Bosnian Genocide

The end of the Cold War and the decline of Communism greatly altered the international political scene – the reunification of Germany, the rapid democratization of Russia, and the velvet divorce of Czechoslovakia from Communist influence, among some of the changes. The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia  was one of the more liberal communist regimes, led by the enigmatic dictator Josip Broz Tito. Tito kept tight control over the various ethnic, religious, and nationalist groups under the umbrella of a ‘greater Yugoslavia.’ After Tito’s death, politicians began exploiting nationalist rhetoric, pitting the Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks against each other and igniting the flame of nationalist fervor. The multi-ethnic republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina quickly became the site of the deadliest warfare and the target of an ‘ethnic cleansing.’ The genocide in Bosnia claimed the lives of an estimated 100,000 people.


Bosnia-Herzegovinia, and the other six nations that made up the former republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), is located in southeastern Europe (also known as the Balkans) along the coast of the Adriatic Sea between Italy and Romania. The population of Bosnia is about 3.8 million, with 48 percent Bosniaks (also known as Bosnian Muslims), 37 percent Serbs, and 14 percent Croats. Bosnia is slightly smaller than West Virginia, but with more than double the population.


The country of Yugoslavia, located in southeastern Europe on the Adriatic Sea, “is the complex product of a complex history. The country’s confusing and conflicting mosaic of peoples, languages, religions, and cultures took shape during centuries of turmoil after the collapse of the Roman Empire.”[1]  From the very beginning, Yugoslavia was a state that was made up of various ethnic groups with different religious and cultural backgrounds.  Much tension between the groups existed in the past and continues to exist today.

The three major ethnic groups in Yugoslavia were the Serbs, Croats, and the Slovenes.  Even though these three all derived from Slavic backgrounds, there were many differences among them.  The Serbs, who were under Ottoman control, were of the Eastern Orthodox religion, spoke the Serbian language, and used the Cyrillic alphabet.  They held the biggest territory and were also the largest of the three.  The Croatians, who were under French and Austro-Hungarian control, were predominately Catholic and spoke the Croatian language.  They were the second largest population group and had the richest resources of the three with the greatest amount of natural resources.  Finally, the Slovenians, who were under Austro-Hungarian control, were also Catholic and spoke the Slovenian language.[2]  The table below illustrates the three ethnic groups and the differences among them.

Religion Political Affiliation Language Alphabet
Croatia Catholic Federalism Croatian Gaj’s Latin
Serbia Orthodox Centralism Serbian Cyrillic
Slovenia Catholic/ Protestant Federalism Slovene Modification of Gaj’s Latin

With the end of World War I and the fall of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, these three major ethnic groups joined together to form the first state that was the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes in December of 1918.  There were many reasons for the three to unite and form a country of their own, including gaining human rights, protection from larger foreign empires and countries, and obtaining security and autonomy.[3]  Many believed that the only way for southern Slavs to regain lost freedom after centuries of occupation under the various empires would be to unite and create a state of their own to free themselves from tyrannies and dictatorships.

The country of Yugoslavia was formed in 1929.  During the first few years after the birth of the new country, national dissatisfaction grew between the three groups and many disliked the idea of a new state.  Much of the turmoil between the different cultural and religious backgrounds of the groups resulted in political separations, with Croatians resenting the idea of centralism,[4] which was the favored government of the king and of the Serbs.  The Croatians instead wanted a federalist state.[5]  Both Croatians and Slovenians resented Serbian domination in government and in military affairs.[6]  Within the three ethnic groups people sided with a variety of political parties and tensions kept rising.  Bosnia, located in southeastern Europe along the Balkan peninsula, with a population of about 3.8 million, was caught in the middle of this rising tension.  About half of the country of Bosnia is made up of Bosniaks (also known as Bosnian Muslims), thirty-seven percent are Serbs, and fourteen percent are Croatian.

