During the 1990s a number of ethnic conflicts took place in Yugoslavia among the six nations that lived there, which led to the dismantling of Yugoslavia. In the course of the Bosnian War from 1992 to 1995 approximately 100,000 people were murdered as part of an attempt by Serbia to preserve its rule over Bosnia through ethnic cleansing. In 1999 the Kosovo War broke out. Once again the Serbians attempted to carry out an ethnic cleansing, but this time an international force confronted them and prevented this potential genocide.
Yugoslavia had a long history of political, economic, and cultural conflict, as well as ethnic tension. From the end of World War II, the country was ruled by Tito, a communist dictator who ran the country until his death in 1980. The government was de-centralized, and each national group had its autonomy as part of the larger republic. Tito managed to maintain this situation for a long period of time and to keep the ethnic friction at a minimum during his regime. However, near the end of his life, the ethnic tensions were revived. As time passed and the Cold War ended, it became more and more clear that Tito’s communism was coming to an end and that nationalism would take its place.
In 1991, Slovenia, one of the Yugoslav republics, declared independence. The Serbs, led by Slobodan Milosevic, who opposed the breakup of Yugoslavia, started a war against the Slovenians. The war lasted 10 days, at the end of which Slovenia had achieved independence. This was the official beginning of the breakup of Yugoslavia, which lasted until 2001 and was characterized by a series of violent ethnic and national confrontations.
The Bosnian Genocide:
In April 1992, Bosnia was recognized as an independent country by the European community and the United States, but the struggle for Bosnian territorial sovereignty had not ended. Three main groups fought each other within the country: Bosnian Muslims, Serbs, and Croats. The international community tried to broker peace in the region, but did not succeed. The conflict was especially violent in the eastern part of Bosnia, near Serbia, between the Serbs and Bosnians. The Serbs, who opposed the creation of a Bosnian state within their territory, began to bomb major cities in Bosnia, including Sarajevo and Mostar, and also took hold of large areas of Bosnia in order to form a contiguous Serbian territory. The Serbian soldiers were urged on by a televised publicity campaign from the Serbian capital city of Belgrade; the campaign incited against the Muslims, who were described as fundamentalists who aimed to slaughter the Serbian nation.
From that point on, the Serbians conducted a genocide against Bosnians living in the areas under their control. As early as May 1992, they had begun to segregate between Muslims and Croats in northwest Bosnia and to send Muslims to concentration camps. The most famous camp was called Omarska, near the town of Prijedor in Northeast Bosnia. The prisoners in the camp were beaten, denied food and water, housed in horrific conditions, sexually assaulted, tortured, and finally killed. In Trnopolje, a women-only camp, the women were regularly raped by police and army personnel. The first goal of the Serbs was to wipe out the educated, the intellectuals, the wealthy, and any other non-Serbs who actively opposed their rule. Other civilians were forced into closed train cars and sent to areas ruled by Bosnia. These actions caused a mass exodus of Muslims out of Northwest Bosnia. Out of an initial population of 550,000 Muslims and Croats, by June 1994 fewer than 50,000 remained in their homes. The area had been “purified.”
The fate of Eastern Bosnia was no better. Thousands of Muslims from Sarajevo and its surrounding towns were arrested and sent to Foca prison, one of the largest in Yugoslavia. Women were separated from men and taken to public buildings or hotels, where they were beaten, tortured, and raped cruelly at the hands of hundreds of Serbian soldiers over the course of many months. Due to these incidents, many of the female captives lost all of their strength and suffered from a number of sexually transmitted infections. The Serbian soldiers would declare after rape that the women had given birth to “Serbian babies.”
In the wake of these events, the number of Bosnian refugees in Yugoslavia reached 1.4 million by November 1992, and this number grew as the war went on. This was the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.
Srebrenica is a city in Bosnia. The Serbs considered the area of the city strategically important and attempted to conquer it. After a number of battles between Bosnians and Serbs in the area, the United Nations in April 1993 declared Srebrenica a demilitarized protected area. The Serbian forces did not accept the decision and continued to send forces and ammunition to the area and to block the entry of supplies to Bosnian civilians. The condition of the civilians deteriorated until there were shortages of fuel, food, medicine, and ammunition. In July 1995, Serbian forces took control of Srebrenica unopposed.
Many civilians fled towards the nearby city of Potočari. About 20-25,000 Bosnian refugees arrived in Potočari on a single day, July 11th. The shortage of basic supplies led to atrocious conditions in the city. On July 12th, Serbian soldiers went into the crowd of refugees and began selecting and killing people. By afternoon, dozens of bodies lay in the streets. The stories of rape and murder spread quickly and fear grew among the population.
