Genocide is not a foreign concept in today’s world. However, while the reality (and the culprit) is not difficult to outline today, history is strewn with massacres that have been draped and hidden from the world beyond. Genocides that rivaled great wars and were so horrific that the ring of brutality still beats in the historical narrative of humanity. We go back to one of those genocides that was called the most brutal mass slaughter after WWII. We revisit the Bosnian War (1992-95) which resulted in the deaths of approximately 100,000 innocent Bosnian citizens and displaced millions of people. The wild nature of the war was such that the war crimes committed constituted a whole new definition of how we describe genocide.
The historical backdrop helps us assess the complex relationships and motivations that resulted in such a chaotic war to follow suit. After World War II, the then People’s Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina joined the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. Bosnia and Herzegovina became one of the constituent republics of Yugoslavia in 1946 along with other Balkan states including Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. As communism invaded all of Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina began to lose its religious and cultural identity. Since Bosnia and Herzegovina is mainly composed of a Muslim population, later known as the Bosnians, the spread of socialism led to the abolition of many Muslim institutions and traditions. And while the transition to the reformed Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1963 eased ethnic pressure, the underlying ideology and radical sentiments never completely subsided.
Bosnians began to emerge as the majority population of Bosnia and by 1971 Bosnians formed the largest component of the entire population of Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, the trend of emigration accelerated later in the decades; Serbs and Croats were added to their tally for most of the 1970s and mid 1980s. The Bosnian population was characterized as a tripartite society, that is, made up of three main ethnic groups: Bosnians , Serbs and Croats. Until 1991, the ethnic majority of Bosnians was strongly diluted to only 44% while Serb emigrants concentrated Serbian influence; representing 31% of the total Bosnian population.
While on one side, Bosnia and Herzegovina was inundated with Serbs seeking to impose themselves, the Yugoslav economy was constantly perishing on the other side. While signs of instability were apparent in the early 1980s, the decade was not enough to revive the economy. By the end of the 1980s, therefore, political discontent began to take hold and multiple nationalist parties began to establish camps. Sentiments spread throughout Yugoslavia and the nationalists sensed an imminent partition. Bosnia and Herzegovina, like Croatia, carried out elections in 1990 which resulted in an expected tripartite ballot roughly similar to the demographics of Bosnia. Representatives resorted to forming a coalition government comprising Bosnian-Serbian-Craotian regimes sharing the towers as prime minister. As the ethnic majority of Bosnians profited from the first blow at the office, tensions quickly erupted around Bosnia and Herzegovina as the Serbs grew increasingly hostile.
Lava erupted in 1991 when Bosnia’s coalition government withered and the Serbian Democratic Party established its separate assembly in Bosnia known as the “Serbian National Assembly”. This decision was in keeping with a growing sense of independence which was preparing the breakup of Yugoslavia. The Serbian Democratic Party had long envisioned a dominant Serbian state in the Balkans and was not prepared to participate in a rotating government when fighting broke out in neighboring states. When Croatia began to witness the violence and the rise of rebels in 1992, the separatist vision of the Serbs was further strengthened when the Serbian Democratic Party, under the leadership of Serbian leader Radovan Karadžić, established an autonomous government in predominantly Serbian regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina. .
Vision and actions remained docile until the Ring of Independence reverberated throughout the region. When the European Commission (EC), now known as the European Union (EU) and the United States recognized the independence of Croatia and Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina found itself in a precarious situation. While a safe bet would have been to initiate talks and diplomatic channels to engage the Serbian Democratic Party, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović failed to realize early warnings of an uprising. Instead of forging negotiations with the Bosnian Serbs, the Bosnian President resorted to Croatia’s image by organizing an independence referendum supported by both the EC and the United States. Even as the referendum was blocked in the Bosnian Serb Autonomous Regions, Izetbegović chose to pass and announced the results. As soon as Bosnia’s independence from Yugoslavia was announced and recognized, fighting broke out across Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The Bosnian Serbs feared that their long-standing plan to establish a “Greater Serbia” in the Balkans could be buried, resulting in chaos across much of Bosnia. The blame for the decision, however, has been placed largely on the Bosnian president and, by extension, on the entire ethnic majority of Bosnians. The Bosnian Serbs have started to launch attacks in eastern Bosnia; mainly targeting Bosnian-dominated towns such as Foča, Višegrad and Zvornik. Soon, Bosnian Serb forces were joined by local paramilitary rebels as well as the Yugoslav army as the attacks ravaged towns with large Bosnian populations; swathing the earth in the process. Towns were looted and controlled while local Bosnians and their Croatian counterparts were either displaced, imprisoned or massacred.
While the fragile Bosnian government managed to join forces with Croatian forces across the border, the resulting offense was not enough as the combination of Serbian forces, rebel groups and the military Yugoslavia has taken control of almost two-thirds of Bosnian territory. The Karadžić regime refused to hand over the land captured in the rounds of negotiations. And as the war stagnated, Bosnian residents left in small pockets of war-torn areas were hit hard in the name of revenge and ethnic cleansing.
As the Bosnians and Croats formed a joint federation as a last resort, the Serbian Democratic Party established the Srpska Republic in the captured East, and the military units were placed under the command of the Bosnian Serb general, Ratko Mladic. The notorious general, known as ‘Bosnian Butcher’, has committed horrific war crimes, including the massacre of Bosnian residents captured in violence, the rape of Bosnian women and the violation of minors in the name of ethnic cleansing exercises. While the United Nations refused to intervene in the war, the plea of the helpless Bosnians forced the United Nations to at least provide humanitarian aid to the oppressed. The most horrific of all incidents took place in July 1995, when a UN declared safe area known as Srebrenica was penetrated by forces led by Mladic while innocent Bosnians took refuge . The forces brutally slaughtered the men while raping the women and children. It is estimated that 7,000 to 8,000 Bosnian men were slaughtered in the most grotesque campaign of ethnic cleansing aimed at wiping all traces of Bosniaks from Serb-controlled territory.
In the aftermath of the barbaric war crimes, NATO launched airstrikes to target Bosnian Serb targets while the Bosnian Croat offensive was launched from the ground. At the end of 1995, Bosnian Serb forces recognized their defeat and agreed to talks brokered by the United States. The chords, also known as “Dayton Accords”, resulted in the conclusion of the Bosnian War as international forces were established in the area to enforce the law. The newly negotiated federalized Bosnia and Herzegovina represented 51% of the Bosnian-Croat Federation and 49% of the Serbian Republic.
The deal, however, was not the end of the unfortunate story as trials and international action were quickly followed to investigate crimes against humanity committed during the three-year war. While many Serbian leaders died in prison or committed suicide, the perpetrator of the Srebrenica massacre, Ratko Mladic, went into hiding in 2001. However, Mladic was arrested after a decade in 2011 by Serbian authorities and went into hiding in 2001. been tried by the UN. International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY). The investigation re-examined the malevolent actions of the former general and in 2017 the ICTY convicted Ratko Mladic of genocide and war crimes and sentenced him to life in prison. While Mladic requested the acquittal on nonsensical grounds of innocence since it was not him but his subordinates who committed the crimes, the UN tribunal recently upheld the final decision; close the doors to all other calls. After 26 years, the world saw the desperation in the eyes of Mladic, 78, as he joined the plight of his bed-mates as the offspring of the victims closed in as the last Bosnian trail was settled on a note of justice.