Top Quotes: “Bosnian War: A History from Beginning to End”

Austin Rose
16 min readMay 10, 2024

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The word balkan is Turkish and simply means “wooded mountains.” That was the name given to this region after its conquest by the Ottoman Empire.”

“In October 1990, a new leader of the SDS in Croatia was elected, Milan Babic, the former mayor of the city of Knin. Babic, supported by Milosevic in Belgrade, began to call for the creation of separate Serb regions within Croatia. Before long, he created the Community of Municipalities of Northern Dalmatia and Lika, a confederation of municipalities in Croatia that included Serb majorities. Serbian SDS representatives claimed in parliament that these Serbian municipalities within Croatia had the right to autonomy and called for a referendum. The Community of Municipalities grew to include eleven different areas, and within a short time, the situation deteriorated into what amounted to a Serb rebellion in areas of Croatia.

In the city of Knin, mass demonstrations led to the removal of the Croat chief of police and his replacement by a Serb, Milan Martic, a supporter of Babic. In other Serb-majority areas, local police stations were taken over by Serbs, and Croat police officers were removed. The government responded by sending Croat police units to retake control, but at least one of these was blocked by the Yugoslav army. As Babic declared a “war situation,” the city of Knin became the center of the Serb nationalist movement in Croatia.”

“In December 1990, the Serb National Council established by Babic in Knin announced the creation of the first Serb Autonomous District in Croatia, called Krajina. Soon after, the creation of two more Serb Autonomous Districts was announced. These areas covered municipalities that included around half the total Serb population of Croatia, but all also housed substantial Muslim and Croat populations.

Overall responsibility for the safety of the Yugoslav population lay with the Yugoslav People’s Army, created at the same time as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1945. In theory, the People’s Army served all the people of Yugoslavia equally, but in truth, the officer corps of the army was dominated by Serbs and Montenegrins. The governments of each republic also had their own armed forces, the Territorial Defence units, but People’s Army troops in Croatia quickly moved to seize the arms depots of these units, leaving the government of Croatia with limited access to weapons. For that reason, the government of Croatia began to purchase arms from other former Eastern Bloc nations. Meanwhile, in early 1991, the Yugoslav People’s Army began to distribute arms to Serbs in the Serb Autonomous Districts in Croatia.

Other Yugoslav regions began to follow a similar pattern. Serb nationalists in Bosnia also created Communities of Municipalities that promoted Serbian separatism. At the same time, the HDZ announced the formation of the Croat Community of Herceg Bosna, a Muslim autonomous region within Bosnia-Herzegovina. With the republics of Yugoslavia splitting along ethnic and nationalist lines and the ready availability of weapons both within Yugoslavia and from neighboring former Soviet satellite states, the potential for armed conflict within Yugoslavia was rapidly increasing..

The precise moment when political movements first turned to war is a matter of some debate, as is the matter of which side first turned to violence. What is undeniable is that violent incidents in parts of Yugoslavia began in early 1991 and quickly escalated. In Croatia, these mainly involved confrontations between Croat police and Serb militias. From the declaration of the Serb Autonomous District of Krajina in December 1990 to the end of April 1991, there were over 200 violent clashes involving explosives and firearms. The first recorded fatalities happened during a clash between armed Serb groups attempting to take over the Plitvice Lakes National Park and Croat police in late March 1991. One person on each side was killed, and many more were injured.

The following month, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman ordered elements of police forces to be reorganized as the National Guard, a military unit controlled directly by the Croatian government. In early. May, at the mainly Serb village of Borovo Selo, a few miles north of Vukovar, four local Croat police officers took down the Yugoslav flag and replaced it with the new flag of Croatia. This was done spontaneously, without orders from above, but it caused fury in the village, and two of the police officers were taken prisoner by a Serb paramilitary group. When a larger Croat police detachment was sent to rescue the captives, it was ambushed, and twelve police officers and one member of a Serb paramilitary were killed.

One month later, the Croatian government held a referendum on independence, which was boycotted by Serbs and achieved a 95% vote in favor of autonomy. Subsequently, the Croatian parliament announced the region to be independent and dissolved all ties with Yugoslavia, but in response, the Yugoslav president, Ante Markovic, declared this to be illegal and ordered the Yugoslav People’s Army to take action against Croatia.

