What I Learned from a Teenager I Never Met
I never met Sulejman Ramić, but when I think of the transatlantic relationship, what it means now and how to strengthen it for the future, I think of him. Growing up, I studied the weapons arrayed on either side of the Iron Curtain, reading books with titles like "Battlefield Europe" that detailed how NATO would defend against a Soviet assault (I was an odd child).
For Sulejman, war wasn't something to be studied in books from an ocean away. And when NATO was thought of, it was likely as a potential savior that was infuriatingly slow to take meaningful action to stop the crisis on its doorstep. Too slow, it turns out, to save Sulejman and the thousands of men and boys massacred at Srebrenica in July 1995 during the Balkan civil wars. As he, his family, and neighbors were chased from their homes and subjected to heinous acts, the world watched. So did I, safe in Kansas. Collective outrage built, and no-fly zones and selective airstrikes grew into an outright air campaign.
The leaders of NATO recognized that the stability of Europe required the alliance to take on a broader role in defending the values it was created to protect. This expansion of NATO’s scope and mission has continued over the following two decades, redefining the transatlantic relationship. But again, that’s all academic; something we can all read about. What isn’t academic is standing in a field of thousands of gravestones, watching from afar as a mother kneels before a grave, and feeling both sorrow at what was taken from her and shame at our nations’ collective failure to prevent that loss. To me, the transatlantic relationship is no longer about tanks and treaties. After visiting the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial last year during GMF’s Transatlantic Leadership Seminar to the Balkans (TLS), that relationship became a responsibility. It is a responsibility we have to our fellow human beings to not let the horrors of the past be repeated if we have the collective ability to stop them.
To strengthen the transatlantic relationship going forward, we must find ways for more citizens also to feel and understand the importance of that relationship and its role in defending not only our nations, but the rights, dignity, and lives of those living beyond NATO’s borders. Student exchanges, study abroad opportunities, and even short experiences like TLS are perhaps the best way to light that spark of understanding, as they make the distant and abstract become real. I learned more about the history and future of Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, and Serbia during the 2013 TLS than I could have from a dozen books. But I understood — and felt — more, and better appreciated the responsibilities of our transatlantic alliance, when I saw Sulejman’s grave. Sulejman Ramić was born in 1978, just like me.
Jack Martin, Director of Strategic Communications at the University of Kansas, is a 2008 Manfred Wörner Fellow and 2013 Transatlantic Leadership Seminar Participant.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.