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History of the war in Bosnia
Written May, 1996
former Yugoslavia consisted of six republics and two autonomous
regions. Today Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, and Macedonia
are independent nations. Serbia and Montenegro comprise the rump
(prewar population 4.4 million): Bosnia has the most complex mix
of religious traditions among the former Yugoslav republics: 44%
Bosniaks (Muslims), 31% Bosnian Serb (Eastern Orthodox), and 17%
Bosnian Croat (Roman Catholics). Bosnia�s Muslims are Slavs who
converted to Islam in the 14th and 15th centuries after the Ottoman
Empire conquered the region. From World War I until the end of the
Cold War, Bosnia was part of the newly created country of Yugoslavia.
Bosnia declared independence in March 1992.
Serbia (including Kosovo and
Vojvodina) (prewar population 9,800,000): This republic is the largest
and most populous. 66% are ethnic Serb of traditionally Eastern
Orthodox religion. Until 1989, Serbia also had two �autonomous regions,�
Kosovo and Vojvodina. Kosovo, bordering Albania, was the historic
seat of a traditional Serbian kingdom and the site of the famous
Battle of Kosovo in 1389, when the Serbs were conquered by Ottoman
forces. Today Kosovo�s population is 90% ethnic Albanian, most of
them Muslims. The Albanians are a pre-Slavic ethnic group speaking
a distinct language unrelated to the various forms of Serbo-Croatian
spoken throughout the former Yugoslavia.
Croatia (prewar population
4.8 million): In the second largest republic of former Yugoslavia,
79% of its residents were ethnic Croatian and 12% ethnic Serb, who
were concentrated in the Krajina region, which closely follows Croatia�s
border with Bosnia. Most Croatians are Roman Catholic. Croatia
declared independence from Yugoslavia in June 1991. During the summer
of 1995, Croatian forces reclaimed the Krajina and drove more than
200,000 Serbs to exile in Serbia.
Montenegro (prewar population
584,000): This was the only republic not conquered by the Ottoman
Empire or other outside powers. Mostly Serb Orthodox, Montenegro
and Serbia now comprise what is left of Yugoslavia.
Macedonia (population 2,000,000):
Macedonia is home to Macedonian Slavs (66%) who are mostly Orthodox
Christians with some Muslims, Albanians (25%�35%) who are mostly
Muslim, and a host of smaller minorities (Turks, Gypsies, Vlachs).
Macedonia became the only former Yugoslav republic to make a nonviolent
transition to independence in 1992. The Albanian population has
long demanded some degree of cultural autonomy and, until the current
crisis, most Macedonian Albanians have attempted to go about this
by working within the existing power structures.
Slovenia (prewar population
1,892,000): The smallest in land mass but the wealthiest of the
former republics, Slovenia is also the closest to western Europe,
sharing a border with Austria. Its population is almost entirely
composed of ethnic Slovenes, who have their own distinctive Slavic
language and traditions. Slovenia declared its independence at the
same time as Croatia, in June 1991.
World War II to 1991
During World War II, armed groups claiming allegiance to various
ethnic factions fought both against each other and against the Nazi
occupiers. By 1945, almost 1 million Yugoslavs had lost their lives,
most of them at the hands of other Yugoslavs. Croatian fascists
(Ustashe) were the most notorious for killing Serbs, Jews, Gypsies,
Communists, and political opponents, but Serb Chetniks were also
responsible for many mass killings. The Communist-led Partisans
fought against both groups and were victorious (with Allied support)
at the war's end. The Partisan leader, Josip Broz (Tito), ruled
the country as a one-party socialist state.
Despite using repressive tactics and centralized control, Tito understood
the importance of apportioning power evenly among the Yugoslav ethnicities.
Under Communist rule, it was a serious crime to openly express ethnic
aspirations of any kind.
After Tito's death in 1980, the nation slid into economic and political
decline as a collective leadership began to squabble over power
and the allocation of shrinking resources among the republics. With
the final collapse of Communism in the 1980s, the restive population
began seeking solutions to provide economic and political stability
in a post- Cold War world. Unfortunately, the solution promoted
by Serb and Croat extremists in this time of crisis was ethnic nationalism.
Serbia's Communist Party leader, Slobodan Milosevic, began pandering
to Serb nationalism, and quickly became the unchallenged ruler of
Serbia. Through his control of the party apparatus and control of
the media, he was able to become the most powerful figure in Yugoslavia,
but despite his appeals to Serb national sentiment, his principal
concern was with preserving his own control.
One of Milosevic's first acts was to change Serbia's constitution
and void the autonomy of Kosovo. He began a campaign of repression
against the ethnic Albanian Kosovars, making him a hero in the eyes
of Serb nationalists throughout the former Yugoslavia.
Milosevic's attempts to seize control of the federal government
and his repressive tactics in Kosovo drove the newly elected non-Communist
governments of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia to seek independence.
