The Bosnian Genocide

For over sixty years, various educational, religious, and governmental groups have labored to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive in hopes that remembering this horrific event will prevent something like it from ever happening again. While that is certainly a commendable goal, it is one that, unfortunately, has yet to be achieved. Several other genocides took place following the Holocaust, one of the most famous being the Bosnian genocide that occurred in southeastern Europe near the end of the twentieth century.

The Bosnian genocide is an enormously complex event, and there remain disagreements to this day as to the extent of the genocide. A minority even alleges that no genocide occurred at all. This article represents an attempt to synthesize much of the information about the Bosnian war and offer a brief overview of the genocide in Bosnia.

Prelude to War and Genocide

From 1918 until the early 1990s, many of the Slavic peoples in southeastern Europe lived together in Yugoslavia, a country cobbled together from various ethnic groups that lived in the area. Consisting of eight states or provinces, two of which were Bosnia and Herzegovina (hereafter, Bosnia) and Serbia, Yugoslavia was part of the communist empire based in Moscow until the weakening of the Soviet Union prompted the peoples under its control to seek independence. The various peoples who made up Yugoslavia were no different in their desire for freedom from Soviet rule.

Prior to the Bosnian genocide, the population of Bosnia was ethnically about 43% Bosniak, a people group that is traditionally Muslim. A large population of ethnic Serbs, somewhere around 30% of the population of Bosnia, made up a sizeable minority. This group traditionally professes Eastern Orthodox Christianity, just like their fellow Serbs that made up about 84% of neighboring Serbia. The presence of large groups of ethnic Serbs living outside of Serbia, the fluidity of national boundaries that comes from centuries of conflict, and religious differences all contributed to animosity between the Serbs and the Bosniaks.

A Gruesome Lesson in Genocide — comprehensive overview of the genocide in Bosnia

United Nations: Prevent Genocide in Bosnia — reprint from a newspaper article written just before the Bosnian Genocide

War in Bosnia

In 1992, Bosnia declared independence, but many Bosnian Serbs had no desire to be part of a new Bosniak-controlled state because they identified with Serbia, not Bosnia. Living throughout Bosnia, most of these Serbs had great admiration for Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia’s leader who controlled the former Yugoslavian army and was seeking to extend the territory of Serbia. He found ready allies in the large number of Bosnian Serbs and supported them when they began a siege of the city of Sarajevo in Bosnia in April of 1992.

Over the next 3 years, conflict continued between the Bosnian Serbs and resident Bosniaks. During this time, NATO performed several airstrikes to destroy Serbian weapons and help the Bosniaks, and in 1995 the war ended with the signing of the Dayton Accords.

History of the War in Bosnia — Center for Balkan Development page on the war that prompted genocide in Bosnia

The Genocide

Details of the genocide are disputed, as many of the Bosnian Serbs view the conflict as a civil war while Bosniaks view the war as one of Serbian aggression. In any case, it seems clear that while there are aspects of the war that have not been officially declared genocide, there was a policy of ethnic cleansing pursued on the part of the Bosnian Serbs and the Bosnian Croats (a Roman Catholic minority population) to create majority Serbian or Croatian areas of Bosnia that would be easier for Serbia and Croatia, respectively, to annex.

What has been officially declared genocide, however, is the massacre at the town of Srebrenica in Bosnia in July of 1995. This area, which was supposed to be a safe zone for Bosniak Muslims, fell under attack from Bosnian Serbs after NATO began airstrikes against the Bosnian Serb forces. Approximately 8,000 Bosnian men and teenage boys were captured, killed by firing squads, and buried in mass graves. Somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 other Bosnian refugees also suffered rape and other atrocities at the hands of the Bosnian Serbs.

Bosnia 1995 — Peace Pledge Union article on the Bosnian genocide

• Gendercide: Bosnia — a focus on the Bosnian’s genocide targeting of male victims

Genocide Studies Program — study of the Bosnian episode from Yale University

The Rohde to Srebrenica — all about one reporter’s investigation of genocide in Bosnia

Siege of Srebrenica — a timeline of the scene where many were killed during the Bosnian war

Aftermath and Lasting Effects

Many individuals were indicted for genocide following the war, but only one has actually been convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, a court set up to prosecute those who committed genocide. In 2001, Radislav Krstic, the general of the Bosnian Serb army was convicted of genocide and sentenced to 46 years in prison. Slobodan Milosevic was also indicted, but he died before his case could come to trial.

Aside from the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal, there have been several other consequences of the Bosnian Genocide. NATO’s use of military power was its first use of military force in its history. A United Nations’ peacekeeping force remains in Kosovo, a former part of Yugoslavia adjacent to Bosnia and Serbia, to police the country and prevent future wars and horrors.

• Ethnic Cleansing in Kosovo — official U.S. State Department report on genocide in Bosnia

• International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia — the U.N. court where cases related to the Bosnian genocide are heard

This is just a simple overview of the Bosnian genocide, but from it one can learn many lessons about how to prevent such horrors in the future. First, the United Nations and foreign diplomats must take ethnic and religious ties between peoples in newly independent states more seriously in the future with an eye to recognizing possible ethnic problems before they begin. Second, the lessons of the past must continue to be told so as to never forget humanity’s capacity for great evil. The second mankind thinks it is not capable of such horrors again is the second that they are repeated. Finally, because NATO bombings contributed to the enactment of genocide, nations of the world must take greater care before using force lest their intervention make matters worse.