Richard Holbrooke on the Dayton Peace Accords

As the world mourns Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, it's worth turning again to his compelling book To End a War, in which he recounts the final two days when the Dayton peace conference was on the point of collapse.

Then Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke escorts Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic who arrived at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio for the start of the Yugoslav peace talks on October 31, 1995. (AP Photo / Beth A. Keiser)

Main Characters:

Mate Granic, Foreign Minister of Croatia Slobodan Milosevic, Serbian President John Menzies, U.S. Ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina Christopher Warren, U.S. Secretary of State Chris Hill, Director, Office of South-Central European Affairs Alija Izetbegovic, President of Bosnia-Herzegovina John Kornblum, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Haris Silajdzic, Prime Minister of Bosnia-Herzegovina

Failure seemed the likeliest conclusion to the Bosnian peace talks at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio, in December 1995. After three weeks of negotiations about how the land should be shared, Richard Holbrooke wrote this short note to himself:

The critical question—will the Bosnians grasp an imperfect peace or let the war resume—remains unresolved. Their delegation is divided and confused. [Haris] Silajdzic [Bosnia’s foreign minister] told me that he had not talked to [Alija] Izetbegovic [Bosnia’s president] in over 24 hours. They have let other opportunities for peace slip away before. It could happen again.

On Saturday Nov. 18, I asked Milosevic to take a short walk around the inner compound. I complained bitterly that his behavior was going to cause a breakdown of the talks, and concentrated on Sarajevo. “Some issues can be set aside or fudged,” I said, “but Sarajevo must be settled in Dayton.” “OK,” he said with a laugh, “I won’t eat today until we solve Sarajevo.”

A short while later the door to my suite opened without warning, and Milosevic walked in. “I was in your neighborhood and did not want to pass your door without knocking,” he said, smiling broadly. Clearly, he had something important to tell us.

“OK, OK,” he said as he sat down. “I’ll solve Sarajevo. But you must not discuss my proposal with anyone in the Serb delegation yet. I must work the ‘technology’ later, after everything else is settled.

“I tell you,” he continued, “Izetbegovic has earned Sarajevo by not abandoning it. He’s one tough guy. It’s his.”

“You are the ones who have ruined it,” I said. “You have at least 95 percent of what you wanted, and now you are about to piss it all away, because you can’t get your own act together.”

These words were probably the most astonishing and unexpected of the conference. As he talked, Milosevic traced on a map with a pen the part of Sarajevo he was ready to give to the Muslims. Immediately Chris Hill objected: It was a huge concession, but it was not all of the city. Milosevic had retained for the Serbs Grbavica, a key area across the river from the center of town. Although a dramatic step forward, Milosevic’s proposal did not quite unify Sarajevo.

When Hill pointed this out, Milosevic exploded. “I’m giving you Sarajevo,” he almost shouted at Chris, “and you talk such bullshit!” We told Milosevic that while his proposal was “a big step in the right direction,” it was likely Izetbegovic would reject it.

Hill and I went immediately to see the Bosnian president. Izetbegovic did not acknowledge the importance of the offer, but focused solely on its defects. “Sarajevo without Grbavica cannot exist,” he said with passion. The area that Milosevic wanted to retain for the Serbs jutted directly into the center of the city and was known to Western journalists as “Sniper Alley,” Still, we all recognized that the negotiations over Sarajevo had entered a new phase.

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Taking a detailed street map of Sarajevo, Hill, Clark, and I went back to Milosevic’s suite. We began examining every road and every terrain feature. We agreed to support Izetbegovic’s claim to Grbavica and the hills above the city. Then we sat around debating the possible reasons for Milosevic’s astonishing decision.

We never fully understood why Milosevic decided to give Sarajevo to the Muslims. But in retrospect, the best explanation may be that he was fed up with the Bosnian Serbs and had decided to weaken their Pale base (the city in eastern Bosnia] by giving away the Serb-controlled parts of Sarajevo.


This would be our longest day. Twenty-two hours after it had begun, we would still be at it—without success.

How could we convince Izetbegovic that he was now at the decisive moment? Knowing he was under conflicting pressures from his own delegation, we looked for ways to convince him to take the leap for peace. We asked Menzies to compile a list of everything the Bosnians had already achieved in the negotiations—and wouldn’t lose if the talks did not succeed. Menzies produced two large posters, listing the “gains of Dayton.” On Saturday afternoon—at the same time we were arguing over the Serb portions of Sarajevo—Christopher, Menzies, and I took these to Izetbegovic’s suite. In large block letters, they listed everything that had been achieved in the negotiations.