On the morning of July 12, the Serbs segregated the men from the women and children. The women and children were sent by bus to the North, which was under Bosnian rule, while the men were taken to a neighborhood building known as “The White House” and held there. Later, it was reported that some of the men in the White House were simply shot to death. Over 60 trucks packed with Bosnian men were sent from Srebrenica to killing fields, where they were tied up, their eyes were covered, and they were shot to death with automatic weapons. Industrial bulldozers buried the bodies in mass graves. Approximately 8,000 men were killed.
Before the war, the population of Bosnia-Herzegovina numbered 4.4 million, 1.95 million of them (44%) Bosnian Muslims. Approximately 100,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed by the Serbs between 1992 and 1995.
The World’s Response to the Genocide:
The war in Bosnia was widely covered by the world media, and world public opinion denounced the actions of the Serbs. Despite this, no major steps were taken to end the genocide. Extensive international negotiations and deliberations regarding the question of intervention in Bosnia allowed the genocide to take place with no country acting to end it. Only in mid-1994 did the picture change. The United States intervened by offering Milosevic economic incentives in exchange for a peace agreement. A rift was created between Serbia headed by Milosevic and the Serbs in Bosnia. Violence continued until August 1995, when NATO forces began attacking the Serbs from the air, which led to the Serbs’ surrender and the end of the war in Bosnia. The Dayton Accords, signed after the war, split Bosnia into separate Serb and Muslim autonomous regions. The Serbs stayed in Bosnia.
The Prevention of Genocide in Kosovo:
Kosovo is a region of Yugoslavia with an Albanian majority and Serbian minority. During Tito’s regime and even for a time afterwards, the Albanians had autonomy in Kosovo, which led the Serbs to complain more than once of discrimination. Some Serbs even called it “Cultural Genocide.” In 1989, Milosevic rolled back Albanian autonomy in Kosovo. 70% of the Albanians employed in Kosovo lost their jobs, schools were banned from teaching in Albanian, and teachers that protested were fired. Albanians were cleared out of the university and all of the high schools.
In their beginning of their struggle the Albanians used non-violent means, but Serbian oppression in Kosovo grew as time went on, and the world, which was so closely following the events in Bosnia and Croatia, almost completely ignored the situation in Kosovo. The Albanians, led by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), decided to undertake a violent struggle.
In 1997, the Albanian regime collapsed due to an economic crisis and army bases began to be pillaged. Weapons became readily available, and many of the Albanians who until then had used non-violent methods joined the ranks of the KLA. The confrontations between the Serbs and the Albanians deteriorated into a civil war. In September 1998, the Serbian army attacked central Kosovo. Only then did Western countries, who at the same time were finally ending the war in Bosnia, call for an immediate ceasefire.
In March 1999, after the NATO ultimatum demanding that Milosevic leave Kosovo expired, NATO forces bombed Kosovo in order to protect the Albanian population. In response, Milosevic ordered the Serbian army to attack Kosovo. The Serbs conducted a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Each day, dozens of people were killed and almost 20,000 were expelled from their homes. In June 1999, NATO forces damaged the Yugoslavian electricity system. Shortly thereafter, Milosevic agreed to real negotiations. After his surrender, negotiations took place regarding the future of Kosovo, and in the final agreement, it was decided that Kosovo would be divided between its various populations. An international force would be stationed in the region in order to keep the peace and prevent the resumption of violence. Here, international intervention at a very early stage of the ethnic cleansing prevented much larger atrocities and massacres.
According to various estimates, about 1.2 million Kosovars fled their homes and only 500,000 remain in Kosovo today, most of them taking refuge in forests or moving from place to place. Approximately 100,000 have been declared missing and thousands more were killed. Many women were raped by Serbs, and money was stolen from refugees who tried to reach the country’s borders. Milosevic was indicted for war crimes at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
After the genocide:
Slobodan Milosevic was arrested in April 2001 and extradited to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. He was accused of involvement in the genocide in Bosnia and war crimes in Croatia. His trial began in February 2002. On March 11, 2006, before the end of the trial, Milosevic died from health complications.
A few of the other people responsible for war crimes and genocide during the war in Yugoslavia have been arrested and brought to trial. Western countries have put pressure on Serbia to extradite those involved who remain in Serbia. Serbia’s cooperation over the years has been limited and sporadic. In 2007, the International Criminal Court in The Hague decided to define the Srebrenica massacre as genocide and declared that Serbia had violated its responsibility to prevent genocide. A number of Serbian government officials have been accused of war crimes and genocide. On February 17, 2008, Kosovo declared its independence. Approximately 75 countries recognize it, but Kosovo is not a member of the United Nations due to a veto from Russia, which opposes Kosovo’s membership.