The Serbs targeted Bosniak and Croatian civilians in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. The war in Bosnia claimed the lives of an estimated 100,000 people and displaced more than two million.
The height of the killing took place in July 1995 when 8,000 Bosniaks were killed in what became known as the Srebrenica genocide, the largest massacre in Europe after the Holocaust.
Precursors to Genocide
The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was formed at the end of World War II, comprised of Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, and Macedonia with numerous ethnic groups making up the population. This included Orthodox Christian Serbs, Muslim Bosniaks, Catholic Croats, and Muslim ethnic Albanians.
Tensions in the Balkans were common, but once President Josip Broz Tito came to power in 1943, he ruled with an iron fist and was typically able to keep them in check through a dictatorship. Though he was considered to be a “benevolent dictator” and at times quite ruthless, Tito’s efforts ensured that no ethnic group dominated the country, banning political mobilization and seeking to create a unified Yugoslav identity. However, after his death in 1980, the order he imposed began to unravel.
The various ethnic groups and republics inside Yugoslavia sought independence, and as the end of the Cold War neared, the country spiraled out of control. Serb nationalism was fueled as Slobodan Milosevic rose to power in 1987. Milosevic used nationalist feelings to his advantage, making changes to the constitution favoring Serbs, creating a military that was 90 percent Serbian, and extending his power over the country’s financial, media, and security structures. With the help of Serbian separatists in Bosnia and Croatia, he stoked ethnic tensions by convincing Serbian populations that other ethnic groups posed a threat to their rights.
Ethnic Cleansing Begins
Yugoslavia began to collapse in June 1991 when the republics of Slovenia and Croatia declared independence. The Yugoslav army, largely composed of Serbs, invaded Croatia under the guise of trying to protect ethnic Serb populations there. They took the city of Vukovar, carrying out mass executions of hundreds of Croat men, burying them in mass graves. This was the beginning of the ethnic cleansings that characterized the atrocities committed during the Yugoslav Wars.
Bosnia came next in April 1992. Following their independence, Serbian forces accompanied by Bosnian Serbs attempted to ethnically cleanse the territory of the Bosniaks. Using former Yugoslavian military equipment, they surrounded Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital city. Snipers hid in the hills and shot at civilians as they tried to get food and water. Mass executions, concentration camps, rape and sexual violence, and forced displacement were all extremely prevalent. The “siege of Sarajevo” is considered to be one of the most dramatic and representative parts Yugoslavia’s breakup, with thousands killed over the course of nearly four years.
Attempts at mediation by the European Union were unsuccessful and the United Nations (UN) refused to intervene, aside from providing limited troop convoys for humanitarian aid. Later on, the UN tried to establish six “safe areas,” including Srebrenica and Sarajevo, but these were ineffective. Peacekeepers did not have the capabilities to truly protect the people seeking refuge there, and all except Sarajevo eventually fell under Serb control.
Genocide at Srebrenica
In July 1995, Serb forces, led by General Ratko Mladic, descended upon the town of Srebrenica and began shelling it. At this point, the enclave was protected by only 450 Dutch peacekeepers armed with light fuel and expired ammunition – their force was so weak that a Dutch commander had reported that the unit was no longer militarily operational a month prior. The peacekeepers requested support from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) but were denied. Srebrenica fell to the Serbs in one day.
Mladic expelled 25,000 women and children from the town, while his forces tried to hunt down approximately 15,000 Bosniak men who had tried to escape to safety in central Bosnia. Up to 3,000 were killed, either by gunshot or by decapitation, while trying to escape. Many Bosniaks sought refuge at a UN base in nearby Potocari, but were not safe there for long.
Serb forces caught up with them by the afternoon and the next day, buses arrived at Potocari to take them away, again separating the children and women from the men. Serb troops forced the Dutch peacekeepers to hand over their uniforms and helmets so that they could use them to lure civilians out of hiding and trick them into thinking they were headed to safety.
At the end of the four day massacre, up to 8,000 men and teenage boys had been killed, and many women were subject to torture, rape, and other forms of sexual violence. Thousands were buried in mass graves. In order to conceal their crimes, Serb forces dug up the original graves of many victims and moved them across a large piece of territory.
