23 May 2017

Text: Corinna / Translation: Miriam & Daniel

#Ethnic Cleansing in Yugoslavia – ‘Your lives are worth so much less than theirs’

The former Balkan state of Yugoslavia was the victim of an “ethnic cleansing campaign” and genocide, during the Bosnian War (1992–1995), marking the first genocide in Europe since the end of the Second World War.

Photo:ICTY photos/www.flickr.com/Creative Commons


Yugoslavia was a former communist Balkan state belonging to the Soviet bloc, but gained independence under president Tito after the Second World War. Yugoslavia was often called a multi-ethnic state and consisted of several national republics:

# Serbia, including the autonomous region of Kosovo

# Croatia

# Slovenia

# Bosnia

# Montenegro

# Macedonia

Those republics were, however, not homogeneous but home to people of many different ethnic groups. 90% of the people in Kosovo were Albanians, many Serbs lived in Croatia, and there were many Muslims, Serbs and Croats in Bosnia.[1]

People lived together in a peaceful and friendly environment for years. How did they suddenly become murderers, torturers and rapists? Why did they turn against their friends and neighbours?

„I am also at a loss. I had the key to my next-door neighbor’s [house] who was a Serb, and he had my key. That is how we looked after each other…“[2] – Testimony of Hamdo Kahrimanovic before the ICTY

#The beginning #nationalism and #ideologies

After president Tito’s death in 1980, Yugoslavia, like many other countries of the former Eastern Bloc, entered a state of systematic crisis and the individual republics turned towards nationalism. In 1986, Serbian intellectuals published a ‘memorandum’ stating that Serbs, despite being the largest ethnic group, were oppressed in Yugoslavia. They mainly focused on Kosovo and claimed that the Serbian minority there was facing genocide[3], thereby promoting nationalism in Serbia even more. One year later, Slobodan Milosevic was elected as Serbia’s president and started a harsh and repressive policy against Kosovo. He strongly limited the Albanians’ rights, stopped Kosovo’s autonomy, banished thousands of Albanians from their jobs and had several hundred of them killed.

While Milosevic dreamed of a ‘Greater Serbia’ controlling the entire Yugoslavian territory, Croatia’s president Franjo Tudjman was himself also working on a ‘Greater Croatia’.

On the 25th June 1991, Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence. Consequently, Milosevic motivated all Serbs in Croatia to take action against this independence (Slovenia was one of the few homogeneous countries in Yugoslavia, which was nearly exclusively home to Slovenians); this kickstarted a bloody civil war between the ethnic groups in Yugoslavia.[4]

In February 1992, a ceasefire and UN peace mission called UNPROFOR (United Nations Protection Force) was arranged to secure peace and to enforce the implication of the arms embargo.[5] UN troops were thus stationed in Yugoslavia before and during the ethnic cleansing, similar to in Rwanda.

Photo:Dennis Jarvis/www.flickr.com/Creative Commons

#The Muslims have to go

Germany – acting in the interest of furthering their economic and political influence – urged the European Community to accept Croatia and Slovenia as independent countries, thereby furthering Yugoslavia’s collapse.[6] The ceasefire was stopped, and the fights between groups began anew.

Serbia’s and Croatia’s nationalists mainly used their religion to define themselves: for the Serbs, it was the Orthodox Christian church; and, for the Croats, the Catholic church was the core element of their national identity. Accordingly, the Muslims were supposed to return to their religious and national roots, so a Greater Serbia or Greater Croatia could be founded. Bosnia was home to many Muslims – a reason for Milosevic and Tudjman to promote that Bosnia shouldn’t have the right to be an autonomous state. As a result, the Muslims declared the independence of a small territory in Bosnia, wanting to belong to neither Serbia nor Croatia.

Consequently, Milosevic started a cleansing campaign, systematically deporting and killing Muslims. His propaganda included more than religion, however. He associated the Muslims with the former Ottoman Empire that didn’t belong to Europe and didn’t allow Serbia and Croatia to be their own nations.[7]

Because many Muslims lived in Bosnia, it became the main battleground for an ethnic cleansing. The capital city of Sarajevo was attacked and bombed, thousands of civilians were killed and many of the Muslims’ cultural achievements were destroyed to undermine their existence. The UN and NATO were stirred but, instead of interfering, they tried to retain a peace mission where peace wasn’t possible anymore.[8]

When the Yugoslavian army withdrew from Bosnia, they left all their weapons to an army of approximately 80,000 Bosnian Serbs. The poorly armed Bosnian Muslims hardly had a chance and were overpowered immediately. After nine months, the Serbs had occupied 70% of Bosnia, but the Croats and Bosniaks were still trying to defend themselves.[9]

