenge. And this is where each of us accepted the challenge to make those choices meaningful and to make them endure.’”

Today the peace garnered two decades ago lives on in Dayton. The Dayton Literary Peace Prize became the successor to the Dayton Peace Prize in 2006. On Nov. 1 of this year, the event held its 10th annual awards ceremony, naming feminist, peace activist and author Gloria Steinem as recipient of the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award.

Dayton constructed a plaza in remembrance of Holbrooke, who died in 2010. A public dedication for the plaza, located near Salem Avenue along the Richard C. Holbrooke Memorial Bridge, will be held today at 4 p.m. as the kickoff to the Dayton Peace Accords at 20 commemorations.

Former President Clinton, who received the Dayton Peace Prize in 2005 for his efforts to end the war, and other current and former world leaders will participate in the four-day event.

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