The posters contained one particularly sensitive item. Measuring the territorial concessions that Milosevic had already made, the Defense Mapping Agency team had determined that 55 percent of Bosnia was now conceded to the [Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats] Federation. This was a negotiated increase of about 5 percent during the first 18 days at Dayton over the battlefield situation—and left us with something halfway between an opportunity and a dilemma. The opportunity was obvious: a chance to gain more territory for the Federation. But so was the dilemma: Under the 1994 Contact Group plan, all five Contact Group foreign ministers and the leaders of all three countries had formally agreed to a 51-49 split of Bosnian territory between the Federation and the Bosnian Serbs.

Were we still bound by 51-49? Given that the Serbs had conquered so much territory through infamous method, it would have been just for the Federation to control more than 51 percent of the land. Unexpectedly, we had gained 55 percent of Sarajevo. We decided to see if we could retain this higher percentage, since it would significantly strengthen the change to create a viable country. But we knew that if Milosevic objected we would have little choice but to fall back to the 51-49 formula, given the prior commitments of the U.S. and the four other nations of the Contact Group.

Menzies had placed the dramatic percentage of figures in a prominent position on the first poster. We hoped the Bosnians would recognize what a significant achievement it was, and move rapidly to lock it in by finishing the rest of the negotiations. With Sarajevo close to solution, we felt this was possible within hours if we worked fast. But while the Bosnians were fascinated with our charts, they continued to argue over minor issues. Their delay, and what happened next, doomed any chance we might have had to get more than 51 percent for the Federation.

When the meeting was finished, Izetbegovic and Silajdzic asked to keep the charts. Menzies placed them beside the couch, partially concealed. A short time later, Milosevic unexpectedly called on Izetbegovic—in itself an unusual event—to discuss Sarajevo and the need to finish the conference quickly. As the two men talked, Milosevic noticed the top of one of our charts peeking out from behind the couch. On it was written, in bold capital letters: “FEDERATION TERRITORY INCREASED FROM 50% TO 55% DURING DAYTON TALKS.”

For the first time, Milosevic realized how far his territorial concessions had gone. Ending the meeting quickly, he walked directly to my room, and entered without warning. I was sitting with Warren Christopher and several of our team. “You tricked me,” he said angrily. “You didn’t tell me that the percentage was no longer 51-49. I asked you but you didn’t reply. I saw your charts. How can I trust you?”

(Later, Silajdzic told me that it was just bad luck that Milosevic showed up without warning and saw the charts.)

“I can do many things,” Milosevic said, “but I cannot give you more than 51 percent. This is my bottom line”

The long day dragged on. Milosevic, still fuming over our “clever trick” with the percentages, refused to make any further concessions on Sarajevo or settle the final details on Gorazde. After several hours, he gradually regained his composure, and the talks inched forward again. But Milosevic still held out on the land south of the Drina near Gorazde, on the hills to the southwest of Sarajevo, and, most important, on the Grbavica portion of Sarajevo. Shortly before 8 p.m., while Milosevic argued with Hill and me, we looked out the window and noticed [Haris] Silajdzic walking by. The two sides had not met face-to-face since Milosevic had walked out of Izetbegovic’s suite after seeing the offending poster hours earlier. Running into the parking lot, I grabbed Haris. “You might get what you want on Sarajevo if you meet Milosevic right now,” I said, and pulled him into my rooms. Asking the two men to negotiate face-to-face, I left them alone with Chris Hill, our “language officer.”

For hours the three men argued.

Under Hill’s insistent pressure, Milosevic finally gave more ground near Gorazde. At one point, Silajdic asked for Uskolina, a small town near Gorazde, primarily because it held the oldest mosque built in Bosnia. Milosevic laughed sardonically. “Oh, Haris,” he said, “don’t you know that those idiots”—he meant the Bosnian Serbs—“blew it up?”

“But the location is sacred,” Silajdzic replied.

“Haris,” Milosevic joked, “now you sound like Karadzic.” But he yielded, and Ustkolina was Muslim again.

Shortly thereafter, Milosevic agreed to give the Federation a symbolically important strip of land on the southern bank of the Drina. We had come a long way from the original U.S. position in July that Gorazde was indefensible and might have to be sacrificed in a negotiation. Gorazde was saved.

The three men shifted back to Sarajevo, drawing lines on the map. Milosevic’s lines did not include Grbavica. Silajdzic said that without it, there was no deal; it was an integral part of the capital. Hill drew a line that included Grbavica and said, “This is our line, the American line.” Suddenly, Milosevic did not object.