A few months earlier, Slovenia had also held a referendum on independence. This too received overwhelming support, with over 80% of the vote in favor. In June 1991, Slovenia also formally declared independence, but again, the Yugoslavian president announced that this was illegal and ordered the Yugoslav People’s Army to prepare for military action to bring Slovenia back within the control of Yugoslavia. Suddenly, what had been small-scale and relatively isolated instances of violence between Serbs and Croats erupted into two parallel and full-scale wars.”

“What became known as the Slovenian War of Independence was brief and, compared to the conflicts that would follow, caused relatively few casualties. Although the Yugoslav People’s Army was sent to Slovenia, there were disagreements within its high command on the level of force that should be used; some wanted a large show of force, while others advocated a more cautious approach.

One of the reasons for the caution shown by the Yugoslav People’s Army during its invasion of Slovenia was the ethnic make-up of the republic. Unlike, for example, Croatia, there was only a small Serb minority in Slovenia, accounting for around 2% of the total population. For this reason, there simply weren’t large Serb nationalist movements in Slovenia, and even the Serb leader, Slobodan Milosevic, would later say that he believed that the invasion of Slovenia had been a mistake.

This short war (known by some as the Ten-Day War) began on June 27, 1991, when Yugoslav forces entered Slovenia, and ended on July 7 with a peace agreement. The Yugoslav People’s Army withdrew from Slovenia immediately afterward, allowing the country to move toward independence in relative peace. The conflict saw a relatively low number of military casualties, with fewer than 65 soldiers killed in total. The ethnic composition of Slovenia, and particularly the lack of ethnic Serbs in that area, helped to prevent a long and bitter war. That situation would not be repeated elsewhere in Yugoslavia.

What became known as the Croatian War of Independence began in earnest in July 1991 when units of the Yugoslav People’s Army, now almost entirely controlled by regional authorities led by Slobodan Milosevic, entered Croatia. Against them were ranged Croatian police units and the newly raised National Guard, former police units re-equipped and trained to act as a paramilitary force. The conflict soon began to follow ethnic lines.

Most of the direct fighting took place in areas of southern and central Croatia where there were large Serb minorities. Several large towns, including Dubrovnik, Karlovac, and Zadar, were extensively shelled by the Yugoslav People’s Army, causing large numbers of civilian casualties. The town of Ilok in the east of Croatia was placed under siege by the Yugoslav People’s Army from mid-September. Croatian forces in the town surrendered one month later, and more than 5,000 non-Serbs were forcibly removed from the city.

Another town in the east of Croatia, Vukovar, was besieged by the Yugoslav People’s Army from mid-August. When it surrendered in November, around 20,000 non-Serb civilians were rounded up and forcibly deported from the area. For the first time, the term “ethnic cleansing” was used to describe removing specific ethnic groups from an area of Yugoslavia. Meanwhile, several hundred wounded Croat troops were handed over by Serb paramilitaries to the Yugoslav People’s Army. Of these, at least 200 were executed and buried in a mass grave near the village of Ovcara. This was the first recognized incident of a mass execution of prisoners. Sadly, it would be the first of many such incidents as the war descended into extreme brutality.

The role of the Yugoslav People’s Army had become, according to the Yugoslav secretary of defense, “to liberate, in every respect, all areas with a majority Serb population from the presence of the Croatian military and Croatian authority.” Up to early 1992, it is believed that the Yugoslav People’s Army forcibly removed over 80,000 non-Serbs from eastern Croatia, and an unknown number of non-Serbs fled the area ahead of the advance of the army.

“International diplomatic efforts to intervene in Yugoslavia began as early as July 1991 when the European Community (EC) attempted to help negotiate a ceasefire in Croatia and Slovenia. An EC-sponsored meeting held on the Brijuni Islands off the Croatian coast led to the signing of the Brioni Agreement between Slovenia, Croatia, and Yugoslavia that same month. Under the terms of this agreement, both Slovenia and Croatia agreed to suspend their plans for independence for three months.

