The Bosnian Genocide is considered to be a significant example of genocide and crimes against humanity in the 20th century, alongside others, such as: Armenian Genocide, Holodomor, Nanking Massacre, Holocaust, Cambodian Genocide, and the Rwanda Genocide. A genocide is defined as a mass killing of a certain group of people based on their religion, ethnicity or cultural background. A crime against humanity is considered to be when a group of people are subjected to humiliation, suffering and death on a mass scale by another group. The Bosnian Genocide occurred in the former country of Yugoslavia between 1992 to 1995. This makes it one the last major genocides of the 20th century, alongside the Rwandan Genocide. The former country of Yugoslavia was located in southeastern Europe in the region of the Balkans. Many modern countries emerged out of Yugoslavia after it fell apart in 1992, such as: Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The genocide and crimes against humanity that occurred in the country are considered to be the result and actions of an ethic clash that occurred between Serbians and ‘non-Serbs’ during the larger Bosnian War that took place from 1992 to 1995. Historians generally agree that as many as 100,000 people were killed during the events of the genocide.
LEAD UP TO THE BOSNIAN GENOCIDE
The country of Yugoslavia fell under the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence in eastern Europe throughout the majority of the 20th century. However, as the Cold War came to an end in the early 1990s, communism as an ideology began to struggle and the country of Yugoslavia dissolved into several different nation states. Yugoslavia was made up of many different ethnicities and struggled to maintain peace throughout its history. As such, when the country ‘broke up’ in 1991 and 1992 ethnic tensions were at a dangerous level. For example, Bosnia announced its departure from Yugoslavia in 1992 following the earlier secessions by Slovenia and Croatia in 1991. At the time, Bosnia was made of several different ethnicities, including: Muslim Bosniaks, Christian Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats. Muslim Bosniaks made up the highest population at 44% of the country while Christian Orthodox Serbs were 32.5% and Catholic Croats were 17%. Soon a conflict emerged between the different ethnic groups and led to the Bosnian Genocide.
MAJOR EVENTS OF THE BOSNIAN GENOCIDE
Soon after Bosnia’s declaration of independence from Yugoslavia, Bosnian Serbs and the Serbian government of Slobodan Milošević began a military conflict in order to capture territory in Bosnia specifically for the Serbian population. This led to the ‘ethnic cleansing’ campaign carried out by Serbians against non-Serbs in the region. In general, ethnic cleansing is best defined as a method of forcibly removing an ethnicity or group of ethnicities from a particular region through several different means, including: forced migration, intimidation, and genocide. This ethnic cleansing campaign and other atrocities carried out throughout the area marked the major events of the Bosnian Genocide during the overall Bosnian War. Today, it is understood that all sides carried out atrocities against each other, most (90%) of the crimes against humanity were carried out by Serbians against non-Serbs. In total, it is estimated that the upheaval of the Bosnian War and the resulting campaign of ethnic cleansing led to the displacement of nearly 3 million people in the area of eastern Europe.
One of the more heinous examples of murder in the Bosnian Genocide was the case of the town of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia. The town, along with many others, was caught up in the fighting of the Bosnian War and the ethnic cleansing campaign being perpetrated by Serbian forces under the leadership of Slobodan Milošević. In fact, earlier in the war, in 1993, the United Nations had declared the town of Srebrenica a ‘safe area’ for people to flee the fighting. In response, the United Nations sent Dutch peacekeepers to protect the town and its residents. However, the forces of the Bosnian Serb Army overran the peacekeepers in July of 1995 and carried out a mass killing of the Bosniak residents. After taking over the town the Bosnian Serb Army separated the Bosniak Muslim women from men. The women and girls were transported out of the town by bus. Many of them reported suffering from repeated rapes and sexual assaults at the hand of the Serb Army. The men and boys who were left in Srebrenica suffered a more gruesome fate. They were rounded up, killed and buried in mass graves. In later years, both the United Nations and the International Criminal Tribunal called the deaths of over 8,000 people at Srebrenica a genocide. This made it the largest death of people in Europe by genocide since the events of the Holocaust during World War II.
Another example of death during the Bosnian War was the Siege of Sarajevo. Sarajevo was the capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina and was under siege by pro-Serbian forces from 1992 until 1996. For example, in May of 1992 the Bosnian Serb Army surrounded the city and blockaded it with tanks, artillery and snipers. The forces that defended the city were poorly equipped and were soon overwhelmed. As a result of the situation many people living in the city suffered and died. For instance, the Bosnian Serb Army assaulted the city with artillery shells from the surrounding hills and wreaked havoc on homes, businesses and neighborhoods within Sarajevo. As well, the Siege of Sarajevo became known for the snipers and the situation they created for the residents of the city. Along with artillery cannons, the Serb Army also had highly trained snipers in the hills surrounding Sarajevo. Citizens of the city had to run across streets to avoid snipers as they went about their days. These dangerous streets were referred to as ‘sniper alleys’. The continued shelling and sniper fire caused the services of the city to collapse. People inside struggled as the crime rate skyrocketed and the government of Sarajevo were unable to provide basic services. As well, the situation led to many deaths. It is estimated that nearly 14,000 people were killed during the Siege of Sarajevo including over 5,400 civilians. In the end, the conflict in the city was ended when NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) forces intervened. After not meeting a deadline to stop the fighting, the Bosnian Serb Army was attacked by NATO forces via bombing raids. Eventually, the Serbs agreed to United Nations conditions that they withdrawal from the city and the siege was over.
Just as in other genocides in the 20th century, there was an effort to hold those accountable for their role in the ethnic cleansing campaign that overtook the Bosnian War. For example, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was established by the United Nations in May of 1993 in order to prosecute the perpetrators of the genocide. The ICTY was located in The Hague, Netherlands and was tasked with judging the following during the Bosnian War: customs of war, genocide, crimes against humanity. The maximum sentence it could impose was life imprisonment. In total, the ICTY oversaw the trials of 111 people and dissolved as an organization in December of 2017.
Slobodan Milošević is likely the most famous person tried by the ICTY in The Hague. He was the President of Serbia and oversaw much of the Bosnian War. He was a driving force behind Serbian nationalism at the time and hoped to establish a Serbian state out of the collapse of the Yugoslavia. Eventually he was charged by the ICTY for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. His five-year trial began in 2002 with him acting as his own defense. He denied knowledge or responsibility of the atrocities carried out during the Bosnian War and argued that they ICTY had no authority over him. Regardless, no verdict was reached as he died in his prison cell in The Hague on March 11th, 2006 before the end of his trial.
Another prominent figure brought before the ICTY was Ratko Mladić. He was a general in the Bosnian Serb Army during the Bosnian War and oversaw several of the main operations that led to the deaths of thousands of people. For example, due to his position of command in the Bosnian Serb Army he was considered responsible for the actions of both the Siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica Massacre. In fact, some media outlets gave him the nickname ‘Butcher of Bosnia’ for his role in both of these events. Ratko Mladić’s trial with the ICTY began in July of 1996 without him being present because he fled authorities after the end of the Bosnian War. Ultimately, the ICTY found him guilty of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity and an arrest warrant was issued for his capture. Furthermore, there was a €5 million (and later €10 million) reward offered for his arrest. However, he remained in hiding until May 2011 when he was arrested in Lazarevo, Serbia. He was formally sentenced to life in prison on November 22nd, 2017 for his role in the atrocities of the Bosnian War.