Clockwise from the top-left: Slovene police escort captured Yugoslav army soldiers back to their unit during the 1991 Slovene war of independence; a destroyed tank during the Battle of Vukovar; Serb anti-tank missile installations during the siege of Dubrovnik; reburial of victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in 2010; a UN vehicle driving on the streets of Sarajevo during the siege of the city.
The Diplomatic Recognition of Slovenia and Croatia
On 25 June 1991, both Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence. Suddenly the international community was confronted with a number of contentious issues. Did the actions of these two republics constitute unlawful secession or had Yugoslavia simply collapsed into its constituent parts? Were the borders between the republics international boundaries or were they only administrative divisions? Was an international armed conflict developing or a civil war?
That the path to independence would be clouded by violence had been obvious for months. After declaring independence, the Slovenes took the first step toward establishing an international border to Croatia, and in response, the Yugoslav People’s Army occupied the border posts. Following the first armed confrontation, a “Ten-Day War” developed from which Slovenia emerged relatively unscathed, having lost eighteen soldiers, as opposed to forty-four dead JNA soldiers.
Shocked representatives of the European Community managed to convince Slovenia and Croatia to sign a ceasefire agreement on 7 July 1991 on the Adriatic island of Brioni. The republics also agreed to postpone their independence for three months and to start negotiations over the future of Yugoslavia and its eventual breakup. Subsequently, the Yugoslav government ordered the pullback of its army on 18 July, which meant, in essence, the recognition of Slovenia’s independence. Ever since this “little war,” the two-million-people republic has been very proud that it repelled the attack of the powerful Yugoslav People’s Army through its superior war strategy. However, Belgrade’s main concern at the time was not to prevent Slovenia’s independence but to keep the entire Serb population in a single nation state. Since very few Serbs lived in Slovenia, the conflict was quickly over.
Already in the spring of 1991, isolated incidents of violent clashes between Croatian Serbs and Croatian police forces occurred in places like Plitvice and Borovo Selo. It was, however, not until after Croatia’s declaration of independence on 25 June 1991 that larger armed conflicts erupted in the regions of Banija, Dalmatia, and Slavonia between Croatian armed forces, on the one hand, and the Yugoslav People’s Army and rebel Serb forces, on the other. The first mass killing of Croatian civilians and soldiers by local Serb units occurred in Kozibrod on 26 July 1991, followed by atrocities in other villages in Slavonia, Banija, and Dalmatia and in the town of Vukovar.
As key political and military leaders—including Serbia’s member of the federal presidency, Borisav Jović, and JNA admiral Branko Mamula—have acknowledged, plans were already in place in summer 1991 to create a new rump-Yugoslavia that encompassed Croatia’s and Bosnia’s Serb populations. The People’s Army General Staff had decided to “defend” Serbs living in Croatia and to strive for full control over Bosnia-Herzegovina. Another aim was to “create and defend a new Yugoslav state with those people who so desired it, currently the Serbs and the Montenegrins.”
The Croatian government decided on 14 September 1991 to attack all garrisons of the People’s Army, which prompted the Yugoslav General Staff to respond by launching a major offensive from eastern Slavonia, expelling non-Serbs from the areas over which they took control. Yugoslav troops surrounded the city of Vukovar and shelled its center. Serb paramilitary units invaded the city and its surrounding areas, leaving a bloody trail of horror behind them. For weeks, the baroque city suffered from massive bombardment until, reduced to rubble, it surrendered in November. The historic city of Dubrovnik, “the pearl of the Adriatic,” was attacked in October 1991. Within a few weeks the embattled region came completely under the control of the rebellious Serbs. The Croat population, a total of more than half a million people, were systematically driven out or fled. On 19 December 1991, President Milan Babić proclaimed the formation of the “Republic of Serb Krajina,” the capital of which was Knin.
The international community had few tools for managing such a crisis at the time. International crisis management was still considered an inadmissible external intervention in the domestic affairs of another state. Moreover, international law was contradictory. On the one hand, the United Nations Charter protected a people’s right to self-determination, a right that Slovenia and Croatia invoked, but on the other, it obliged its members to safeguard sovereignty and the territorial integrity of states, which is what Belgrade insisted on. However, the Yugoslav problem was not just a question of international law, it was also a political dilemma to which various answers could be found. Germany and Austria supported the efforts of the republics of Slovenia and Croatia to become independent, while the UN Secretary General and the governments in London, Paris, and Washington wished to see the unity of Yugoslavia maintained. Although these positions seemed to be subliminally reminiscent of the loyalties to their First World War alliances, what Paris, London, and Moscow actually feared above all else was that the precedent being set by Slovenia and Croatia would trigger a chain reaction of declarations of independence.
