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When The Only Tool You Have Is a Hammer

There's an old saying that when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. NATO leaders, equipped with a powerful military hammer, naturally see Serbia, personified by Milosevic, as a nail. Faced with human rights violation in Kosovo, they see their choices as limited to ignoring the carnage or applying the hammer.

The good news is that many of Yugoslavia's citizen activists have remained free of this evident failure of the imagination. Although they are dismayed by the violence and dislocation, these activists remain a voice for hope in the region. They are calling urgently for an end to the war and raising concerns about the humanitarian crises, the environmental consequences of bombing chemical factories and refineries, and the danger of conflict and excessive nationalism spreading throughout the region.

Until recently, there had been more than 700 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Yugoslavia monitoring human rights abuses; setting up income-generation projects with refugees; holding public meetings across the country; and running nonviolent conflict resolution classes, according to a column in the April 14 edition of London's Guardian newspaper. The NGO leaders who authored the column point out that these groups were the last meeting point of Kosovo Albanians and Serbs.

"Did anyone notice the damage these NGOs had already inflicted on Milosevic's position?" they asked in the Guardian. "Did anyone think of a long-term strategy of wide-ranging support for NGOs that were building democratic practices?"

This slow process of building democracy and tolerance does not grab headlines the way a multinational bombing campaign does. As a result, many of us may have been ignorant of choices that existed beyond the use of the hammer. Perhaps it's time now to listen to our Balkan colleagues. As a starting point, they appear to be unified in asking that the bombing stop. That step is clear.

Beyond that, there may be ways to offer people-to-people assistance to help these courageous people pick up and go back to the slow, hard work of building peace, democracy, and sustainability.

A group of environmental NGOs from throughout the Balkans issued a joint statement recently,saying that despite the violence that is dividing their region, "we wish to express now, as in the past, our definite and common decision to continue working together to preserve the valuable cultural and natural heritage of the Balkans.

"The future of our home, of the Balkan peoples, and the Balkan's nature depends mainly on its citizens, on their decision to create, participate in, and support active movements, societies, and networks of cooperation and solidarity. Maybe this is the only way to reverse the process of humanitarian, cultural, and environmental destruction in our region."

Sarah van Gelder


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