The hand brake on my beat-up VW Beetle obediently clicks as I wrench it up on a treacherous mountain turn-off. Having regained my composure, I now scribble these thoughts at the peak of a spectacular, quiet Alpine ridge in Bosnia, high in the luscious green mountains above the churning city of Sarajevo.
I am thinking of my old pals back in Ellicottville. I've been here in uncertain Bosnia for two years now, first as a soldier, weapon always ready at my side. I fell in love with Bosnia and decided to stay as a diplomat. Today, I'm part of the international group trying to create a responsible, capable government here.
I remember watching the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo, soaking in all that feeling of brotherhood, competition and love. Today, I look at the blasted-apart remains of the bobsled run and see the foreboding "MINES!" signs cordoning-off the entire site. It's not a joke, people still get killed here every day.
So I wisely skip a hike through the beautiful surrounding high-pine forests. Even today, Rhodes scholars in Bosnia say if you want to live, never ever pull to the shoulder to fix a flat tire.
Now, after a long line of hustling French tanks belches loudly past me, youngish boys clutching their heavy guns glinting in the sunlight, I've wisely pulled off this mountain road to survey the now peaceful valley overlooking Sarajevo, way down the valley below.
There, the famous ice rink where Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean once skated to victory is today a spreading graveyard. I see the site where the now-extinguished Olympic flame burned briefly before becoming an appalling POW camp.
Down below, over to the right, I see the hockey rink shortly thereafter transformed into a mass morgue. Up above, those puckish twins, Phil and Steve Mahre would never recognize the now war-rutted mountain pasture in no-man's land -- where only unsuspecting sheep dare to go among the ever-present mines and barbed ware -- from which those winsome brothers once skied together to world acclaim.
Cruising these still-bloody heights in my ancient, coughing Beetle, I've just passed thankfully obsolete, makeshift pillboxes approaching the blown-up remnants of an artillery-pocked hotel where Olympic revelers once celebrated their short-lived Yugoslavian victories.
Who knows how many undiscovered graves still lie in that forest? 1984 seems like so many, many lifetimes ago. So many lives ago.
Brotherhood quickly became brother-against-brother, in a ruthless civil war that claimed countless children, elderly and other innocent people merely trying to eke out a semblance of life in Sarajevo, as whisky-hardened snipers unashamedly picked them off just for fun from these stunning heights.
Some say they even let plucky foreigners try their luck as well from up here, if they coughed up at least 100 Deutschmarks hard currency for the privilege of killing another human being. Target practice up here. Humanity struggling below.
It would be beautiful in these would-be-Alps if the knowledge of what really happened up here so recently didn't absolutely turn your stomach.
Down below in Sarajevo, Indira Djugum, a Muslim survivor, now a fledgling lawyer with two young kids -- whose hard-working husband didn't survive -- says, "You never knew when you'd step over another person's remains. You never knew when you would be the next target." Surprisingly, she forgives.
After 15 hard-bitten years as a soldier, the memories still haunt me. I've regretfully concluded that war creates no victors, everyone is a loser. Today, these heights are a mercifully silent witness to that conclusion.
But remembering the rain of death from these mountains makes me more ill than the death-bending hairpin turns that still punctuate their heights.
Here's the place American F-16s blew everything, including the trees, right off the face of the Earth. Everywhere, destroyed buildings, treacherous roads, ever-present land mines and lingering hate remain the legacy of a brutal war that split up a cohesive society of Muslins, Croats and Serbs forever.
Back home, even educated people wonder where Bosnia really is on the map. So many wars, so many places we never learned about in geography class. The end of the Cold War -- like all wars -- was supposed to stop this nonsense.
Whether you call them "post-conflict societies" or that more vicious moniker, "failed democracies," Bosnia has joined that growing disreputable family of truly screwed-up nations. So what, a war happened here five years ago? Afghanistan, Somalia, now Indonesia. Who cares anymore? Join the queue, in Bosnia. We've lost track. What's that ridiculous, insignificant real estate we can't even find on the map have to do with Ellicottville anyway?
Well, if you answer nothing, you are probably right. I don't disagree. I live in Ellicottville, too. But I love Bosnia. I love the people here. And I think my background from a secure democracy, where people live in harmony with each other, makes a big difference in my job in Bosnia.
So who's right? Me or you? Some very bad person put out that Olympic flame on purpose. Now, some good people have to reignite it. Bosnia may be an insignificant, far-away place, but I want to be one of those people.
STUART C. THOMPSON, a resident of Ellicottville, is employed in Sarajevo in the environmental field by the Swiss government.