After Jacques Poos, foreign minister of Luxembourg, proclaimed rather grandiloquently that “this is the hour of Europe,” the European Community hosted a peace conference in The Hague on 7 September 1991. Yet all attempts to mediate and all threats of sanctions came to nothing.9 Innumerable ceasefires were broken. It was not until Cyrus Vance, special envoy of the UN secretary-general, proposed to send Blue Helmets into the disputed areas in November 1991 that the Yugoslav People’s Army pulled out of Croatia. Following a UN-brokered truce in January 1992, an international United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) was deployed a month later in those areas in Croatia where Serbs constituted the majority or a substantial minority of the population, with the aim of preparing for a political solution to this conflict. Although many refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) could return to their places of origin, the number of Croats living within the Krajina had fallen from 353,595 to 18,200 by 1993–1994. On the other hand, tens of thousands of Serbs fled Croatia. By mid-October 1991, 78,555 refugees from Croatia had arrived in Serbia.
Contrary to his Luxembourgian counterpart, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the German foreign minister, thought in the spring of 1991 that Yugoslavia had already effectively broken apart into its constitutive parts, which was why the independence of Slovenia and Croatia were not to be seen as acts of secession violating international law but as legitimate legal acts. For this reason he sought to gain formal recognition of the two new states, especially since the German foreign ministry (as well as Austria’s foreign office) believed that the Yugoslav People’s Army could be deterred from undertaking larger military actions if the conflict was internationalized. However, in London and Paris it was feared that a diplomatic fait accompli would only heat up the crisis militarily, since formal recognition would then deprive the international community of its only diplomatic leverage for an overall political solution. On 23 December 1991, Bonn duped its partners by officially recognizing Slovenia and Croatia unilaterally. The German public was disturbed to witness war and the plight of the refugees in neighboring regions, and media like the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung never tired of condemning what they called Serbian-Orthodox barbarism, against which the Catholic countries of Slovenia and Croatia had to defend themselves. Following decades of reticence and restraint in international relations, the German government also saw this crisis as the first favorable moment since its own reunification in 1990 to assume a more prominent role on the stage of international politics, one that corresponded to Germany’s economic stature. For the sake of political unity, there was little else the other European countries could do but follow suit, which they did by formally recognizing Slovenia and Croatia on 15 January 1992.
Germany’s unilateral action created facts on the ground and left a bitter aftertaste among its European partners, and the internationalization of the Yugoslavia problem had all but the desired effect. After Bosnia-Herzegovina was formally recognized on 6 April 1992, the deterrence strategy failed. In a type of blitzkrieg, Bosnian Serb armed forces, supported by the JNA, conquered the greater part of Bosnian territory within weeks. The now rather sheepish Germans had to bear the brunt of the fierce criticism leveled against them by their allies. Later, the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992–1995) would spill into Kosovo (1998–1999) and Macedonia (2001).
To what degree did Germany’s foreign policy contribute to the approaching disaster? Certainly the timing and circumstances of its formal recognition were poorly considered. Why should Slovenes and Croats be permitted to exercise the right to self-determination, but not the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia or the Albanians in Kosovo? Why were no plans drawn up to provide humanitarian relief for the very probable case of the outbreak of war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, when all signs pointed in the fall of 1991 to an armed conflict? The policy of recognition aimed to appease the German public and neglected the wider regional dimensions of Yugoslavia’s disintegration. The further course of events revealed, with disastrous consequences, the contradictions of the German approach. According to its constitutional law, Germany was barred from using its armed forces “out of area,” that is, for purposes other than self-defense. Thus, it could not provide any military cover to non-NATO members such as the Yugoslav successor states. To think that other governments would deploy their military and thereby risk the lives of many soldiers for a policy they considered wrong was unrealistic. That said, it is more than questionable that diplomatic means would have been able by this point to prevent or even effectively contain the war, in light of the determination of actors on the ground to use military force.
