Genocide is not an alien concept to the world nowadays. However, while the reality (and the culprit) is not hard to profile today, history is ridden with massacres that were draped and concealed from the world beyond. Genocides that rivaled the great warfares and were so gruesome that the ring of brutality still pulsates in the historical narrative of humanity. We journey back to one such genocide that was named the most brutish mass slaughter after World War II. We revisit the Bosnian War (1992-95) which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 100,000 innocent Bosnian citizens and displaced millions. The savage nature of the war was such that the war crimes committed constituted a whole new definition to how we describe genocide.
The historical backdrop helps us gauge the complex relations and motivations which resulted in such chaotic warfare to follow suit. Post World War II, the then People’s Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina joined the then Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. Bosnia-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 pervaded all over Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina began losing its religion-cultural identity. Since Bosnia-Herzegovina mainly comprised of a Muslim population, later known as the Bosniaks, the spread of socialism resulted in the abolition of many Muslim institutions and traditions. And while the transition to the reformed Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1963 did ease the ethnic pressure, the underlying radical ideology and sentiments never fully subsided.
The Bosniaks started to emerge as the majority demographic of Bosnia and by 1971, the Bosniaks constituted as the single largest component of the entire Bosnia-Herzegovina population. However, the trend of emigration picked up later in the decades; the Serbs and the Croats adding up to their tally throughout most of the 70s and mid-80s. The Bosnian population was characterized as a tripartite society, that is, comprised of three core ethnicities: Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats. Till 1991, the ethnic majority of the Bosniaks was heavily diluted down to just 44% while the Serbian emigrants concentrated the Serbian influence; making up 31% of the total Bosnian population.
While on one side of the coin, Bosnia-Herzegovina was being flooded with Serbs inching a way to gain dominance, the Yugoslavian economy was consistently perishing on the other side. While the signs of instability were apparent in the early 80s, the decade was not enough for the economy to revive. In the late 80s, therefore, political dissatisfaction started to take over and multiple nationalist parties began setting camps. The sentiments diffused throughout the expanse of Yugoslavia and nationalists sensed an imminent partition. Bosnia-Herzegovina, like Croatia, followed through with an election in 1990 which resulted in an expected tripartite poll roughly similar to the demographic of Bosnia. The representatives resorted to form a coalition government comprising of Bosniak-Serb-Craot regime sharing turns at the premiership. While the ethnic majority Bosniaks enjoyed the first go at the office, the tensions soon erupted around Bosnia-Herzegovina as Serbs turned increasingly hostile.
The lava erupted in 1991 as the coalition government of Bosnia withered and the Serbian Democratic Party established its separate assembly in Bosnia known as ‘Serbian National Assembly’. The move was in line with a growing sentiment of independence that was paving the dismantling of Yugoslavia. The Serbian Democratic Party long envisioned a dominant Serbian state in the Balkans and was not ready to participate in a rotational government when fighting was erupting in the neighboring states. When Croatia started witnessing violence and the rise of rebels in 1992, the separatist vision of the Serbs was further nourished as the Serbian Democratic Party, under the leadership of Serb Leader Radovan Karadžić, established an autonomous government in the Serb Majority areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The vision and the actions remained docile until the ring of independence was echoed throughout the region. When the European Commission (EC), now known as the European Union (EU), and the United States recognized the independence of both Croatia and Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina found itself in a precarious position. While a safe bet would have been to undergo talks and diplomatic routes to engage the Serbian Democratic Party, the Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović failed to realize the early warnings of an uprising. Instead of forging negotiations with the Bosnian Serbs, the Bosniak President resorted to mirror Croatia by organizing a referendum of independence bolstered by both the EC and the US. Even as the referendum was blocked in the Serb autonomous regions of Bosnia, Izetbegović chose to pass through and announced the results. As soon as the Bosnian Independence from Yugoslavia was announced and recognized, fighting erupted throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The Bosnian Serbs feared that their long-envisioned plan of establishing the ‘Great Serbia’ in the Balkans was interred which resulted in chaos overtaking most of Bosnia. The blame of the decision, however, was placed largely on the Bosniak president and, by extension, the entire ethnic majority of the Bosniaks. The Bosnian Serbs started to launch attacks in the east of Bosnia; majorly targeting the Bosniak-dominated towns like Foča, Višegrad, and Zvornik. Soon the Bosnian Serb forces were joined by the local paramilitary rebels as well as the Yugoslavian army as the attacks ravaged the towns with large Bosniak populations; swathing the land in the process. The towns were pillaged and pressed into control whilst the local Bosniaks and their Croat counterparts were either displaced, incarcerated, or massacred.
While the frail Bosnian government managed to join hands with the Croatian forces across the border, the resulting offense was not nearly enough as the combination of Serb forces, rebel groups, and the Yugoslavian army took control of almost two-thirds of the Bosnian territory. The Karadžić regime refused to hand over the captured land in the rounds of negotiations. And while the war stagnated, the Bosniak locals left behind in small pockets of war-ravaged areas faced the brunt in the name of revenge and ethnic cleansing.
As Bosniaks and Croats formed a joint federation as the last resort, the Serbian Democratic Party established the Republic Srpska in the captured East, and the military units were given under the command of the Bosnian-Serb General, Ratko Mladic. The notorious general, known as the ‘Butcher of Bosnia’, committed horrifying war crimes including slaughtering the Bosniak locals captured in violence, raping the Bosniak women, and violating the minors in the name of ethnic cleansing exercises. While the United Nations refused to intervene in the war, the plea of the helpless Bosniaks forced the UN to at least deliver humanitarian aid to the oppressed. The most gruesome of all incidents were marked in July 1995, when an UN-declared safe zone, known as Srebrenica, was penetrated by the forces led by Mladic whilst some innocent Bosniaks took refuge. The forces brutally slaughtered the men while raped the women and children. An estimated 7000-8000 Bosniak men were slaughtered in the most grotesque campaign of ethnic cleansing intended to wipe off any trace of Bosniaks from the Serb-controlled territory.
In the aftermath of the barbaric war crimes, NATO undertook airstrikes to target the Bosnian-Serb targets while the Bosniak-Croat offense was launched from the ground. In late 1995, the Bosnian-Serb forces conceded defeat and accepted US-brokered talks. The accords, also known as the ‘Dayton Accords’, resulted in a conclusion to the Bosnian War as international forces were established in the region to enforce compliance. The newly negotiated federalized Bosnia and Herzegovina constituted 51% of the Croat-Bosniak Federation and 49% of the Serb Republic.
The accord, however, was not the end of the unfortunate tale as the trials and international action were soon followed to investigate the crimes against humanity committed during the three-year warfare. While many Serb leaders either died in imprisonment or committed suicide, the malefactor of the Srebrenica Massacre, Ratko Mladic, went into hiding in 2001. However, Mladic was arrested after a decade in 2011 by the Serbian authorities and was tried in the UN-established International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY). The investigation revisited the malicious actions of the former general and in 2017, the ICTY found Ratko Mladic guilty of genocide and war crimes and sentenced him to life in prison. While Mladic appealed for acquittal on the inane grounds of innocence since not he but his subordinates committed the crimes, the UN court recently upheld the decision in finality; closing doors on any further appeals. After 26-years, the world saw despair in the eyes of the 78-year-old Mladic as he joined the fate of his bedfellows while the progeny of the victims gained some closure as the last Bosnian trail was cased on a note of justice.