During World War II, Josip Broz, known as “Tito,” successfully held the country together under his communist/socialist dictatorship.  Tito worked to ensure that no ethnic group dominated the federation and he successfully implemented a multi-ethnic peaceful co-existence.  Political mobilization along ethnic lines was banned and state authorities worked hard to defuse ethnic tensions and create an overarching Yugoslav identify.[7]

Not only did Tito work to diffuse ethnic differences among the people, but there was also much done with regards to the economy.  In 1945, Yugoslavia began to economically develop differently than its socialist counterparts by creating a unique form of decentralized market socialism based on workers self-management.  The original state-control of industry began to be broken down into localities and councils were created for respective industries.  Tito ensured that the regions kept trading with one another and “profits were distributed amongst the workers in each individual firm, and some functions of state control were relinquished and allocation became more relied on the basic mechanisms of the market to ensure self-management and proper distribution.”[8]  Although this economic model worked for the most part, it wasn’t meant to last.  In the late 1980s, Yugoslavia’s debts soared to unsustainable levels and eventually the economic bubble burst, spreading fear into all regions of Yugoslavia.

Much has been written about Tito and many praise him as one of the greatest political leaders of World War II because he was able to keep the country united.  Expert Richard West argues that Tito was an indispensable leader and that the country of Yugoslavia relied on him to maintain peace and stability within the country and to keep it from separation.  Without him, the “strings that tied the nation together were broken.”[9]

Civil War: After Tito’s death in 1980, the various groups lost their economic integration and many old tensions awoke and disrupted the peace that existed for the thirty-five years of Tito’s reign.[10]  His death left a power vacuum and ambitious politicians such as Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and Franjo Tudjman of Croatia stepped in to fill that void with nationalist rhetoric and propaganda.  Slobodan Milosevic rose to power in 1987.  With his view of a “Greater Serbia,” began a propaganda campaign that incited the feelings of hatred the people of Yugoslavia had towards one another.  Both Tudjman and Milosevic realized sooner than most that rousing nationalist passions was an effective way to exploit the Yugoslav upheavals for their own power.[11]  Milosevic’s vision of an ethnically pure Serb-dominated state understandably scared the other six regions (Slovenia, Macedonia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Vojvodina) of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, causing them to question their future in the Republic.[12]

Talks of independence began to spread throughout the six republics, with Slovenia and Croatia the first to declare independence.  Although Slovenia left Yugoslavia relatively peacefully, this was not the case for the other regions.  The tensions between the Croats, Serbs, and others were exposed and proved too great to be dealt with in peaceful terms.  War finally broke out.  Bosnia, the most ethnically heterogeneous of Yugoslavia’s republics, with 43 percent Muslims, 35 percent Orthodox Serbs, and 18 percent Catholic Croatians, suffered the worst fate.[13]  The multi-ethnic republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina quickly became the site of the deadliest warfare and the target of ‘ethnic cleansing.’

Like the Nazis’ “cleansing” Europe of its Jews, the Serbs’ aim was the “ethnic cleansing” of any Bosniak or Croat presence in Serbian territory.[14]  This term meant that various human rights violations occurred that ranged from curfews and forced relocations to rape, castration, imprisonment in concentration camps, and death.  Journalist Mark Danner describes the Serbs’ plan of attack in city after city was as follows:

             1. Concentration - urge Serb residents of the city to leave, while surrounding the town and bombarding it with artillery fire.

            2. Decapitation - execute the leaders and intelligentsia of the town.

            3. Separation - separate the women, children, and old men from the men of “fighting age.”

            4. Evacuation - move women, children, and old men to concentration camps or national   borders.

            5. Liquidation - execute the men of “fighting age.”[15]

The most famous example of this plan of attack was the massacre at Srebrenica, a Bosniak-dominated town under weak UN protection. In July of 1995, Serb General Ratko Mladic marched into Srebrenica, separated the women and children from the men, and murdered approximately 7,000 Bosniak men and boys, the single largest massacre in Europe since World War II.[16]  For those who were not killed in the initial massacre, many were sent to one of 381 concentration or detention camps in Bosnia.  Inhumane living conditions, beatings, torture, and mass executions were daily occurrences at these camps and eventually claimed the lives of around 10,000 people over the course of the war. Women were often taken to rape camps, where they were raped and tortured for weeks and months until they became pregnant. It is estimated that 20,000 rapes occurred between 1992 and1995 in Bosnia.[17]


Reports of mass killings and rape had slowly seeped out of Bosnia, but once photos and videos of concentration camps like Omarska and Trnopolje were published by Western journalists, the reports captured the world’s attention.  According to author Samantha Power, “No other atrocity campaign in the twentieth century was better monitored and understood by the U.S. government than the Bosnian genocide.” However, despite the wealth of information and irrefutable evidence of genocide, the U.S. government under both Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton initially chose isolationist policies, citing the lack of U.S. interests at stake in the conflict.