Silajdzic demanded land that overlooked the city so that it could never again be used for artillery and mortar attacks on Sarajevo. Part of it contained a Serb cemetery. “Now you want our dead too!” Milosevic exclaimed. But again he relented. Almost without realizing it, the two men had won an undivided Sarajevo.

But, Milosevic said, all his other agreements were contingent on returning to 51-49.

In the American building, members of our team crowded in the hallway and the small conference room. Stale air and the smell of pizza filled the corridor. Shortly after 2 a.m., Silajdzic returned with his map expert.

For two more hours Milosevic and Silajdzic argued, yelled, and drew wide, sweeping lines on the huge maps. Translation was almost unnecessary—the body language, the hand gestures, the emotions told the story. Silajdzic—on the attack, demanding one concession after another from Milosevic, a railroad station here, a hilltop there—was picking up more than territory. At one point the Bosnian map expert pointed out that the water reservoir at Faletici northeast of Sarajevo had been left outside the line of Federation control. When Silajdzic raised this, Milosevic said, “I am not a louse,” and yielded immediately. It was clear Milosevic wanted an agreement then and there. But he insisted, at all times, to 51-49.

This was not easy, given the concessions Milosevic had already make. More than minor “shaving” of lesser Federation-controlled areas would be necessary. Well after 3:30 a.m., Silajdzic hit upon a solution that retained for the Federation all the key gains of Dayton but returned to the sacred percentage. He outlined a large egg-shaped area on the map south of Highway 5 in western Bosnia, and offered the land to Rpublika Srpska. This was a mountainous, lightly populated Serb region south of the town of Kljuc that had been taken during the recent Croat offensive—precisely what Silajdzic had meant when he talked of “worthless land.” Because of its shape, Hill dubbed it “the egg,” while Milosevic, thinking it resembled Spain, called it “the Iberian Peninsula.” Both men agreed to calibrate its exact size so as to reach 51-49 for the whole country.

Suddenly Milosevic stuck out his hand. Slightly surprised, Silajdzic took it. Except for some details, the deal was done. It was 4 a.m. For a moment, we were silent, too stunned to react. They talked with sudden ease, and, for the first time, joked. Silajdzic seemed euphoric at his negotiating triumph, Milosevic relieved that it was over. Christopher went outside and asked Bob Bradtke, his faithful executive assistant, to fetch a bottle of his favorite California Chardonnay from the supply with which he always traveled. Out of plastic cups, we drank to peace. (Silajdzic, a practicing Muslim, drank a Coke.) An Air Force photographer came in to record the triumphant scene.

After a drink or two, Silajdzic went off to get Izetbegovic, who appeared wearing an overcoat over pajamas and looking sleepy and annoyed. He refused a drink, even a soft drink, while he stared at the map without comment.

As we drank, I had been studying the map, puzzled. Something was wrong, but at first, I was too tired to see what it was. Then it struck me: All of Silajdzic’s “givebacks” were from Croat-controlled territory—and no Croatians were present. I whispered to Hill to get Tudjman.

Ten minutes later, Hill appeared with Mate Granic [the Croatian foreign minister]. Although it was now after 4 a.m., he was dressed impeccably and looked as if he had just stepped out of his office on a relaxed day. Sitting down, he politely shared a drink with us and listened to the explanation of the deal. Then, quite calmly, Granic asked to see the map, which was leaning against the wall. As he studied it, an extraordinary transformation came over him. When I thought about it later, it reminded me of the way Zero Mostel had turned himself into a rhinoceros in Ionesco’s play. Turning red and barely able to speak at first, Granic slammed his fist into the map. “Impossible! Impossible!” he finally said, walking rapidly around the small room. “Impossible. Zero point zero zero chance that my president will accept this!” He stormed out, almost tripping over Jim O’Brien, who was sitting on the floor in the corridor drinking a beer.

Within minutes, Granic returned with Defense Minister Susak, who took one look at the map and turned to Silajdzic. “You have given away the territory we conquered with Croatian blood!” he yelled, in English, at Silajdzic, who sat motionless at the table.

There was still a chance to salvage the evening’s gains. If the problem was simple that Haris had given away too much Croat land, perhaps we could redistribute the “givebacks” more equitably between the Croats and the Muslims. I suggested that we try to do just this, “shaving a bit here and bit there.”

Izetbegovic still had not said a word. “I cannot accept this agreement,” he said in a low voice, in English.

“What did you say?” Christopher asked, in astonishment.

More loudly: “I cannot accept this agreement.”

We sat absolutely silent for a moment. Suddenly Silajdzic took the papers in front of him, slammed them down on the table with great force, and shouted, “I can’t take this anymore.” Then he stormed out into the cold Dayton night, leaving the rest of us behind.