There were clear indications that an attack at Srebrenica was being planned, yet the international community did not equip the peacekeeping forces there with the support necessary to protect the thousands who either lost their lives or were terrorized. The atrocities committed at Srebrenica are considered to be the worst on European soil after the Holocaust.
While the war was widely covered in the press and individual policymakers at times took strong stands against human rights abuses in Bosnia, in general the UN, the European Union, the United States and Russia minimized the aggressive nature of the conflict and treated the fighting as a conflict between equal warring parties. Seeking to avoid the moral responsibilities of responding to a genocide, many of these countries referred to the conflict as “ethnic cleansing” rather than “genocide”.
The U.S. Response
Up until 1995, the American government refused to take the lead onBosnia. The U.S. resisted sending in their own troops, and also vetoed Security Council draft resolutions to increase the number of UN peacekeepers. During his campaign, Bill Clinton criticized the Bush administration for their lack of action, but when he was elected in 1992, his Administration followed the same pattern.
In 1995, American foreign policy toward Bosnia changed. Evidence of the atrocities being committed, including those at Srebrenica, was becoming common knowledge and the United States’ lack of action was becoming an embarrassment. President Clinton told his national security advisers that the war was “killing the U.S. position of strength in the war” and he did not want failure in Bosnia to tarnish his chances at re-election. Despite all efforts to keep American troops out of Europe, he eventually realized that there was no effective way to end the war without it.
The International Response
The UN was hesitant to directly fight the Bosnian Serbs for fear of threatening their neutrality between nations and groups. The international community finally responded to the war after Serb forces took the town of Zepa, in addition to dropping a bomb in a crowded Sarajevo market. Senior representatives of the United States and its allies agreed to deploy NATO forces to Gorazde and defend the town’s civilian population. This plan was later extended to include the cities of Bihac, Sarajevo and Tuzla.
In August 1995, after the Serbs refused to comply with a UN ultimatum, NATO forces in conjunction with Bosnian and Croatian forces began an aerial bombing campaign. With Serbia’s economy crippled by UN trade sanctions and its military forces under assault in Bosnia after three years of warfare, Milosevic agreed to enter negotiations that led to a ceasefire. By the end of the war, roughly 100,000 people had died.
In November 1995, the Dayton Accords were signed in Dayton, Ohio, officially ending the war in Bosnia. This peace agreement established two semi-autonomous entities within Bosnia-Herzegovina: the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, inhabited primarily by Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats, and the Republika Srpska (which includes Srebrenica), dominated by Serbs, both with their own political structures, economies, and educational systems, though connected through a central government.
Refugees were guaranteed the right to return to their pre-war homes, but only a small number of Bosniaks opted to go back to Srebrenica, which had been re-inhabited by Bosnian Serbs who had also been internally displaced by the war. An influx of international assistance came after the fighting, including reconstruction efforts by non-governmental organizations, UN agencies, and foreign governments and militaries and over $14 billion in aid.
The Dayton Accords were successful in stopping the violence and allowing the region to create some form of normality, but it has turned out to be a somewhat of band-aid solution that set the stage for further divisions between Bosnia’s ethnic groups. For instance, Bosnia has a three-member presidency requiring one Croat, one Bosniak, and one Serb to represent their constituencies, but because each member is able to veto legislation that is seen as threatening to his own group’s interests, it has been nearly impossible to come to consensus for most of the important issues at the central-government level. Furthermore, this type of system still excludes other minority groups in the country such as the Roma and Jews.
The fact is that the Dayton Accords were not meant to be a long-term solution to the problems of the country; they were meant to stop the killing and secure peace. Eventually they were supposed to be replaced with a more streamlined government structure. The hope was that in working together and creating a unified Bosnian identity, the mistrust between ethnic groups would fall away – this has not been the case. Though they may live side-by-side, Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs essentially lead segregated lives. People identify themselves through their ethnicity rather than their citizenship.
The legacy of the Dayton Accords is evident within Bosnia-Herzegovina, as its economic development has lagged behind its Balkan counterparts. Unemployment remains a problem for a large portion of the country, and corruption is very prevalent. The country is currently trying to join the European Union, but a failure on the part of Serb, Bosniak, and Croat leaders to agree on details for a reform program have delayed their application for membership.
