Bosnia – 1992-1995

Number of casualties: approximately 280,000 dead

Classification: recognized genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity

Motives for the crimes: national or ethnic origin, religion

The actors

The Balkans in Central Europe has been home to Christian Slavs since the Middle Ages. But the long domination of this area by the great Ottoman Muslim Empire (1463-1878) resulted in many Slavs converting to Islam. The decline of the Ottoman Empire enabled the Austro-Hungarian Empire to extend its control over the territory but that did nothing to deter nationalist factions within Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia and Muslim Bosnia. In the nineteenth century, the region plunged into instability and frequent uprisings were severely repressed. History uses the term “balkanization” to describe the constant rivalry between ethnic or national groups and the influence of Western countries.

The First World War was triggered by the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne by a Serbian nationalist on 28 June, 1914 in Sarajevo. At the end of the war, the League of Nations, hoping to solve the problem of “balkanization”, created the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, established as a constitutional monarchy. The people of this new country all spoke the same language: Serbo-Croatian. But from 1929 on, the Serbian influence began to predominate in government affairs.

During the Second World War, the fascist Italians and Bulgarians, backed by Hitler, invaded Yugoslavia and found valuable allies: the nationalist Croats who were hostile to the Serbs in power. This foreign invasion led to the Croats declaring their independence in 1941. During the German-Soviet debacle four years later, the communist partisans led by Josip Broz Tito seized power and proclaimed a new Republic of Yugoslavia consisting of six republics: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia, and two independent provinces: Kosovo (Albania) and Vojvodina. Despite a gradual centralization of Communist power in the capital, Belgrade, national minorities still had the same rights as the populations that constituted the federation.

The Union Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina now appeared to be a multicultural territory divided into three communities who all spoke the same language: Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats. In 1968, the Bosnian Muslims (Muslim Slavs) became a recognized nationality, a distinct historical, cultural and religious group within communist Yugoslavia.

The causes

During the occupation of Yugoslavia by the fascists, mainly German (1941-1945), Croatian nationalism took on a form of militant racism against Jews, Gypsies, and especially the Serbs, who constituted about 30% of the country’s population. The Croatian Ustashi militia wiped out towns and villages, most of them inhabited by Serbian Orthodox, arguing that the only true Croats were Catholic, or Muslim. And following the example of Nazi Germany, the Croatian State began enacting racist laws against Jews and Gypsies.

Despite the disastrous history of the Serb-Croat divide, the unification of Yugoslavia’s different groups after World War Two was still maintained, primarily due to the iron will of President Tito (1945-1980). His death would engender a severe economic crisis, the division of his successors and the rise of nationalism, especially among the majority-Serb population and the Croats. Slovenia and Croatia, both rich provinces, began questioning their economic aid to the poor southern regions and opposing the centralization of federal power. The rise of nationalism in this weakened country began in Kosovo in 1981. Albanian (Kosovars or Muslims) demonstrations were severely repressed by the Serbs. In 1989, when Slobodan Milosevic came into power in Serbia, he took up the cause of the Kosovo Serbs against Albanian separatists. He stripped away the regional autonomy of Kosovo Muslims and Vojvodina’s Hungarian Christian Orthodox minority. This undermining of constitutional order opened the door to Yugoslavia’s disintegration.

Elections were held in all of the country’ republics the following year, but this referendum vote only showed that Yugoslavia’s founding peoples were unable to preserve their country’s future. Three republics chose independence in 1991: Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia. In March 1992, Bosnia-Herzegovina in turn became independent after a referendum that was boycotted by the Bosnian Serbs. From that moment on, Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims would begin warring in the territories where their populations had been interlocked for centuries: Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Bosnia-Herzegovina Serbs obtained the support of what remained of Milosevic’s Yugoslav army.

The crimes

Amid raging civil war in 1992, Bosnian Serb paramilitary organizations, undertook systematic ethnic “cleansing” or “purification” in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia in the form of massacres, looting, rapes and expulsions of non-Serbs (mostly Muslims and Croats). In response to this violence, Croats started carrying out their own “ethnic cleansing” in western Slavonia, against both Muslims and Serbs (over 200,000 Serbs were driven from their ancestral lands). Soon every ethnic group was employing its own savage procedures for “cleansing” and “homogenizing” the conquered territories.

In June 1992, UN peacekeepers, called in to separate the belligerents failed to protect the Muslim areas, including Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia, which remained under siege by Bosnian Serb forces for four years. In July 1995, despite the presence of UN forces, between 7000 and 8000 Bosnian Muslims were massacred by General Mladic’s Serbs, following the conquest of the town of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia. This massacre would be an important piece of evidence in the case for proving genocide.

The deadly bombing of the Sarajevo Markale market the following month and the failure to find a political solution would compel the Americans to start applying the policies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Western air strikes on Bosnian Serb military infrastructures, and the Muslim Croatian takeover of Western and Central Bosnia, would follow the Serbian conquest.

In late 1995, the warring parties (the Serbian, Slobodan Milosevic, the Croatian, Franjo Tudjman, and the Bosnian, Alija Izetbegovic) signed the “Dayton Peace Agreement” in Paris. Bosnia-Herzegovina was split into two separate political entities: the Muslim-Croat Federation (now the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina), which includes Croats and Bosnian Muslims, and the Bosnian-Serb Republic of Srpska (or Bosnian Serb Republic), entirely made up (officially) of Orthodox Serbs.

Thus ended a long and bloody conflict that left nearly 280,000 dead (mostly Muslims), and displaced inside and outside of the war zone more than 2.6 million people (51% Bosnian Muslims, 28% Serbs and 14% Croats).

Despite the defeat of its Serb allies in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Yugoslav government continued its atrocities in Kosovo in opposition to Albanian (Kosovar) independence. NATO would have to intervene once more in 1999.

Justice and memory

In May of 1993, before the civil war had even ended, the UN set up the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague (Netherlands) to prosecute those who were responsible for the crimes committed in the name of an “ethnic cleansing” policy in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia.

On July 11, 1995, the Tribunal sentenced the Serb General Radislav Krstic to 46 years in prison for the crime of genocide involving the “disappearance” of 7500 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica.

The trial of Slobodan Milosevic, which began in February 2002, would never reach a verdict since the accused died while he was in detention. He had entered a plea of not guilty to 66 charges against him including war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the Kosovo-Croatia conflicts and the Bosnian genocide.

Several indicted in absentia cannot be found, namely Radovan Karadzic, political leader of the Bosnian Serbs during the 1992-1995 war, and Ratko Mladic, the army general. Both have been charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes that took place during the massacre of the Muslims in Srebrenica, and for the unrelenting bombing of Sarajevo.

After years of silence, the Serbian authorities of Serbia-Montenegro finally admitted the crime and formally apologized in November 2003. On February 27, 2006, after an unprecedented complaint by one state against another, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) opened the lawsuit filed by Bosnia-Herzegovina against Serbia-Montenegro for genocide. In a ruling issued on February 26, 2007, the ICJ exonerated Serbia of direct responsibility for the genocide, all while acknowledging that the crime was committed in Srebrenica by Bosnian Serbs and that Belgrade had not done everything in its power to prevent it.

While continuing to identify and lay to rest the victims in the Potocari cemetery and memorial near Srebrenica, various organizations continue to demand the most thorough review possible of this major tragedy of the late twentieth century, on a continent that was thought to be protected from massacres since the end of the Second World War.