The “peace” had lasted 37 minutes


We rose again after one hour of sleep. The conference was now stalled within sight of its goal, and after the drama of the previous night, emotions were raw in all three delegations.

We called on Tudjman, who told us that his ministers had acted with his full support in killing the Miosevic-Silajdzic agreement the previous evening. “We cannot be the only ones who give up land,” Tudjman said. “The Muslims must give up something too.

It was a beautiful sunny day, clear and crisp, not too cold. People walked around outside to relieve the tension. A sort of “parking lot diplomacy” took place as people ran into each other and discussed the situation. At about three in the afternoon, President Clinton called Tudjman [as Holbrooke had asked]. “I am impressed with how much has been achieved in the overall agreement, and with the benefits that will come to all the parties,” the president said. “A very difficult tradeoff will have to be made to resolve the map. I’m calling to ask you to give back a small percentage of nontraditional Croatian territory in western Bosnia in order to bring the map back in line with the basic 51-49 territorial concept of the Contact Group plan.”

Tudjman’s reply baffled the president and his advisers in Washington, listening in and talking notes. “We have already made such a proposal,” Tudjman said, adding that we were only two or three hours from a final agreement. This brought the short conversation to an end.

Christopher and I went to see Tudjman. Contrary to what he had told the president, Tudjman had made no proposal prior to the call—but he knew that he would have to do so now. “In response to President Clinton’s request,” he said, “I will instruct my negotiators to give up 75 percent of the land needed to reach 49-51.” This was good news. But then came two important conditions: “The Muslims must give some of their land up—and I must get back at least part of the Posavina pocket.”

President Clinton’s call had given us a new lease on life. We returned to Izetbegovic’s suite immediately, hopeful that reason would prevail once again. We told him and Silajdzic, that with the president’s personal intervention, we had gained agreement from Tudjman that he would “contribute” 75 percent of the land required to reach 51-49. The remainder—just 1 percent of the land—would have to come from them. This would not be difficult to accomplish, we said, especially since the Bosnians would not have to give back any land they currently controlled, only land that they had been given in the last few days by Milosevic—“theoretical land,” as we called it. To our consternation, Izebegovic refused to budge. And to Christopher’s amazement, Izetbegovic began talking again about [gaining control of] Brcko, Srebrenica, and Zepa.

By 9 p.m., Tudjman had given us enough land in return so that the map stood at 52-48. A shift of only 1 percent, and the deal was done. Yet the Bosnians still refused to share this tiny amount of land. We were depressed and tired. “The land the Bosnians have to give up is only theoretical,” I said again. “We are not asking them to give up one inch of land they actually control.”

“It’s truly unbelievable,” Christopher said. “The Bosnian position is irrational. A great agreement is within their grasp, and they don’t seem to be able to accept it.”

“Chris,” I said, “this game has gone on long enough. We must give everyone a drop-dead time limit.” I then recommended that we tell Izetbegovic that he had one hour to decide, after which we would close down the conference. “And I really mean close Dayton down,” I added. “This should not be a bluff.”

It was a huge decision. A heated debate broke out in the room between those who wanted to keep trying and those who thought that our best chance for success was to force everyone to confront failure. John Kornblum and I held firm for absolute closedown, without resuming the shuttle. At 10:30 in the evening, Christopher and I walked slowly to the Bosnian president’s suite. Izetbegovic, Silajdzic, and Sacirbey sat in the room waiting for us. Christopher began.

“Mr. President, we have come a long way in Dayton, and we are very close to a successful conclusion. If you will reduce by 1 percent the amount of land you claim, we can make a final deal. You do not have to give up any land that you currently control. It’s a very good deal, Mr. President. We have obtained almost everything you asked for.”

Izetbegovic was visibly uncomfortable. He began to review his grievances—a familiar litany. We tried to reason with him, but he became increasingly obdurate. He mentioned the city of Brcko several times. He felt that he had become the object of all the pressure at Dayton, and he hated pressure. He was tired and beleaguered, and his delegation was about to explode. His eyes narrowing almost to the vanishing point, he looked away from us and mumbled something to his colleagues.

Christopher’s famous politeness and patience finally ran out, and he delivered the ultimatum in a tone that conveyed genuine anger. “Mr. President, I am truly disappointed,” he said, “at the fuzzy, unrealistic, and sloppy manner in which you and your delegation have approached this negotiation. You can have a successful outcome or not, as you wish. But we must have your answer in one hour. If you say no, we will announce in the morning that the Dayton peace talks have been closed down.” We rose to leave, and I added, “Not suspended—closed down. In one hour.”

