Washington, 13 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - When John Menzies arrived in the war zone of Sarajevo in April, 1995 as the United States' chief diplomat in Bosnia-Herzegovina, he had to approach the city in the dead of night in an armored personnel carrier, driving down Mount Igman with special night vision equipment to evade Bosnian Serb artillery gunners.
By the time he left the city as ambassador last December, not only were Sarajevo residents moving about freely on foot, by tram and car, but two civilian airlines were serving the city with regularly scheduled flights that had replaced the military airlift which kept the city alive with humanitarian aid for so long.
"We have come a dramatic distance from where we were a year ago," Ambassador Menzies said in an exclusive interview in Washington with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
This progress is why Menzies says he is optimistic that peace has come to Bosnia-Herzegovina to stay, despite flare-ups like recent violent attacks on Bosnian Muslims by Croats in Mostar.
After the signing of the U.S.-brokered Dayton Peace Agreement at the end of 1995, a NATO-led military force went into Bosnia to separate the warring sides and pave the way for a return to peaceful civilian life.
The military effort has been "truly remarkable" in accomplishing its goals. Nowhere in Bosnia are hostile military forces facing off against each other any longer.
But progress has been slower in implementing the key civilian aspects of the peace -- return of refugees to homes they were expelled from; freedom of movement for Bosnians across the former confrontation line; and apprehension of indicted war criminals, from former Bosnian Serb political and military leaders, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, down to lower levels.
Menzies says that if the United States intends to pull all its troops out of Bosnia by the summer of 1998 -- as is the Clinton Administration's avowed policy -- then the United States bears a great responsibility to see that these goals of the Dayton Peace Agreement are accomplished by then.
He says that the peace that exists in Bosnia is largely the accomplishment of the United States -- a "Pax Americana," an American peace. So too is the responsibility for making it succeed.
Menzies explains: "We did not go to Bosnia to fail. We are there to make sure this peace succeeds."
The United States also still has reservations about the state of democracy in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Menzies calls it a "nomenklatura democracy." By this he means that voters in last September's country-wide election did not get to vote directly for candidates. Instead they voted for parties and party leaders named the people to actually take up seats in parliament and other elected bodies.
Another concern is the functioning of the Muslim-Croat Federation that makes up half of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The other is the Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb entity.
Menzies admits that progress in building joint institutions in the Federation is "painfully slow at times" but he says there is progress. The glue that holds the federation together, Menzies says, is the U.S.-sponsored "Equip and Train" program to mold and arm a unified Muslim-Croat army that is designed to be the counterweight to the mighty Bosnian Serb army and ensure that neither side starts a war against the other.
The program "provides stability for the people of Bosnia, all the people, by creating a true balance in forces so that neither side will be tempted to exploit civil unrest or any other perceived weakness on the part of the other," he says.
He continues, referring to the principle that guided the Cold War nuclear arms standoff: "This is not mutual assured destruction, but it is certainly at a lower level a force which stabilizes and does not invite attack."
As he looks back over the accomplishments of his term in Bosnia, Menzies dwells on the changes he saw in Sarajevo, where he shared the dangers of city residents every day for more than two years.
"Sarajevo is rebuilding, the sandbags are gone, glass is returning to the windows," he says. "There are utilities again -- electricity, heat, water -- all of the key things to sustain life." There are signs that the economy is beginning to recover. "We're finding that life is returning to normal and the relief is palpable among the people and I think this is true among both sides of the inter-entity boundary line."
This is why Menzies says he is an optimist.
"We've seen the progress, we've seen the benefits of peace, we've seen the guns fall silent. We've seen the wounds of war begin to heal. I think the trend is going to continue."