„Serb militias brought their victims here at night by bus, lined them up in groups on the edge of the riverbank, and executed them with automatic weapons. Then they used a bulldozer to cover the bodies.“[10]

In August 1992, Western journalists published articles on the concentration camps in Bosnia where Muslim men (and occasionally women) were captured and beaten with clubs, cables, boots, metal rods, etc.. They were abused, starved, systematically raped and executed.[11] It is not to be ignored that even the Bosniaks and Croats set up concentration camps where atrocities were committed, but not to the same extent – approximately 90% of all crimes were committed by the Serbs.[12]

As a result of this, UNPROFOR’s UN mandate was constantly expanded (until 1995, 55 resolutions were passed by the UN Security Council). UN soldiers were ordered to secure Sarajevo airport, escort and protect convoys carrying humanitarian supplies, but could only use violence if it was intended for self-defence.[13] Similar to the situation in Rwanda, the UN and NATO were lacking political will to interfere any further than that. They sent humanitarian aid, but no troops. The international community ignored Croatia’s crimes against the international arms embargo, and the USA even paved the way for Muslim countries, Iran above all, to be able to deliver weapons to Bosnia despite the embargo.[14]

At the end of 1992, the Clinton Administration contemplated launching air strikes against Serbia and to send ground troops, but quickly dismissed the idea. According to scientists, the mere threat to intervene could have stopped Milosevic’s attack, but even here the perpetrators could – unfortunately successfully – rely on the international community’s lack of action.[15]

In April 1993, UNPROFOR, authorised by the UN Security Council, set up six security zones in Srebrenica, Sarajevo, Zepa, Gorazde, Tuzla and Bihac, reducing a lot of the fights in Bosnia. According to analysts, however, those security zones were the most dangerous areas in the entire country. UNPROFOR requested troops of 34,000 soldiers to secure the areas but were only granted 7,600[16] – the security areas were never sufficiently secured. Only 400-500 lightly armed so-called peacekeepers were stationed in and around Srebrenica, which in the summer of 1995 should become the epitome of horrors in this cleansing campaign.

Photo:Adam Jones/www.flickr.com/Creative Commons

#Srebrenica 1995

Under the command of General Mladic, the Serbs attacked the city of Srebrenica on the 11th July 1995 where roughly 50,000 Muslims sought protection at the time. Despite the fact that the Dutch UN troops on site were allowed to use force to defend attacks and to protect the security zones according to Resolution 836, they were so poorly armed and outnumbered that they had to give over without resistance. Mladic even took the UN soldiers hostage and brought them to Serbian bases to avoid air strikes by the NATO.[17] Reduced to inaction, the UN soldiers had to watch how the Serbian army separated all combat-able men and boys (16-60 years) from the women, girls and elderly: the 8,000 men and boys were deported and shot.

„ […] He lifts up its head to expose a strip of cloth bound tightly around the skull. It’s a blindfold. Then he rolls the body onto its side to show me the hands tightly bound behind the back with thick wire. […] When the U.S. made public its satellite photos showing mass graves being dug in this area, Serb leaders said that these graves contained only battlefield casualities. We now have proof that they are lying.“[18]

The women, girls and elderly were deported to neighbouring countries, and roughly 20,000 Muslims were able to flee.[19] In Zepa’s security zone, UN soldiers even helped to evacuate the women, girls and elderly. The men and boys were left to their fate.[20]

„If blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers show up in your town or village and offer to protect you, run. Or else get weapons. Your lives are worth much less than theirs.”[21]

This massacre was declared genocide by the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

#NATO intervention

The massacre was a political disaster for the UN and the NATO because it showed their flaws and unreliability. With the UN Security Council’s permission, the NATO launched an operation called ‘Deliberate Force’ in August 1995, bombing all Serbian bases in Bosnia. In support, Croatia, helped by the USA, sent an army to attack Serbian communities in Croatia in the course of ‘Operation Storm’. The fall of the Republic of Serbian Krajina forced many Serbs, and especially their leaders, to flee since the Serbian population now became the victims of ethnic cleansing themselves. Serbia’s defeat was sealed.[22]

Milosevic finally conceded in November 1995, and agreed to take part in peace talks which were to be held in Dayton, Ohio, USA. The NATO stopped a cruel four-year long war within less than 4 weeks. Its results are shocking: 250,000 deaths, 1.3 million refugees, and an estimated 20,000-50,000 victims of rape.[23]

“There are simple love letters, faded family snapshots, bills and receipts, children’s drawings. Each is a tiny part of the mosaic of tragedy, glimpses of a peaceful rural life before Serbs killed their Muslim neighbors and razed their houses.”[24]