In Slovenia, this agreement led to the end of fighting and the withdrawal of the Yugoslav People’s Army. In early 1992, Slovenia was then formally recognized by EC member states as an independent nation, and in May, Slovenia joined the United Nations. The situation in Croatia proved more difficult to stabilize, and there, fighting between Croats and Serbs continued. In an attempt to find a way to end the conflict in Croatia, the EC formed the Conference on Yugoslavia in September 1991.

Mediation carried out through the conference led to the agreement of a ceasefire in Croatia in January 1992. Under the terms of this agreement, all Yugoslav forces would be withdrawn from Croatia. However, despite this agreement, fighting in Croatia between Serb and Croat paramilitaries would continue sporadically until 1995.”

“As the hostilities in Croatia began to wind down, fighting in Bosnia was just about to erupt. All three ethnic factions within Bosnia began to create armed paramilitary groups.”

“In a referendum held on February 29 and March 1, 1992, the majority of the population, primarily Bosniaks and Croats, voted in favor of independence, with an overwhelming 99% of voters supporting the decision. Bosnian Serbs, who were against independence, chose to boycott the referendum. Following the referendum, Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence from Yugoslavia on April 6, 1992. What became known as the Bosnian War began the same day.

“The opening shots of the Bosnian War were fired in early April 1992 by Serb paramilitary forces who began shelling the mainly Bosniak city of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The shelling of Sarajevo caused a great many civilian casualties and would continue for the remainder of this conflict. Over 10,000 civilians died during the continuing bombardment of Sarajevo, including more than 1,500 children. Almost all of the city’s main cultural, religious, and residential buildings were damaged or completely destroyed during more than three years of war.

Other towns and cities in eastern Bosnia with significant Bosniak populations were also attacked by a combination of Serb paramilitary military units and Serb units of the Yugoslav People’s Army. These included Zvornik, Foca, Prijedor, Gorazde, and Visegrad. By the end of May, however, the Yugoslav army left the country, and its heavy weapons were handed over to Serb paramilitaries under the overall command of General Ratko Madic. The new unified command brought military success for Serb forces, and by mid-summer, Serb forces controlled around two-thirds of the total territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina.”

“In October, Serb forces captured the city of Jajce, where they forcibly deported the Croat and Bosniak populations. The failure to defend Jajce was at least partly due to a lack of cooperation between Croat and Bosniak military units, which led to increasing tensions between Croats and Bosniaks. Before long, the war became a three-way war, with Croats and Bosniak military forces fighting not just the Serbs but also each other. When Croat forces subsequently occupied the cities of Gornji Vakuf, Novi Travnik, and Prozor, they expelled the Bosniak populations in those cities. Croat forces also besieged Bosniaks in Mostar for over nine months starting in June 1993. During this time, many of the city’s main buildings were destroyed by shelling, and large numbers of civilians were killed.

The war between Bosniak and Croat forces was finally brought to an end in March 1994 with the signing of the Washington Peace Agreement and the establishment of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. But although Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks were no longer fighting one another, they still controlled only around 30% of the total territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The rest of the area remained under Serb control.”

“On April 10 and 11, NATO launched airstrikes on Serb positions near the Gorade safe area — the first time that NATO ground attack aircraft had ever been used in combat.

While these initial NATO air strikes were on a very small scale and had little effect on the overall situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina, they were combined with more effective military action by the now-united Croat and Bosniak forces. Gradually, Serb forces were driven back, and the area they had controlled was retaken.”

“According to the Bosnian Serbs, the process of ethnic cleansing simply meant the relocation of all non-Serbs from areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina in which there were large Serb populations. The intention seems to have been to create areas in the region that, after the war, would be entirely populated by Serbs. Only later would it become apparent that this policy of forcibly relocating large numbers of people was accompanied by extreme violence, rape, mutilation, murder, extortion, and arbitrary execution.”