The Yugoslav National Army (JNA) --with a predominantly Serb officers'
corps --responded with brutal attacks supported by Serb nationalist
militias in Croatia and Bosnia.
Ironically, when the war began in Croatia in 1991 and Bosnia in
1992, many Croats and Bosnians thought the Yugoslav National Army
would protect them. They soon learned that the national army --the
fourth largest in Europe --was clearly in the hands of Milosevic
and being used to create Greater Serbia.
With Serb nationalists in control in Belgrade and Croat nationalists
in power in Zagreb, Croatia voted to secede from Yugoslavia in 1991
to counter the plan for a Greater Serbia. Although Croat nationalists
share responsibility for fanning ethnic tensions, it was Serbian
forces who launched a savage military response to Croat independence,
capturing and "cleansing" a third of Croatia, including eastern
and western Slavonia, and the Krajina region adjacent to Bosnia.
In March 1992, Bosnia's Muslims and Croats, fearing the drive for
a Greater Serbia, called for a referendum for Bosnian independence.
Fierce propaganda from Serbia, depicting Muslims as extremist fundamentalists,
caused many Bosnian Serbs to support Milosevic's plan for ethnic
cleansing as a means of creating Greater Serbia. Since the Bosnian
Serbs did not inhabit a single specific territory in Bosnia and
lived alongside Muslim and Croat neighbors, the stage was set for
war throughout the country.
On April 6, 1992, the Bosnian Serbs began their siege of Sarajevo.
Muslim, Croat, and Serb residents opposed to a Greater Serbia were
cut off from food, utilities, and communication. Through three long
and cold winters, Sarajevans dodged sniper fire as they collected
firewood and tried to get to their jobs. Food was scarce and the
average weight loss per person was more than 30 pounds. More than
12,000 residents were killed, 1,500 of them children.
Throughout Bosnia, Bosnian Serb nationalists and the JNA began a
systematic policy of "ethnic cleansing" (a polite term for genocide)
to establish a "pure" Serb republic. They drove out all other ethnic
groups by terrorizing and forcibly displacing non-Serbs through
direct shelling and sniper attacks. Entire villages were destroyed.
Thousands were expelled from their homes, held in detention camps,
raped, tortured, deported, or summarily executed. Rape was a military
tactic to destroy the bonds of families and communities.
Throughout the war, many Bosnians wanted to preserve a multiethnic
state. But Serb and Croat nationalists sought to carve out Bosnian
land to be annexed to the future Greater Serbia and Greater Croatia.
Few people could have predicted that the war would last for almost
four years, and with such barbarism. More than 200,000 Bosnians
out of a population of 4.4 million were killed. Some 200,000 were
injured, 50,000 of them children. Millions of people were deported
or forced to flee their homes. Sixty percent of all houses in Bosnia,
half of the schools, and a third of the hospitals were damaged or
destroyed. Power plants, roads, water systems, bridges, and railways
were ruined. Throughout these horrors, the international community
failed to respond.
Key Players in the Conflict
Serbia: President Slobodan Milosevic's nationalist
aims for a Greater Serbia started the machinery of war in 1986.
Now based in Belgrade, he still controls the fourth largest army
in Europe, the Yugoslav National Army (JNA). He has thus far evaded
charges of war crimes and continues to exert considerable influence
in the region. He was the Serb representative at Dayton and has
since distanced himself from the Bosnian Serb leadership.
Bosnian Serbs: In 1991, prior to the war, Radovan
Karadzic (a former psychiatrist) created a renegade army within
Bosnia with the support of Milosevic in Belgrade. In 1992, under
his leadership, Bosnian Serb nationalists began a systematic policy
of "cleansing" large areas of Bosnia of non-Serbs. Both Karadzic
and his military commander, Ratko Mladic, have been indicted for
war crimes, including genocide, by a UN war crimes tribunal. Both
remain at large and continue to wield power in Republika Srpska.
Croatia: President Franjo Tudjman, headquartered
in Zagreb, leads the Croatian army and has close ties to the Bosnian
Croat army, the HVO. The HVO lost significant territory to the Serb-controlled
Yugoslav National Army, but supported Bosnian Croats as they captured
swaths of territory in Herzegovina, the southwestern region of Bosnia
around the city of Mostar where many Bosnian Croats reside. Tudjman
continues to exert influence in the area controlled by the HVO,
most of which remains "cleansed" of all Muslim and Serb inhabitants.
Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims formally allied in 1994 in an
uneasy federation that was brokered by the United States.
Bosnia: President Alija Izetbegovic, head of the
Muslim-dominated Party of Democratic Action (SDA), is based in Sarajevo.
Bosnia was attacked by the Yugoslav National Army, Bosnian Serb
nationalists, and Bosnian Croat nationalists.. The siege of Sarajevo
lasted 43 months. An international arms embargo was in effect throughout
the war, preventing the Bosnian government from obtaining the heavy
artillery and arms that it needed to fight the more sophisticated
arsenals of the Serbian and Croatian armies.