The UN Security Council passed resolution 827 establishing the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the Hague, Netherlands in May 1993, before the war had even ended, after they were briefed on reports of massacres, rape and torture, extreme violence in the cities, and massive suffering of the hundreds of thousands who had been expelled from their homes.
The ICTY was formed to end the impunity of the perpetrators of mass atrocities, and was the first tribunal to prosecute genocide. It also has given survivors of rape, torture, and other heinous crimes the opportunity to tell their stories of what they experienced and what happened to their loved ones and be heard.
The ICTY was slow to start. A chief prosecutor was not named until 1994, and even after, the governments of Serbia and Croatia refused to turn their war crimes suspects or share information with the tribunal until their membership to the EU was jeopardized due to their lack of cooperation.
NATO showed its weakness again when members failed to arrest suspects in Bosnia out of fear of endangering their forces. However, since delivering its first sentence in 1996, the ICTY has convicted more than 60 people involved with crimes against various ethnic groups in Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo, and Macedonia. More than 160 have been charged, including high and mid-level political, military, and police leaders from multiple sides of the conflict.
It was ruled in 2001 that genocide occurred in Srebrenica, and in 2007 the International Court of Justice stated that Serbia violated the Genocide Convention by not doing enough to prevent it.
Former leader, Slobodan Milosevic received 3 indictments from the ICTY for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Kosovo in 1999, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Croatia between 1991 and 1992, and genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995. His trial, delayed multiple times due to his health, began in February 2002 and he pled not guilty to all 66 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. In 2006, he was found dead in his cell in The Hague, months before his trial was expected to end.
After evading arrest for over a decade, Ratko Mladic, the man accused of leading the siege of Sarajevo and orchestrating the genocide at Srebrenica, began his trial in 2012 and it is expected to end in 2015. He faces 11 charges, including 2 counts of genocide and has pled not guilty to all of them. His behavior in the courtroom has apparently ranged from unremorseful to sarcastic to mocking, at times making gestures at the witnesses. The defense portion of the trial began in 2014, arguing that he was simply following orders – a common justification by those who have committed mass atrocities.
Many survivors have had to live their lives not knowing what happened to their family members. Over 20,000 people are still missing. When Serb forces dug up graves with bulldozers and trucks in Srebrenica in an attempt to move them to hide their crimes, many of the bodies were scattered. As such, finding the remaining missing persons has been extremely difficult. Those who are found are almost impossible to identify due to the condition of their remains.
In 1995, President Bill Clinton founded the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) to aid in the search and identification of missing persons found at disaster sites or war zones using forensic methods that matches the DNA of survivors to the unearthed remains. So far, the ICMP has been successful in identifying nearly 7,000 bodies in Srebrenica.
While both the ICTY and ICJ have considered the atrocities committed in the former Yugoslav region to constitute genocide, this has not been a shared sentiment around the world. Notably, both Russia and Serbia have denied that the Srebrenica massacre amounted to genocide.
In July 2015, the UN Security Council held a meeting in preparation for the 20th anniversary of Srebrenica, and reportedly Serbia asked Russia to veto a draft resolution that would formally condemn the massacre as genocide. Russia used its veto to kill the resolution, stating that calling the crimes a genocide would prompt further tensions in the region.
Serbia has acknowledged that the crimes at Srebrenica occurred but has never used the word genocide to describe them. Arrests for Srebrenica-related crimes were not made in Serbia until March of 2015. Denial also runs strong in the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, with the Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik called Srebrenica, “the greatest deception of the 20th century.
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power was a journalist in Sarajevo when the attack on Srebrenica occurred and a first-hand witness to the suffering that the war caused. In response to Russia’s veto, she said, “It mattered hugely to the families of the victims of the Srebrenica genocide. Russia’s veto is heartbreaking for those families and it is a further stain on this Council’s record”.
Denialist rhetoric trivializes the experiences of victims and survivors, and minimizes the true weight of what occurred during the 1990s. Reconciliation cannot be possible without recognition of the crimes committed. Nothing can bring back their loved ones or erase their trauma, but by acknowledging these events as what they are, the survivors can begin the healing process and find closure for what they experienced.