“One of the earliest known massacres of the Bosnian War took place on August 21, 1992. The victims had formed part of the 3,500 Croats and Bosniaks detained in the Tropolje concentration camp in northern Bosnia. They were told that they were being deported to Bosnian government-controlled territory and loaded onto a convoy of buses. As this convoy approached Mount Vlasic, it was stopped by a special detachment of the Bosnian police known as the Intervention Squad. Around 200 male prisoners were removed from the convoy and taken to an area known as Koricani Cliffs, where they were lined up along the edge of the cliff and shot, causing them to fall into the ravine below. Hand grenades were then tossed into the ravine to kill any survivors. Incredibly, around 12 men survived and, a few months later, were able to tell members of the International Red Cross what had happened.

In November 1992, there was another large massacre by Serb forces of around 150 Bosniak prisoners, who had surrendered after the capture of the small town of Vecici. This time, the massacre was carried out by Serb paramilitary forces rather than police. Throughout the war in Bosnia, murders of Croat and Muslim prisoners held in internment camps, looting, rape, and massacres were common.”

“Before the war, the small mountain town of Srebrenica had a population comprising around 75% Bosniaks and 25% Serbs. When fighting began in Bosnia, the town was briefly occupied by Bosnian Serb forces before being recaptured by Bosniak government forces. As Serb forces took outlying villages, people began to move to the town until it contained a population of over 50,000 people compared to a pre-war population of around 5,000. By 1993, it had become a Bosniak enclave within mainly Serb territory, largely cut off from supplies and with little hope for its mainly Muslim population to leave safely.

In April 1993, the United Nations announced that Srebrenica was to become a “safe area.” The aim was to safeguard civilians there and to ensure that supply convoys could reach the town. Around 600 UN troops were stationed in the town, but by early 1995, the situation in Srebrenica was becoming desperate. Food convoys were failing to get through Serb lines, and hunger and lawlessness were becoming serious problems. The UN presence gradually reduced to around 400 troops, and any troops who left the enclave were not allowed to return by Serb forces. By mid-1995, several people every day were reported to be dying of starvation in Srebrenica.

At the same time, the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, ordered the Serb armed forces to mount an assault on the town. The hope on the part of the Serbs was that if the UN safe areas in Srebrenica, Zepa, and Gorazde — each representing a Bosniak enclave in otherwise Serb-controlled territory — were taken, it might be possible to bring the war to an end before the onset of winter.

Thus, the Serb assault on Srebrenica began on July 6, 1995. The attacking Serb forces numbered around 2,000 troops facing up to 6,000 Bosniak defenders. However, the Serb forces were well-armed and supported by tanks and other armored vehicles, while the Bosniaks had few weapons and little ammunition. The few UN troops in the town could do nothing to prevent the Serb assault, and by July 11, Serb forces were in control of Srebrenica. An estimated 25,000 Bosniak civilians had already fled the town to the nearby village of Potocari.”

“During the afternoon and evening of July 11, members of Serb military units arbitrarily began murdering and raping refugees. Documents and videos later recovered also proved that Serb police units had been present in Srebrenica and took an active role in these massacres of unarmed civilians. On July 12, the tempo of killings increased, with bulldozers being required to create mass graves for the dead. By July 20, overflights US reconnaissance aircraft took photographs of the area, which showed many areas of recently disturbed earth. These were determined to be the sites of mass graves.

No one is certain how many people died following the Serb takeover of Srebrenica though the most conservative estimates suggest at least 8,000. Of these, almost 7,000 have been identified through DNA analysis of remains recovered from mass graves.”

“The largest single military operation of the Yugoslav wars began in Croatia soon after the Srebrenica massacre. Operation Storm saw a joint attack by over 130,000 Croatian, Bosniak, and Bosnian Croat forces on the Bihac enclave in northwest Bosnia which was surrounded by Bosnian Serb forces. Not only was the enclave in Bihac relieved, but Croatian forces were able to occupy all Serb-controlled forces in Croatia. Up to 150,000 Serb refugees fled from formerly Serb areas of Croatia into Serb territory in Bosnia. At least 700 Serbs were killed, and over 1,000 simply disappeared.