Izetbegovic is now chairman of the three-member Bosnian presidency,
sharing power with Bosnian Croat Kresimir Zubak and Momcilo Krajisnik,
a Bosnian Serb. Both Zubak and Krajisnik are opposed to a unified
Bosnia with Sarajevo as the capital.
The Role of the UN
The failure of the UN to stop the killing in Bosnia seriously compromised
its credibility as it neared its 50th anniversary in 1995. The UN
already had UNPROFOR (United Nations Protection Force) troops in
Sarajevo at the outset of war because it was their base of operation
for the UN mission in Croatia. The UN hoped that their presence
would discourage the spread of the conflict from Croatia to Bosnia.
But when Sarajevo came under attack by Serb artillery in April 1992,
the UN forces pulled out to avoid casualties, leaving behind only
a small and lightly armed contingent of "peacekeepers" to discourage
attacks by Serbian nationalists. There was clearly no peace to keep.
As the situation deteriorated, creating a humanitarian nightmare,
the UN struck a deal with the Serbs to control the Sarajevo airport.
In reality, the Serbs only allowed the UN to use the airport under
de facto Serb control. During the next three years the airport was
the scene of hundreds of casualties. UN humanitarian flights were
repeatedly fired upon and Bosnian civilians were killed by sniper
fire as they attempted to escape across the tarmac. All aid flights
and personnel transports had to be approved by Serb liaison officers
stationed at the airport. In one of the most flagrant failures of
the UN to provide protection, the Bosnian Deputy Prime Minister
was shot point-blank by Serb nationalists in 1992 while riding in
a UN armored personnel carrier at the airport.
UN personnel were well aware of massive violations of human rights
and humanitarian law committed by the Bosnian Serb nationalists,
yet did nothing. The world learned of the atrocities through the
courageous efforts of print and TV journalists who visited Serb-run
camps and reported on appalling conditions and treatment of Croat
and Muslim detainees. Wrenching scenes were broadcast around the
world showing hundreds of emaciated men and women behind barbed
wire, their eyes hollow from hunger and despair. Although they never
succeeded in protecting civilians from attack, the UN eventually
took seriously its obligation to investigate war crimes, genocide,
and crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia and established
the International Criminal Tribunal.
The International Criminal Tribunal
The International Criminal Tribunal, the first international war
crimes court since the Nuremberg trials following World War II,
was established by the UN Security Council in February 1993. Based
in The Hague, it has announced indictments against 75 individuals
--including Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic. There has
been an enormous lack of will by the international community to
seek out and arrest them. The 75 indictments name 54 Serbs, 18 Croats,
and 3 Bosnian Muslims. In order for peace and reconstruction to
continue in the region, it is crucial that the tribunal demonstrate
that genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity cannot be
committed with impunity. Establishing individual responsibility
for crimes is essential to avoid the attribution of collective guilt.
The Dayton Peace Accords
The Dayton Peace Accords, signed on December 14, 1995, by Presidents
Milosevic, Izetbegovic, and Tudjman, affirmed Sarajevo as the capital
of Bosnia but carved Bosnia into two autonomous and ethnically based
entities, separated by a demilitarized zone. The Serbs, in control
of the Republika Srpska, were rewarded for their unbridled aggression
and genocide with 49% of the territory of Bosnia. The Bosnians were
granted the remaining 51% of the country, called the Federation
of Bosnia and Herzegovina, an uneasy alliance of Bosnian Muslims
and Croats. Each entity has its own government, military, and police.
A central government handles banking and foreign policy. Many Bosnians
feel betrayed by their president and the world for the partition
of their country.
Shortly after the accords were signed, the international Implementation
Force (IFOR), a NATO-led peacekeeping force of 60,000 soldiers,
arrived in Bosnia. Though heavy weapons were pulled back from front
lines and the indiscriminate killing of civilians stopped, the external
borders of Bosnia remain unprotected. Most non-Serbs have been cleansed
from Serb-held areas and are not allowed to return to their homes.
Many Serbs have left Federation-controlled territories.
IFOR was scheduled to leave Bosnia at the end of 1996. As a compromise,
a new force with half the number of troops, SFOR (Stabilization
Force) has been introduced instead.
Although elections were held in September to select a three-member
presidency and a national parliament, most international observers
claim that they were anything but free and fair. There was widespread
voter fraud and intimidation, especially by Serb nationalists who
bribed refugees to vote in areas where they never intended to live.
The voter turnout as reported by the Organization for Security and
Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which monitored the elections, was
close to 110%.
Bosnia's immediate needs are a repaired infrastructure, jobs, and
the safe return of people to their homes. The World Bank estimates
a need for $5 billion for the first three years of reconstruction.
It has thus far only raised a small portion of that. But Bosnians
are determined to rebuild their country and to build a future for