War in Bosnia-Herzegovina
During the bombardment of Dubrovnik and Vukovar, the Bosnian government in Sarajevo was deeply concerned about the future of its multiethnic republic. According to the 1991 census, the population of Bosnia-Herzegovina totaled 4.37 million, of which 43.5 percent were Muslims, 31.2 percent Serbs, 17.4 percent Croats, and 5.5 percent Yugoslavs. The remaining 2.4 percent consisted of numerous other nationalities. Not a single municipality was homogenous, and clear ethnic boundaries did not exist. Therefore, at first the Bosnian coalition government backed the idea to reform Yugoslavia, but not to dissolve it. Following the German recognition of Slovenia and Croatia, this option seemed obsolete. Bosnian Croats and Muslims did not want to remain in a Serb-dominated Yugoslav rump state, and the Bosnian Serb leadership took steps toward forming autonomous areas with quasi-state powers.
On 14 October 1991, the Muslim SDA and the Croat HDZ-BiH party groups in Bosnia’s parliament drafted a resolution for independence against the votes of the Serb SDS. The incensed Serbs then quit the coalition and, in protest, refused to participate any longer in the institutions. Reminiscent of what happened at the Yugoslav federal level in 1989/1990, all of the republic’s institutions and organizations split into ethnic components, including parliament, city councils, factory assemblies, the media, and security forces. In one public speech, Radovan Karadžić, the Serb political leader, called for ethnic segregation “like in Turkish times.” On 24 December 1991, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s rump government successfully petitioned the European Community for official recognition, along with Macedonia, Slovenia, and Croatia. In contrast, Montenegro decided to remain united with Serbia. In 1992, the two republics formed the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY).
Starting in the fall of 1991, Bosnian Serbs worked on their transition to independence in much the same way as their fellow Serbs in Croatia did. In November, they held an illegal plebiscite to remain in Yugoslavia and on 9 January 1992, proclaimed the Republic of the Serb People of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Republika srpskog naroda Bosne i Hercegovine; later, the Serb Republic, Republika Srpska) which was to include all municipalities, local communities, and populated places in which over 50 percent of the Serbs had voted in the plebiscite to remain in Yugoslavia.
In accordance with the terms set by the European Community for the recognition of new states, the Bosnian government organized a referendum on independence, held on 29 February and 1 March 1992, which the Serbs boycotted, as was expected. Voter participation in this referendum still reached nearly 64 percent, of which 99 percent voted in favor of independence. On 6 April 1992, the anniversary of the German attack on Yugoslavia in 1941 and the day of the liberation of Sarajevo in 1945, Bosnia-Herzegovina was officially recognized by the European Community as a sovereign state. The next day, the Bosnian Serbs then declared their own independence.
Prior to these events, local skirmishes had already occurred. Both SDS and SDA members erected barricades and checkpoints in Sarajevo in order to take control of strategic buildings, military equipment, and city quarters. The first shooting began on 5 April, out of which extensive gunfire and shelling developed on both sides. Violent clashes also occurred in many other parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina in early April 1992 and quickly escalated into a major armed conflict. Once independence was declared, the armed forces of the Bosnian Serbs, aided by the Yugoslav People’s Army, launched an assault and first overran eastern Bosnia along the Drina River, the northern Posavina corridor, eastern Herzegovina, and Bosnian Krajina, thereby creating a territorial bridge between Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Croatia. General Ratko Mladić ordered his 250,000-man army to drive the non-Serb population out of the areas they conquered. Within a couple of months, hundreds of thousands of people were on the move, and several tens of thousands were killed. The 100,000 soldiers from the Bosnian Muslim Territorial Defense Force and the SDA-loyal paramilitary troops were poorly armed and thus unable to stop the Serbs. By July 1992, barely four months after the outbreak of war, the Serb para-state controlled more than two-thirds of the Bosnian territory.
In many regions, such as in the Eastern Bosnian town of Foča, where the Chetniks, the Ustashas, and Muslim militias had committed some of the worst atrocities of the Second World War, people experienced an eerie feeling of déjà-vu. Although half of the town’s population were Bosniaks, the Bosnian-Serb leadership declared the town to be part of their new state in the fall of 1991. The region was remote and impoverished but important for the war due to its strategic location and transportation routes. On 8 April 1991, the Serb forces began shelling the town with grenades and artillery and conquered it a few days later.
Paramilitary units and volunteers like Arkan’s Tigers, Vojislav Šešelj’s Chetniks, and the White Eagles combed the streets and houses. They forced men and women to line up, then systematically separated and herded them into camps. The paramilitary bands revived practices known from the Second World War: the men were driven to the bridges, shot, and their bodies thrown into the river. Within a few weeks, nearly the entire Bosniak population had been driven out. The towns of Zvornik, Višegrad, Bijeljina, and many other locations were the scenes of similarly cruel and severe crimes.