Croat and Bosniak forces also made gains in Bosnia, driving Serb units back. In late August, another Serb mortar and artillery strike on Sarajevo led to yet another massacre of civilians in the Markale market. Two days later, the secretary general of NATO announced the beginning of Operation Deliberate Force, which entailed coordinated strikes by NATO aircraft against Bosnian Serb positions. This would be different from previous NATO attacks; Operation Deliberate Force would be a full-scale assault on Serb military units rather than small-scale strikes on selected artillery and mortar positions.

At the same time, the United Nations Protection Force was authorized for the first time to begin pre-emptive artillery strikes against Serb positions. Due in large measure to the international condemnation following the massacre at Sebrenica, Serb forces in Bosnia found themselves facing not just a combined and united army of Croats and Bosniaks but also coming under large-scale attack by NATO and the UN.

During Operation Deliberate Force, NATO aircraft carried out over 3,500 sorties and dropped over 1,000 bombs on Bosnian Serb positions. NATO aircraft also acted as spotters for the artillery of the newly formed UN Rapid Reaction Force, a mobile armored group of over 4,000 French, Dutch, and British troops. On September 1, 1995, airstrikes were briefly halted as the UN demanded that Serb forces remove heavy weapons from the vicinity of Sarajevo and other UN safe areas. When the Serbs failed to comply, a devastating round of airstrikes resumed on September 5, including for the first time the use of Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from US warships. Before this, there had been relatively little US involvement in direct military action in Bosnia, but once again, it was international horror, at the Srebrenica massacre that prompted the large-scale use of US aircraft and ships starting in September.

Within a matter of weeks, the 70% of Bosnia occupied by Serb forces had been reduced to less than 50%, and it was clear that the Serbs would not be able to resist the combined offensive against them by Croat and Bosniak ground forces, NATO airstrikes, and UN Protection Force artillery attacks. Croat and Bosniak forces reoccupied almost 1,000 square miles (2,500 square kilometers) of territory that included the towns of Bosanska Krupa and Mrkonjié Grad and, by the end of August, were within 15 miles (25 kilometers) of the city of Banja Luka.

By early October, the situation for Serb forces in Bosnia had become so serious that the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, was able to persuade Bosnian Serb leaders to agree to a ceasefire. A 60-day ceasefire agreement then came into effect on October 12.”

Those brought to trial by the tribunal ranged from ordinary soldiers to senior military leaders and even heads of state; Slobodan Milosevic gained the unfortunate distinction of becoming the only serving head of state ever to be indicted for war crimes. Other notable prosecutions were brought against Milan Babic, former president of the Republika Srpska Krajina, Radovan Karadzic, former president of the Republika Srpska, and Ratko Madic, former commander of the Bosnian Serb Army. The majority of high-level prosecutions involved Serb leaders, though Ante Gotovina, a former general of the Croatian Army, was also prosecuted. In total, 90 people were tried and convicted, many of whom are still in prison in various countries.

The impact of the Bosnian War continues to affect the people in this region. In the two entities created under the Dayton Agreement, elections after the war saw a sharp divergence. In the Muslim and Croat entity, moderate parties performed well in a series of elections. However, within the Serb entity, nationalists have performed consistently well, making it very difficult to form a coherent national government. Following elections in 2010, the national government was completely deadlocked for over one year by disagreements over the make-up of the central government. As recently as October 2021, the Serb leader, Milorad Dodik, announced that the Serb entity, the Republika Srpska, intends to withdraw from the national army, judiciary, and tax administration, promoting fears that Serb nationalists are once again moving toward some form of secession.”

During the Bosnian War alone, over 2 million people were forcibly deported from their homes, about 100,000 were killed, and up to 50,000 women raped. Since 1995, the remains of over several thousand people have been identified in mass graves, but anything up to 40,000 remain missing, their fates unknown. The massacre following the Serb occupation of Srebrenica has been formally recognized as genocide, but the bodies of over 1,000 victims (out of a total of over 8,000 killed) remain unaccounted for since Serb troops exhumed and reburied many of those killed during the massacre in an effort to conceal the true scale of the killings.”

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Austin Rose

I read non-fiction and take copious notes. Currently traveling around the world for 5 years, follow my journey at https://peacejoyaustin.wordpress.com/blog/