The fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent end of the Cold War in 1989 encouraged several experts, observers, and policymakers to argue that the world was finally entering a new era which would be characterized by stability and long-lasting peace. Some commentators went as far as to declare the ‘end of history’. The early post-Cold War years were generally characterized by a widespread sense of euphoria and anticipation in much of the Western World.

However, such accounts, unfortunately, soon proved to be overly optimistic. Instead of a smooth transition to a peaceful era, the last decade of the 20th century witnessed a series of bloody civil conflicts and wars, which in many cases were characterized by mass atrocities and grave violations of human rights. Even though events like the Rwandan genocide caused a massive shock to the world,  the single event that arguably impinged the most on global consciousness and attracted the most media coverage and diplomatic effort at the time, was the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Lasting between April 1992 and October 1995, the Bosnian war was the bloodiest among a series of conflicts that led to the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Although there are still disagreements among experts on the roots and main causes of the conflict, most seem to agree that mobilization of ethnic and religious identities played a critical role.

Formed right after the Second World War, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was a federation comprised of six republics (Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia) and two autonomous provinces within Serbia (Kosovo and Vojvodina). Even though there was a dominant nationality in each republic, some of them had considerable populations from other ethnic groups. Bosnia was the most ethnically mixed of the republics. Muslims, or Bosniaks were the majority, followed by Serbs and Croats. In Bosnian urban areas, a pluralistic secular culture was flourishing.

The vibrant Bosnian city of Mostar. Its famous bridge became a symbol of the war. Photo: Dennis Jarvis/Flickr.

In order to keep the federation stable, the ruler of Yugoslavia, Jozip Broz Tito, established a system of checks and balances to ensure that no ethnic group would become dominant. Therefore, ethnic identities were effectively repressed.  The common Yugoslav identity derived to a large extent from the partisans’ struggle during the Second World War and from Yugoslavia’s leading role in the Non-Aligned Movement.  The country’s slogan was “brotherhood and unity”.

Even though Yugoslavia was more liberal compared to other Eastern European socialist states and managed to achieve a certain degree of economic development, during the 1970s its economy began to shake, as it was met with high inflation and unemployment. The persistent economic insecurity and the death of Tito in 1980 played a catalytic role in the gradual withering of the legitimacy of the Yugoslav identity, and by extension, the Yugoslav federation.

Throughout the 1980s, ethno-nationalist sentiments were on the rise. In the first multi-party elections that took place in 1990, all communist parties lost power to nationalist parties, with the exceptions of Serbia and Montenegro. In Bosnia, the parties which claimed to represent each ethnic group received over 70 percent of the total votes. Nationalist rhetoric was becoming increasingly heated on all sides. 

The Yugoslav wars and the breakup of Yugoslavia began after Slovenia’s and Croatia’s declaration of independence in June 1991. Even though in the case of Slovenia the fighting was limited to a 10-day clash, in Croatia fighting between the newly independent Republic of Croatia and separatist Croat Serbs with the support of Yugoslav Army, which was gradually coming under the control of Serbia, was intense. Events like the battle of Vukovar and the siege of Dubrovnik showcased the brutality of that war.  Nevertheless, violence and brutality reached unprecedented levels during the Bosnian war that broke out a year afterwards.

The main parties that were involved in the conflict were the Bosniaks/Muslims, the Serbs and the Croats. The political goal of the Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats, supported by Serbia and Croatia respectively, was to establish ethnically homogenous territories which would be incorporated to Serbia and Croatia. In other words, the aim was the partition of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Bosnian government, which was dominated by the Muslims, aimed for the territorial integrity of the republic. Even though the Bosniaks and the Bosnian Croats collaborated in the early phases of the war, in 1993 they also started fighting against each other, until they reached an agreement in 1994.

The city of Sarajevo in 1996. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

One of the prominent characteristics of the Bosnian war was the systematic employment of violent ethnic cleansing in the forms of direct massacre and forced population removals, primarily against Bosniaks. Throughout the years of the conflict, several war crimes and crimes against humanity occurred by all sides to the conflict, as well as by the various paramilitary groups, which reportedly committed the biggest atrocities. Events that shocked the world included the 1425 days siege of the capital city of Bosnia, Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre of 1995. The Srebrenica massacre was a killing of more 8000 Muslim men and boys by the Bosnian Serb Army in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica. Even though the area was characterized as a “safe area” under UN protection, and despite the presence of UN peacekeepers, it was easily overrun by the Bosnian Serb forces. Srebrenica massacre was recognized as a genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 2004.

Srebrenica massacre memorial. Photo: Jelle Visser/Flickr.

The war finally came to an end on December 1995, when after NATO airstrikes, the opposing parties sat on the negotiations table and signed the Dayton Agreement. The agreement divided Bosnia and Herzegovina in two autonomous entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina with a Muslim and Croat majority, and the Republika Srpska with a Serb majority. This is also roughly the political structure of the present-day state.

Even though the country is peaceful for more than two decades, the wounds of the devastating war are still open. As a series of recent sentences for high profile figures of the war, such as the wartime president of Republika Srpska, Radovan Karadzic and the general of the Bosnian Serb Army, Ratko Mladić for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the Srebrenica genocide, showed, people are still divided and keep sharing different narratives of what happened during the war. The same individuals who are criminals for some, are heroes for others. The war in Bosnia, together with various other conflicts of the 1990s, illustrated how violent a conflict can turn when hate rhetoric based on identities is mobilized for political purposes.

Giorgos Koukos

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