The Serb forces thoroughly encircled Sarajevo and maintained the siege on the city for forty-four torturous months until the war ended. From the hills surrounding Sarajevo, they shelled the city incessantly, sometimes showering it with as many as 500 grenades per hour. Snipers arbitrarily gunned down civilians when they went out to get water, stood in line for food, sat in the streetcar, or simply walked down the street. “We had been encircled … from all sides. … Everybody shot at us constantly, like beasts. They were trying to kill as many of us as they could.” A man living in Sarajevo at the time, Bakir Nakaš, described how he managed to survive: “We managed to get by using only a litre of drinking water every day. We got used to it. We got used to living, getting on without electricity, without drinking water. … Every day on your way to work you ran the risk of being killed or injured.” Sheer survival became the central objective of the entire city.
Although Muslims and Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina had established joint command structures and had been fighting side by side against the Serbs since the start of the war, relations deteriorated in the autumn of 1992 when disputes arose over the future constitution of the independent state. The nationalist wing of the Croat HDZ party, centered in Herzegovina, advocated the unification of areas settled by Croats with Croatia. In November 1991 the autonomous region Herceg Bosna was formed and declared to be a separate state on 3 July 1992. Its army, the Croatian Defense Council, now began to conquer areas in which the majority of the population were Muslims. In October 1992, the so-called “war within the war” broke out between these two former allies, resulting in serious violations of international humanitarian law against civilians on both sides. Franjo Tudjman, who did not preclude the idea of annexing Herzegovina for Croatia, sent troops to support his fellow countrymen militarily. After a meeting between the Croatian president and Slobodan Milošević in Karadjordjevo on 25 March 1991, evidence grew stronger that Zagreb and Belgrade might reach an agreement on the division of Bosnia-Herzegovina at a heavy toll to the Muslims.
The “war within the war” changed the world’s image of Croatia as an innocent victim of Serb aggression and caused outright perplexity in the West. The fighting between the former allies caused horrendous destruction in central Bosnia and in Herzegovina, for which the demolition of the historic town of Mostar, including the famous sixteenth-century Old Bridge, by the Croatian Defense Council remains symbolic. Not until March 1994 could international mediators settle the conflict and commit the adversaries to the formation of a common state entity, the mutually disliked Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Yet, the fighting continued in many regions.
As the war expanded, a form of mass atrocity thought to be forgotten suddenly confronted the shocked world community: “ethnic cleansing.” This euphemism stood for the planned and violent removal of undesired population groups from conquered territory, be it through deportation, displacement, or annihilation, as had occurred during the nineteenth century, the Balkan Wars, and the Second World War.
There is no doubt whatsoever that “ethnic cleansing” took place in a systematic and planned way. The regional context, the systematic implementation, and the summation of the results preclude any other conclusion except that homogenization was not a side effect of war but its main objective. Approximately 70 percent of the expulsions, involving more than 2.2 million people, had already occurred between April and August 1992, during which time Serb armed forces attacked thirty-seven municipalities, most notably Zvornik, Bratunac, Vlasenica, Višegrad, Prijedor, Sanski Most, Ključ, and municipalities along the Sava River Valley. In total, approximately 850 Bosniak- and Croat-occupied villages were obliterated, and entire families disappeared. Roma and Romani communities were also heavily affected.
“Ethnic cleansing” was sought after politically, prepared by administrative bodies, and carried out within the framework of military operations by special forces of the regular army or by paramilitary units. Very similar to what occurred during the Second World War, the attackers tortured and massacred civilians, and burned down houses and entire villages. The aim of “ethnic cleansing” was to reinforce claims to the conquered territory and to create there an unequivocal power structure.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was able to prove later that the political preparation of mass expulsion in Bosnia-Herzegovina dated back to the first half of 1991 when the Bosnian Serbs, led by the SDS, decided to form a separate state and to arm their fellow countrymen. When the parliament dissolved in October 1991, ethnic segregation was already evident. In December 1991, the so-called crisis staffs (later war presidencies) began to convene as extraordinary administrative bodies, which took steps in preparation for the separation of the ethnic groups. After the Bosnian-Serb parliament proclaimed the founding of the Republic of the Serb People of Bosnia and Herzegovina on 9 January 1992, the new bodies brought the claimed regions systematically under their control starting in late March. Ethnic exclusion was a key organizing principle of the new state; Muslims, Croats, and other non-Serbs were not wanted there.