In July of 1992, the first international press reports, photos, and videos of the conflict in Bosnia were published, eerily evoking memories and images of the horror of the Holocaust fifty years earlier.[18] Despite the public outrage created by these reports, the international community still refused to intervene. A year later, after Serbian forces had taken over several Bosniak-dominated cities, the UN established six safe areas that were to be protected by international peacekeepers.[19] However with very few weapons and orders not to fire unless in self-defense, these peacekeepers were completely ineffective.

After the fall of Srebrenica, one of the UN safe areas, the Croatians and Bosniaks combined their forces to launch Operation Storm, an offensive campaign to push Serbian forces out of the Krajina region in the northwest corner of Bosnia. For two years prior to this campaign, Bosniak and Croat forces had turned on each other and had begun a conflict parallel to the one against the Serbs.[20] Yet by combining their forces, the Croatian-Bosniak offensive was able to push Serb forces, as well as 200,000 civilians, out of Krajina and into other Serb- dominated areas.[21] Although Operation Storm succeeded in pushing back Serbian forces, it also created one of the largest refugee populations in Europe.

The defeat of the Bosnian Serb forces led to the realization that a settlement in Bosnia and Herzegovina must be negotiated as soon as possible,leading to the Dayton Accords.  The Dayton Accords, the name for the peace agreement, were signed in Dayton, Ohio on December 14, 1995, ending the conflict in Bosnia and stationing 60,000 NATO troops to keep the peace.  The initial purpose of the Dayton Accords was to act as a transitory document and to freeze military confrontation but there were various shortcomings.  A major criticism of the agreement was that it enabled international actors to shape the agenda of post-war transition without leaving those matters to the Bosnian people and its government.[22]  It also left the region political unstable and fractious since its implementation in 1995.

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[1] ”History of Yugoslavia.” History of Kosovo and Metohija. Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Raska and Prizre, (accessed 15 Mar. 2014).

[2] Alex N. Dragnich, The First Yugoslavia. New ed. Ser. 1. Stanford: Hoover Institution, 1983. 4.

[3] Dragnich, The First Yugoslavia. 6.

[4] Concentration of power and authority in a central organization, as in a political system.

[5] A system of government in which sovereignty is constitutionally divided between a central governing authority and constituent political units (such as states or provinces). Federalism is a system based upon democratic rules and institutions in which the power to govern is shared between national and provincial/state governments, creating what is often called a federation.

[6] ”History of Yugoslavia.” History of Kosovo and Metohija. Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Raska and Prizre, (accessed 15 Mar. 2014).

[7] Adam Jones, Genocide:  A Comprehensive Introduction, (New York:  Routledge, 2011), 318.

[8] Frei, L. The American Review of Soviet and Eastern European Foreign Trade , Vol. 1, No. 5 (Sep. – Oct., 1965), pp. 44-62

[9] Richard West, Tito: And the Rise and Fall of Yugoslavia. (Carroll & Graf Inc, 1996).

[10] Jon C. Hopwood, “Biography for Josip Broz Tito.” <>. (accessed 19 March 2014).

[11] Jones, Genocide, 318.

[12] Adam Jones. Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction (New York City: Routledge, 2006)

[13] Samantha Power, A problem from hell:  America and the Age of Genocide (New York:  Harper Perennial, 2002), 247.

[14] Samantha Power, “A Problem From Hell:” America and the Age of Genocide.

[15] Adam Jones. Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction

[16] Samantha Power, “A Problem From Hell:” America and the Age of Genocide.

Other resources:

The Conflicts.” International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Accessed 2 May 2013.
Bosnia-Herzegovina.” Central Intelligence Agency. 7 May 2013. Accessed 15 May 2013.
The Fate of the Jews Across Europe: Murder of the Jews of the Balkans and Slovakia.” Yad Vashem. 2013. Accessed 16 May 2013.
Darehhori, Sara. “Weighing the Evidence: Lessons from the Slobodan Milosevic Trial,” Human Rights Watch 18, no. 10-D (2006): 7.
Power, Samantha. “A Problem From Hell:” America and the Age of Genocide. New York City: Harper Perennial, 2003.
Umar, Ayesha. “From Bosnian Rape Camps to the US Court: The Story of Kadic v. Karadzic.” 2011.

This page was written by Sandro Krkljes, Research Associate. This page was updated on November 18, 2014.