Speaking to a group of students and area media representatives in the Burns Library's Thompson Room, Fr. Helmick - a renowned mediator who has worked in Northern Ireland and the Middle East - described tense bargaining with officials to visit the prisoners, negotiations that nearly ended in failure.
He also offered his observations on the current NATO bombing campaign in Yugoslavia, and said he hoped the Jackson delegation's visit would pave the way for a dialogue with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic over ending the conflict in Kosovo.
"It was a united plea of faith to two sides who were seeing no way out of this cycle of violence," Fr. Helmick said. "We asked for a gesture of diplomacy, an act of decency that could be an occasion to break the circuit of violence, and make it possible to open a dialogue."
Fr. Helmick is interviewed by Eric Convey of the Boston Herald following the May 4 press conference in Burns Library. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
The three soldiers, Steven Gonzales, Andrew Ramirez and Christopher Stone, were captured on March 31 while patrolling the Yugoslav-Macedonian border. Last week, Rev. Jackson recruited Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders to travel as part of a delegation to Yugoslavia and negotiate the soldiers' freedom. Fr. Helmick was the only Catholic priest in the group, which departed on April 28.
Following discussions with Rev. Jackson and the delegation, Milosevic announced on May 2 that he would release the prisoners, and the three were eventually flown to a military base in Germany for medical treatment.
Upon their return to the United States, Fr. Helmick and delegation members met briefly with President Clinton, Secretary of State Madeline Albright and other officials to talk about the mission and call for US-Yugoslavian negotiations.
Fr. Helmick said he had not expected to join the delegation, believing a bishop would be a more appropriate choice. But when it became clear that there might be no Catholic representative in the group, he agreed to go.
"One of our primary missions in the Church is the work of reconciliation," said Fr. Helmick, explaining his interest in conflict resolution. "It is an act of living the faith."
Fr. Helmick said the religious leaders had understood they would have the opportunity to meet the soldiers, two of whom are Catholic - and to whom he hoped to give communion. But "at the very last minute," he said, Yugoslav officials told them the number of visitors allowed had been cut back.
"We were upset," Fr. Helmick recalled. "We felt the religious character of the delegation had been undercut. We argued as to whether the visit should take place at all."
Later, he continued, in a meeting with a prominent businessman and government minister, the religious representatives said that if they were denied "we would go home and say the mission had been a failure." This declaration eventually helped sway the Yugoslav officials to change their minds and allow the meeting with the soldiers to take place, which Fr. Helmick described as "very moving."
Fr. Helmick praised Rev. Jackson's role in the talks, noting that he had told Milosevic in blunt language that continued defiance of NATO would result in his nation's destruction.
"Jesse Jackson's main message to Milosevic was, he could use these soldiers as trophies of war," Fr. Helmick said, "or he could invest in a chance for peace."
The delegation was well aware of the more cynical view some took of the mission, Fr. Helmick said. "We had a lot of warning that we would be used for propaganda and PR." But the delegation did not breach or misrepresent American and NATO positions, he said.
"We brought back the prisoners, and created the possibility for a dialogue to open the minds of each side," Fr. Helmick said.
It is a dialogue which needs to take place, Fr. Helmick said, because the US-NATO bombing campaign has only served to solidify the Milosevic regime. Furthermore, he said, the two sides have flawed or inadequate perceptions of one another: Serbs believe the United States supports an independent Kosovo, something the Clinton Administration vehemently opposes. He also noted that Serbs still harbor great animosity toward America for its failure to halt Croatia's attacks on Serb territory in 1995.
NATO's options in Yugoslavia appear limited otherwise, Fr. Helmick said. While it is doubtful that ground troops would be introduced into the campaign, he said NATO and the United States could not simply walk away from the situation.
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