The day after The Second World Warthe Balkan states of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia became part of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. After the death of longtime Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito in 1980, growing nationalism among the various Yugoslav republics threatened to split their union.
This process intensified after the mid-1980s with the rise to power of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who helped foment discontent between Bosnian and Croatian Serbs and their Croatian, Bosnian and Albanian neighbors. In 1991, Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia declared their independence.
During the ensuing Croatian War, the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army supported Serbian separatists in brutal clashes with Croatian forces.
In Bosnia, Muslims were the largest population group in 1971. More Serbs and Croats emigrated over the next two decades, and in a 1991 census Bosnia’s population, which had approximately 4 million inhabitants, was 44 percent Bosniaks, 31 percent Serbs and 17 percent Croats.
Elections held in late 1990 resulted in a coalition government divided between parties representing the three ethnic groups (in approximate proportion to their population) and led by Bosnian Alija Izetbegovic.
As tensions rose inside and outside the country, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his Serbian Democratic Party withdrew from the government and created their own “Serbian National Assembly”. On March 3, 1992, after a referendum (which Karadzic’s party blocked in many Serb-populated areas), President Izetbegovic proclaimed Bosnia’s independence.
Struggle for control in Bosnia
Far from seeking Bosnian independence, Bosnian Serbs wanted to be part of a dominant Serbian state in the Balkans – the “Greater Serbia” that Serbian separatists had long envisioned.
In early May 1992, two days after the United States and the European Community (precursor to the European Union) recognized Bosnia’s independence, Bosnian Serb forces, with the support of Milosevic and the Yugoslav army, dominated by the Serbs, launched their offensive by bombarding Bosnian territories. capital, Sarajevo.
They attacked Bosnian-dominated towns in eastern Bosnia, including Zvornik, Foca and Visegrad, forcibly expelling Bosnian civilians from the area in a brutal process that was later identified as a ” ethnic cleansing. (Ethnic cleansing differs from genocide in that its primary goal is the expulsion of a group of people from a geographic area and not the actual physical destruction of that group, although the same methods – including murder, rape, torture and forced displacement – can be used.)
Although Bosnian government forces attempted to defend the territory, sometimes with the help of the Croatian army, Bosnian Serb forces controlled nearly three-quarters of the country by the end of 1993, and Karadzic’s party had created its own Republika Srpska in 1993. is. Most Bosnian Croats left the country, while a significant Bosnian population remained only in small towns.
Several peace proposals between a Bosnian-Croat federation and the Bosnian Serbs failed when the Serbs refused to cede any territory. The United Nations has refused to intervene in the conflict in Bosnia, but a campaign led by its High Commissioner for Refugees has provided humanitarian aid to the many displaced, malnourished and injured victims.
By the summer of 1995, three towns in eastern Bosnia – Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde – remained under the control of the Bosnian government. The UN declared these enclaves “safe havens” in 1993, to be disarmed and protected by international peacekeeping forces.
On July 11, 1995, however, Bosnian Serb forces advanced on Srebrenica, crushing a battalion of Dutch peacekeeping forces stationed there. Serb forces then separated Bosnian civilians in Srebrenica, putting the women and girls on buses and sending them to Bosnian-controlled territory.
Some women were raped or sexually assaulted, while men and boys left behind were killed immediately or bused to massacre sites. Estimates of the number of Bosnians killed by Serbian forces in Srebrenica vary between 7,000 and more than 8,000.
After Bosnian Serb forces seized Zepa that same month and detonated a bomb in a crowded Sarajevo market, the international community began to respond more forcefully to the ongoing conflict and its ever-increasing number of deaths among civilians.
In August 1995, after the Serbs refused to comply with a UN ultimatum, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) joined forces with Bosnian and Croatian forces for three weeks to bomb the positions of the Bosnian Serbs and launch a ground offensive.
With Serbia’s economy crippled by U.N. trade sanctions and its military forces under attack in Bosnia after three years of war, Milosevic agreed to begin negotiations in October. The US-sponsored Dayton Peace Talks Ohioin November 1995 (which included Izetbegovic, Milosevic and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman) resulted in the creation of a federalized Bosnia divided between a Bosnian-Croat federation and a Serbian republic.
Although the international community did little to prevent the systematic atrocities committed against Bosniaks and Croats in Bosnia as they were occurring, it actively sought justice against those who committed them.
In May 1993, the UN Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, Netherlands. It was the first international tribunal since Nuremberg Trials in 1945-46, and the first to prosecute genocide, among other war crimes.
Radovan Karadzic and Bosnian Serb military commander General Ratko Mladic were among those indicted by the ICTY for genocide and other crimes against humanity.
The ICTY would eventually indict 161 people for crimes committed during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Brought before the tribunal in 2002 for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, Milosevic served as his own lawyer; his poor health led to long delays in the trial until he was found dead in his prison cell in 2006.
In 2007, the International Court of Justice delivered its judgment in a historic civil case brought by Bosnia against Serbia. Although the court called the Srebrenica massacre a genocide and said Serbia “could and should have” prevented it and punished those who committed it, it did not go so far as to find Serbia guilty of the genocide himself.
After a trial lasting more than four years and involving the testimony of nearly 600 witnesses, the ICTY found Mladic, nicknamed the “Butcher of Bosnia,” guilty of genocide and other crimes against humanity in November 2017. The court sentenced the 74 former general of 12 years to life in prison. Following Karadzic’s conviction for war crimes the previous year, Mladic’s long-delayed sentencing marked the last major prosecution brought by the ICTY.