The Bosnian referendum for independence took place on April 6, 1992. That day, Serb militants opened fire on thousands of peaceful demonstrators in Sarajevo, killing at least five and wounding 30. One day later, Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic responded by blocking all roads leading to Sarajevo and shutting down the airport. About 400,000 Bosnian residents were trapped in the siege while being cut off from basic life necessities such as food, medicine, water, and electricity. Food shortage was a huge issue for those who managed to survive death by ammunition. An average Sarajevan lost 30 lbs during the siege (1). According to UN officials in 1994, 7,272 flights brought in 81,948 tons of aid into Sarajevo via humanitarian airlift. However, due to airport closings and airlift suspensions caused by shelling and sniping attacks in the area, this effort was often suspended (2).
A number of tragic events took place during the siege. On June 1, 1993 at a soccer game, at least fifteen people were killed and 80 more were wounded as a result of a mortar attack. Red Cross trucks were raided and destroyed and maternity wards were hit, killing mothers and newborns alike. Many more were killed while in line for water. On February 29, 1996, the Bosnian government declared that the siege of Sarajevo was over but the scars still remain. By the end, its population had decreased by over 430,000. Not all of those people died though, many were able to escape via an 800-meter wood and iron tunnel. After opening in the summer of 1993, it was the only direct link Sarajevo had with the outside world. It was used to transport everything from weapons to wounded people.
Other massacres included the Lasva Valley case (1991) where the first destruction of mosques and Bosnian homes, the first murders of civilians, and the first acts of pillage occurred. Around 2,000 community members disappeared or were killed at this time.
The Ahatovici massacre of 1992 saw heavy shelling by the Bosnian Serb Army. Sixty-four males between 15 and 75 years of age were taken away and tortured. They were put on a bus after being told that they would be part of a prisoner exchange. The Serbs then fired on the bus with automatic weapons and threw grenades in. Eight of them survived by hiding under the dead bodies of the other fifty-six men.
Another atrocity, where Bosnian men were told they were part of prisoner exchange, happened on Mount Vlasic in August 1992. 200 men were brought to the edge of a ravine at Koricani, shot and pushed over the 100-meter high cliff. Twelve victims survived by hanging on to the bushes and hiding in them but suffered further abuse while being treated for their wounds at the hospital.
The biggest conflict between Croats and the Bosnian government was the Ahmici massacre of Apri, 1993. No one was spared when the Croat forces shelled the Bosnian part of the village and destroyed two mosques as the youngest victim was a three-month-old baby boy who was machine-gunned to death in his crib. The oldest victim was a 96-year-old woman. They were two of the 120 estimated deaths that day.
Between 1992 and 1994 in Foca, all Bosnians were expelled from the area. Some 2,704 people are missing or were killed during the massacres period. Additionally, Serb authorities set up locations – commonly described as rape camps – in which hundreds of women were raped. Aside from rape, the campaign against non-Serb civilians in the region also included ethnic cleansing, mass murder, and the deliberate destruction of Bosnian property and cultural sites.
In the early evening hours of May 25, 1995, the Army of Republika Srpska shelled a gathering of young people in the city of Tuzla. 71 people were killed and more than 200 wounded. All of the victims were civilians and the majority was between the ages of 18-25. Three days later they were shelled from the same position.
With many more massacres to name, the genocide lasted from Bosnia’s secession from Yugoslavia in 1990 to the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement. In October, 1992, EU’s Lord David Owen and former I.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance proposed a draft constitution organizing Bosnia into a decentralized federation according to the “Vance-Owen” plan. Bosnian Serbs rejected this plan. Then in 1994, the United States decided to take on a more active role, seeking to back diplomacy with the threat of NATO air power in protecting safe areas and UN peacekeepers. That same year the US special envoy helped to reach a cease-fire between Bosnian Croats and Muslims. Shortly after, a five nation Contact Group (United States, Russia, Britain, France,a nd Germany) drafted the 51/49 territorial compromise that all sides eventually accepted. The Dayton Peace Agreement allotted 51% of the country to the Croat-Muslim Federation and 49% to Republika Srpska, or the Serb Republic. This took place from November 1 to November 21, 1995. The main participants from the region were Serbian President Slobodan Milosavic, Croatian President Franjo Tudman, and Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, with Bosnian Foreign Minister Muhamed “Mo” Sacirbey. After its initiation in Dayton, Ohio, the full agreement was signed in Paris, France on December 14, 1995. Other politicians of importance that signed the document were French President Jacques Chirac, U.S. President Bill Clinton, UK Prime Minister John Major, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and Russian Prime Minister Vikto Chernonmyrdin. Part of the agreement mandated international organizations to monitor, oversee, and implement crucial parts of the agreement. One of the major criticisms of this agreement, though, is that the current legal structure of the peace agreement does not follow some of the basic principles of international law, thus leaving the Bosnian territorial and political situation highly unstable and sensitive since 1995 when it was implemented.