The ethnic composition of many municipalities changed radically. For instance, in 1991, Bosniaks and Croats made up 51 percent of the population in the eastern Bosnian town of Foča, but by the end of the war, this figure had dropped to only 3.8 percent. Overall, four-fifths of all non-Serbs were driven out of the territory of the Republika Srpska during the three and a half years of war. As a result, in thirty-seven municipalities the share of non-Serbs fell from 726,960 (53.97 percent) in 1991 to 235,015 (36.39 percent) in 1997, whereas the number of non-Serbs in the Croat-Bosniak–held territory in Bosnia-Herzegovina had increased by 41.18 percent. Altogether, the number of non-Serbs in the areas that now form the Republika Srpska had fallen by 81.74 percent. Whereas most incidents of “ethnic cleansing” were attributed to the Bosnian Serbs at the beginning of the war, the Croat and Bosniak armed forces also started in 1993 to homogenize the regions they conquered in order to consolidate territorial gains. According to estimates made by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Serb population fell between 1991 and mid-1994 from 43,595 to 5,000 in Western Hercegovina; from 79,355 to 20,000 in the Zenica region; from 82,235 to 23,000 in the Tuzla area; and from 29,398 to 1,609 in the Bihać region. Yet, a clear majority of the dead and displaced were Bosniaks.
In the spring of 1992, the world was alarmed when photographs became public of Serb prisoner of war camps that resembled concentration camps, such as Omarska, Keraterm, and Manjača. Experts would later compile a list of about 400 prisons, police stations, schools, warehouses, or factories in which the warring sides interned men, women, and children under inhumane conditions. On the heels of these revelations came shocking reports of mass executions and mass rapes, torture and mutilation. “Bosnia” became the code word for an extreme brutalization of the war—and of the guilty conscience of the international community.
The more numerous and defiant the unwanted population groups were in a region, the more brutal were the measures taken against them. “Ethnic cleansing” was sometimes carried out through intimidation and discrimination, sometimes by way of detention and deportation or by torture and mass murder. Civilians were deliberately attacked and humiliated. Acts of savagery laden with symbolism and methods of killing and mutilating known to have been used throughout history intensified the feelings of indignity, intimidation, and fear not only among those experiencing it, but also among all those who had to witness it or heard about it: Muslims were forced to recite Christian prayers; women were publicly raped; people were tortured by having religious symbols scratched into their skins—practices that evoke cultural patterns and symbolic codes.
Part of the logic behind the permanent usurpation of territory was to thoroughly eradicate the basis of existence for the unwanted populations, so that they would never return. Houses, neighborhoods, town centers, and infrastructure were targeted for complete destruction. All cultural evidence of these groups were also to disappear, which explains why the historic centers of cities were deliberately shelled and churches, mosques, cemeteries, libraries, archives, and other buildings were destroyed. Nearly every mosque and three out of four Catholic churches were damaged or completely demolished during the war. Orthodox churches and monasteries were also targeted for attack.34 Therefore, “ethnic cleansing” was not only directed against the physical presence of people, but also against sociocultural systems, meaning against institutions, identities, collective memory, and life worlds. The idea of turning these claimed regions into independent and homogeneously Serbian territory was supported in Belgrade. This would later lead, for the first time in history, to the trial of a former head of state—President Slobodan Milošević—before an international criminal tribunal on the charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva conventions, and violations of the laws or customs of war. The main counts against him were related to his command authority over the Yugoslav People’s Army, which was involved “in the planning, preparation, facilitation and execution of the forcible removal of the majority of non-Serbs.” The indictment also accused him of supporting the political leadership and armed forces of the Bosnian Serbs, participating in the planning and execution of “ethnic cleansing” operations, supporting irregular forces, and manipulating the media. Charges of genocide and complicity to commit genocide included the mass killings in Srebrenica and murder or mistreatment of Bosnian Muslims in detention facilities. Milošević’s unexpected death in 2006 at the detainment center in The Hague during the proceedings brought a sudden end to his trial.
Yet, there is ample evidence that the Yugoslav People’s Army logistically supported the campaign for a separate Serb state by providing supplies of arms and gasoline. As many as 2,000 of its soldiers fought alongside the Bosnian-Serb forces, and various Yugoslav officers served under their command. Special operation units of the Serbian ministry of internal affairs, such as the “Red Berets,” also operated on Bosnian territory. In February 2007, the International Court of Justice rejected the appeal made by Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1993 to apply the charge of genocide against Serbia. But the judges did find that Belgrade had not used its influence to prevent the serious mass crimes perpetrated in its neighboring state.