Bosnia-Herzegovina: Twenty Years Later

Background  

Located in southeast Europe on the Balkan Peninsula, Bosnia-Herzegovina (Bosnia) is a nation whose ethnic and religious diversity and divisions are almost as complex as its history. The country, which is bordered on the north, west, and south by Croatia, on the east by Serbia, and on the southeast by Montenegro, is almost entirely landlocked with only a small section of the nation having access to the Adriatic Sea. Muslim Bosniaks comprise the majority of Bosnia’s population, however, a sizeable portion are Eastern Orthodox Serbs and Roman Catholic Croats.

Bosnia, formerly part of the Ottoman Empire, was annexed to Austria-Hungary in 1908. The decline of Austria-Hungary at the end of World War I – a war sparked by the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Bosnian Serb student in the Bosnia Capital Sarajevo – led to Bosnia becoming part of the Kingdom of Serb, Croats and Slovenes (later renamed Yugoslavia).  Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia in 1941 led not only to the annexation of Bosnia to the Independent State of Croatia – a puppet of Nazi Germany, but also to the slaughter of thousands of Jews, Serbs, Gypsies, political opponents and communists (Partisians) at the hands of Croatian Fascists, Ustaše – the entity governing the Independent States of Croatia.  Although the Ustaše led in the violence and atrocities in Bosnia during this time, Serb nationalist – Chetniks—who had aligned with Nazi Germany also committed indiscriminate killings and terror attacks against Bosnian Muslims, Croats, and Partisians. The rise of the Partisians led by Josip Broz Tito, along with support of the Allied forces, allowed the Partisians to seize power in 1945 and establish the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.  The Federation remained stable until 1980 when Tito died.  Although there were economic issues, ethnic conflict, and rising nationalism prior to Tito’s death, these issues intensified after 1980 and led to the rise of extreme nationalists in both Serbia and Croatia. Ultimately, however, it was the Serbian nationalism led by Slobodan Milošević that sparked what is known as the Bosnia-Herzegovinia War.

With the goal of creating a “Greater Serbia” Serb nationalists attacked Croatia and began the “ethnic cleansing” of the nation state, killing and expelling non-Serb ethnic groups.  By 1992, “ethnic cleansing” by Serb nationalist had begun in Bosnia and the country was at full-scale war.  Bosnian Serbs, led by Radovan Karadzic, who  had aligned with Serb nationalists, committed genocide against Bosnian Muslims and Croats through the use of murder, rape, torture, confinement, deportations and attacks on homes, businesses, and property.  On April 6, 1992, Bosnian Serbs began the siege of Sarajevo which would last almost four years and result in over 12,000 people being killed or going missing. In 1995 the safe haven in Srebrenica was overrun by Bosnia Serbs. This event, which could be considered the greatest example of barbarism during the war, resulted in the massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslims boys and men.  The war ended with the signing of the Dayton Agreement in Paris, France on December 14, 1995. By the end of the war over 200,000 people had died, been injured or disappeared and millions of people had been displaced.

Why is the war relevant today?     

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Bosnia-Herzegovina War. While two decades have passed, the remnants of the war are still widely visible both inside and outside the country.  War criminals are still being tried in front of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, situated in The Hague, and the country continues to be plagued by ethnic divisions, a weak central government, a corrupt justice system, and high unemployment.  The fear among many is that if these issues continue to go unresolved, they could be the catalyst for events similar to the atrocities and genocide experienced during the Bosnia-Herzegovina War.

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