In 1996, SFOR (stabilization force) sent 20,000 American troops to prevent new hostilities. According to Richard Holbrooke, the chief architect of the Dayton Peace Agreement, the country would not have survived without the presence of the troops. Also, contrary to popular belief before their deployment, no lives have been lost among those peacekeepers.
Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and Franjo Tudjman of Croatia used public media in their respective domains and turned television and radio into effective propaganda tools that intensified tensions between Serbs and Croats while demonizing the Muslims. At the same time, they were suppressing independent media advocating for multi-ethnic coexistence. Milosevic, who is a declared war criminal, aimed at reviving dark memories of World War II, Ustasa’s (Croatian Nazi-like movement) killing of Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies. He did so by exhuming mass graves of Serbs and using those as proof that the Croats are enemies thus legitimizing his attacks on their lands.
Tudjman, who also carries the title of a declared war criminal, “rehabilitated” the genocidal Ustasha regime. He proposed that the new Croatian coat of arms look similar to the one used by Ustaha’s in WWII. He was even a proponent of renaming streets in Croatia after Ustasha leaders.
Radovan Karadzic, president of the illegitimate Bosnian Serb Republic, joins the other two as a declared war criminal. Bosnian Serbs operated under his leadership but he denied their involvement in the genocide.
The Serbian perpetrators came in primarily through Eastern and Northern Bosnia. The Serb paramilitary units crossed the rivers into Bijeljina and began a campaign of terror. Their use of force, intimidation, and provocation was aimed at partitioning Bosnia and displacing non-Serbs from mixed areas even if Serbs were a minority there. They murdered defenseless civilians and drove the rest from their homes and businesses, which were then looted and destroyed. All sides of the conflict committed the so-called “ethnic cleansing” but the scale and intensity at which the Serbs did it made it a clear genocide against Musims. Serbs were specifically targeting intellectuals, professionals, and political leaders in an attempt to eradicate the Bosnian Muslim culture. The UN Genocide Convention, in its definition of genocide, considers this an integral part of a crime on a specific ethnic group.
The massacre, which occurred in Srebrenica in July of 1995, was the largest massacre in Europe since World War II. The town was surrounded by Serb-controlled territory but was declared a UN “safe area” thus promising the residents protection from Serb terror. Serb authorities refused the UN permission to deliver food, medical supplies, and other humanitarian necessities to those in Srebrenica. Not only were the residents lacking supplies, but the town was also swollen with “cleansed” refugees from the surrounding area. Beginning on July 12, 1995, over 20,000 Bosnian women, children, and elderly were bussed out ot the front line to Muslim-controlled territory. They were separated from their men and boys who were taken by buses to execution sites where they were mowed down by automatic weapons and machine guns. All in all, 8,000 Bosnian males from Srebrenica were systematically slaughtered in this carefully planned operation. They were then hauled to mass graves.
Of the female victims of genocide, the vast majority were Muslim men who took orders from Serb authorities were sometimes told to impregnate the women as a means of destroying the Bosnian Muslim people. Women and young girls were subject to rape in front of their own parents and family members. These atrocities happened in their homes when the paramilitary units attacked their towns. Gang rape was also common and in some camps, women were held captive for use as sex slaves.
The Yugoslav leader, Josip Broz Tito, died in 1980. This allowed Slobodan Milosevic, who became Serbia’s leader in 1987, to also become the leader of Yugoslavia. With the power that he had, Milosevic encouraged Serb nationalism in other Yugoslav states such as Bosnia. This resulted in secret concentration, mass killings, as well as destruction of Muslim mosques and historic architechture. Despite media reports of this, the world community remained mostly indifferent.