Young women especially were targeted by the rapists: they were often victims of mass rapes and were abused frequently in front of their fathers or husbands over periods of days, weeks or months. Even men were victims of rape, the sexual abuse and humiliation was methodical, a central component of the cleansing campaign and an effective instrument of terror.[25]

„[…]Then he ordered me to undress. I was terribly afraid. I took of my clothes, feeling that I was falling apart. The feeling seemed under my skin; I was dying, my entire being was murdered. I closed my eyes, I couldn’t look at him. He hit me. I Fell. Then he lay on me. He did it to me. I cried, twisted my body convulsively, bled. I had been a virgin. He went out and invited two Chetniks to come in. I cried. The two repeated what the first one had done to me. I felt lost. I didn’t even know when they left. I don’t know how long I stayed there, lying on the floor alone, in a pool of blood. […] I had been raped, destroyed and terribly hurt.“[26] – E., 16 years

Photo:ICTY photos/www.flickr.com/Creative Commons


The perpetrators were the governing Serbian elite around Milosevic, as well as the military, police and the paramilitary, who also mobilised many civilians. The paramilitary consisted of two groups – Tigers and Chetniks – which performed tasks the military couldn’t officially accept, such as mutilation, rapes and the terrorisation of civilians. Young men in particular, who believed the Serbian race to be under threat, became part of the paramilitary.[27]


The peace treaty reached in Dayton set an end to the ethnic cleansing. A NATO force of approximately 60,000 soldiers were appointed as so-called peacekeepers.[28] The new state of Bosnia and Herzegovina was founded and put under the administration of the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe). Additionally, roughly 5 million US dollars were invested in the peace and reconstruction of the country.

The UN Security Council passed the Resolution 827, and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was founded as a result – the first international criminal tribunal since the Nuremberg trials.[29] Until today, a total of 161 people have been indicted – 141 of which faced trial. 18 of them were acquitted, and in 16 cases the proceedings were stopped because the accused were deceased (Milosevic amongst others).[30]

You can find the second part of this article here.


# Cain, K., Postlewait, H. & Thomson, A. (2004) Emergency Sex (and other desperate Measures). London: Ebury Press.

# ICTY (2014) Homepage. Available at: http://www.icty.org/ (12.10.2014)

# Jones, A. (2010) Genocide – A comprehensive Introduction. 2nd Edition. London and New York: Routledge.

# Neuffer, E. (2003) The Key to my Neighbour’s House – Seeking Justice in Bosnia and Rwanda. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

# Seybolt, T. B. (2007) Humanitarian Military Intervention – The Conditions for Success and Failure. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

# Spencer, P. (2012) Genocide since 1945 – Making of the contemporary World. London and New York: Routledge.

# United Nations (1996) Former Yugoslavia – UNPROFOR. Available at: http://www.un.org/Depts/DPKO/Missions/unprof_p.htm (12.10.2014)

# United Nations (1994) Report of the Secretary-General pursuant to Security Council Resolution 959 (1994) S/1994/1389. Available at: http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/1994/1389 (12.10.2014)

# Weitz, E. D. (2003) A Century of Genocide – Utopias of Race and Nation. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

# Wheeler, N. J. (2000) Saving Strangers – Humanitarian Intervention in International Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[1] Spencer (2012) S. 83
[2] H. Kahrimanovic in Neuffer (2000) pp. IX
[3] Spencer (2012) pp. 83
[4] Jones (2010) pp. 319
[5] UN (1996)
[6] Jones (2010) pp. 324
[7] Spencer (2012) pp. 84 und via Mail
[8] Spencer (2012) pp. 85
[9] Jones (2010) pp. 322
[10] Thomson in Emergency Sex (2004) pp. 250
[11] Jones (2010) pp. 322
[12] Spencer (2012) pp. 85
[13] Jones (2010) pp. 325
[14] Jones (2010) pp. 327
[15] Wheeler (2000) pp. 242- 247
[16] Boutros-Ghali in UN (1994) pp. 1
[17] Weitz (2003) pp. 217
[18] Thomson in Emergency Sex (2004) pp. 250- 251
[19] Spencer (2012) pp. 86
[20] Seybolt (2007) pp. 67
[21] Thomson in Emergency Sex (2004) pp. 253
[22] Weitz (2003) pp. 219
[23] Spencer (2012) pp. 85
[24] Thomson  Emergency Sex (2004) pp. 252
[25] Jones (2010) pp. 324
[26] Jones (2010) pp. 324
[27] Spencer (2012) pp. 87
[28] Spencer (2012) pp. 86
[29] Jones (2010) pp. 331- 332
[30] ICTY (2014)

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