Exhausted, Christopher went directly back to the Hope Center to sleep—his first in three days. Less than a minute after Christopher had left, the door to my room burst open and Haris Silajdzic entered, in a towering rage. “You and Christopher have ruined everything!” he screamed. “How could you let this happen? Don’t you know that we can never give in to an American ultimatum—never!”

“You are the ones who have ruined it,” I said. “You have at least 95 percent of what you wanted, and now you are about to piss it all away, because you can’t get your own act together.” Silajdzic continued to argue, and I asked him to leave. “Use your next hour to get your president to accept this offer and the war will be over. “

At precisely 11:30 P.M., John Kornblum went to the Bosnians’ building to receive their reply. Sacirbey stopped Kornblum in the hall. The Bosnians, he announced, would agree to shave the necessary 1 percent of the land in order to get to 51-49, but they wanted something in return—Brcko.

It had been, without question, the most depressing day of my professional life. It was hard to believe that the Bosnians would let the agreement slip away over so little, but they seemed ready to do so.

The staff meeting was a gloomy affair. Twenty tired people crowded into every corner of the small, messy room. With no more business to conduct, I said this was our last staff meeting, our “shutdown meeting,” and started a final statement of appreciation. Suddenly Kati burst into the room. “Milosevic is standing out there in the snow in the parking lot waiting to talk to you,” she said. For the first time I noticed that it was snowing. She ran back out and pulled him into my room, where Christopher and I met him. He looked as if he had not slept all night.

“Something has to be done to prevent failure,” he said wearily. “I suggest that Tudjman and I sign the agreement, and we leave it open for Izetbegovic to sign later.”

“That’s quite impossible,” Christopher said firmly. “We cannot have an agreement that is not signed by everyone. It is not a viable contract.”

“OK, OK,” Milosevic said. “then I will walk the final mile for peace. I will agree to arbitration for Brcko one year from now, and you can make the decision yourself, Mr. Christopher.”

We raced to Tudjman’s suite.

Tudjman listened intently as I outlined Milosevic’s offer. When I finished, he slammed his hands on his knees twice, and, leaning as close to Christopher’s face as he could get, said, in English, “Get peace. Get peace now! Make Izetbegovic agree. You must do it now!” Shaking with emotion, he got up, almost pushing us out of the room.

“Chris,” I said, “the next meeting may be the most important of your entire tenure as secretary. We can get this agreement—or we can lose it. Forget Washington. It’s entirely in our hands. We must go into the meeting with an absolute determination to succeed.”

Christopher listened silently, then nodded. Without stopping to talk to anyone else, we walked directly to Izetbegovic’s rooms, where the three Bosnians waited for us. We outlined the offer from Milosevic. Silence. I repeated it, slowly and carefully. There were 700 journalists waiting outside the base, I said. They had been told by Sacribey that the talks were over, and in fact, we would make such an announcement at 10 a.m. unless the offer to put Brcko under arbitration was accepted. Time had run out, and we needed an answer immediately.

There was a long, agonizing pause. We watched Izetbegovic carefully. No one spoke. Finally, speaking slowly, Izetbegovic said, “It is not a just peace.” He paused for what seemed like a minute, but was probably only three seconds. My heart almost stopped. Then: “But my people need peace.”

Remembering how often things had unraveled with the Bosnians in the past, I did not want to discuss anything else. Leaning over to Christopher, I whispered, “Let’s get out of here fast,” and rose. Christopher and I called President Clinton from my room, as our team crowded around, excited and relieved.

President Clinton made the announcement from the Rose Garden at 11:40 that morning. “After nearly four years, 250,000 people killed, 2 million refugees, and atrocities that have appalled people all over the world, the people of Bosnia finally have a chance to turn from the horror of war to the promise of peace,” he said.

The ceremony that we had not even dared dream about—“a day that many believed would never come,” as Warren Christopher put it—began at 3 p.m. in the same room as the Hope Center where it had all begun 21 days earlier. Facing the press and our colleagues, I could see in the front row the widows of the three of our team who died when their vehicle fell into a ravine: Katharina Frasure, Gail Kruzel, and Sandy Drew—proud, silent witnesses to the price we had paid for the agreement.

Excerpted from To End a War by Richard Holbrooke. Copyright © 1998 by Richard Holbrooke. Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Ambassador Holbrooke, 1941-2010, was vice chairman of Perseus LLC, a private-equity firm and the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. He was the chief architect of the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement, assistant secretary of State for European and Canadian affairs, U.S. ambassador to Germany, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and a member of Averell Harriman’s delegation at the 1968-69 Paris Peace talks on Vietnam.