Serb-run camps in Northern Bosnia were symbolic of all that is inhumane. People were pressed tightly into barracks and deprived of basic life necessities. Sadly, most resorted to quenching their thirst with excretion. Not every one of the 14,000 Muslim men in the camps of Northern Bosnia was marked for death (as was seen in the Holocaust) but due to the poor living conditions in those camps, over 10,000 died anyways. U.S. officials became aware of these concentration camps as early as May of 1992, but this did not prevent any of the 677 detention centers or camps to stop incarcerating people. The worst of the camps was Omarska. Here, thousands of civilian men, both Muslim and Croat, were held in metal cages and killed in group of ten to fifteen every few days. Serbs denied access to all those who wanted to investigate their camps, including relief officials and journalists. As in the Holocaust, the Serbs wanted to hide what was happening. Brutality included grinding Muslim bodies into animal, among other atrocities.
Bosnians and Croats held Serbs in similar camps, but similar violence was not committed. In a 1993 UN document, it is reported that by late summer of 1993, 62 Serbs had died in Croat concentration camps. This number is significantly lower than the number of deaths on the other two sides, but it is still important to note that Serbs experience violence and death as well.
Eventually, the United Nations deployed troops to protect the distribution of food and medicine to dispossessed Muslims. However, the troops were not allowed to interfere militarily against the Serbs, even though the U.N. could eerily predict when each town or village was going to fall. Throughout 1993, confident that the U.N., United States, and the European Community would not take any military action, Serbs in Bosnia freely committed genocide against Muslims. On February 6, 1994, a plea was finally made to then-president Bill Clinton for military intervention against the Serbs after a mortar shell struck a marketplace in Sarjevo, killing 68 and wounding over 200 people. Clinton reacted by issuing an ultimatum through NATO, demanding that Serbs withdraw their artillery from Sarajevo. The Serbs compiled and a cease-fire was declared.
That did not stop the Serbs from continuing the genocide. They attacked safe havens as well as the U.N. peacekeepers. NATO’s response was to launch limited air strikes against Serbs’ ground positions, but that did not prevent the massacre in Srebrenica from happening.
Following the genocide, Srebrenica was re-inhabited by Serbs who moved in to occupy the Muslims’ homes. These Serbs were refugees themselves and were forced out of their homes by the Muslim and the Croat units. There is not much appeal left for those who were even considering going back to Srebrenica because their homes have been destroyed, there are no jobs, little water, and few supplies to go around. Clearly, people have not yet recovered from internal displacement, let alone international re-settlement.
Most places in the countryside are littered and in ruins, much like Srebrenica. Hundreds of thousands of those Bosnians who fled violence have not yet returned and one of the reasons for that is the high rate of unemployment that awaits them. Because most of the educated people are leaving for better opportunities and more promising futures abroad, this is causing a “brain drain” in Bosnia that further weakens any prospects for economic and socail recovery in the region.
While most criminals remain at large, trials were prepared for the following war criminals: Radocan Karadzic, Slobodan Milosevic, and Ratko Mladic.
Radovan Karadzic is charged with a wide range of crimes, from genocide to crimes against humanity to grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions. The formal ccharge of 1995 was for administering the killing of thousands of people by sniping and shelling in the siege of Sarajevo, and later for the Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 men and boys. He was arrested in Belgrade after being on the run for 13 years.
Slobodan Milosevic was indicted in May, 1999, but was found dead in his cell at The Hague on March 11, 2006. Therefore, his trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity has ended without a verdict.
Serbian war criminal Ratko Mladic has been indicted with genocide, extermination, murder, deportation, inhumane acts, and other crimes against Bosnian civilians, committed during the 1992-1995 Serbian aggression against Bosnia. A fugitive from the ICTY, he is suspected to be hidning either in Serbia or in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska. Pressure has been put on Serbia to hand him over to the court by halting negotiations with the EU regarding membership.
Currently, Bosnia is largely peaceful and troops are finally pulling out. Regardless, relations between the two newly created entities of Bosnia and Republika Srpska (Serb Republic) are still strained and cooperation is minimal at best.
*Majra Mucic of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies researched and wrote this description. CHGS is a partner of World Without Genocide.
(1) Donia 2006
(2) UN 1994