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The Bosnian War

Background and Context
About the War


In April 1992, the government of the Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence from Yugoslavia. Over the next several years, Bosnian Serb forces, with the backing of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army, targeted both Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) and Croatian civilians for atrocious crimes resulting in the deaths of some 100,000 people (80 percent Bosniak) by 1995. It was the worst act of genocide since the Nazi regime’s destruction of some 6 million European Jews during World War II.


In the aftermath of the Second World War, the Balkan states of Bosnia-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 different Yugoslav republics threatened to split their union apart. This process intensified after the mid-1980s with the rise of the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who helped foment discontent between Serbians in Bosnia and Croatia and their Croatian, Bosniak and Albanian neighbors. In 1991, Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia declared their independence; during the war in Croatia that followed, the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army supported Serbian separatists there in their brutal clashes with Croatian forces.

A 1991 census showed that Bosnia’s population of some 4 million was 44 percent Bosniak, 31 percent Serb, and 17 percent Croatian. Elections held in late 1990 resulted in a coalition government split between parties representing the three ethnicities and led by the Bosniak Alija Izetbegovic. As tensions built inside and outside the country, the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his Serbian Democratic Party withdrew from government and set up their own “Serbian National Assembly.” On March 3, 1992, after a referendum vote, President Izetbegovic proclaimed Bosnia’s independence.


Far from seeking independence for Bosnia, 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) recognised Bosnia’s independence, Bosnian Serb forces with the backing of Milosevic and the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army launched their offensive with a bombardment of Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo. They attacked Bosniak-dominated town in eastern Bosnia, including Zvornik, Foca, and Visegrad, forcibly expelling Bosniak civilians from the region in a brutal process that later was identified as “ethnic cleansing.”

Though Bosnian government forces tried to defend the territory, sometimes with the help of the Croatian army, Bosnian Serb forces were in control of nearly three-quarters of the country by the end of 1993, and Karadzic’s party had set up their own Republika Srpska in the east.

The United Nations refused to intervene in the conflict in Bosnia, but a campaign spearheaded by its High Commissioner for Refugees provided humanitarian aid to its many displaced, malnourished and injured victims.

The 'Safe Havens' of Eastern Bosnia

By the summer of 1995, three towns in eastern Bosnia (Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde) remained under control of the Bosnian government. The U.N. had declared these enclaves “safe havens” in 1993, to be disarmed and protected by international peacekeeping forces.


On July 11, however, Bosnian Serb forces advanced on Srebrenica, overwhelming a battalion of Dutch peacekeeping forces stationed there. Serbian forces subsequently separated the Bosniak civilians at Srebrenica, putting the women and girls on buses and sending them to Bosnian-held territory. Some of the women were raped or sexually assaulted, while the men and boys who remained behind were killed immediately or bussed to mass killing sites.


Entire villages were destroyed and thousands of Bosnians were driven from their homes, held in detention camps, raped, tortured, deported, or killed. Estimates of Bosniaks killed by Serb forces at Srebrenica range from around 7,000 to more than 8,000.


Goražde became known, through its precarious isolation, as a Muslim enclave surrounded by Serbian forces.  For a number of reasons, in no small part due to UN military intervention, it did not suffer the fate of its infamous and tragic neighbours Srebrenica and Zepa.  After the fall of both these towns, Goražde became the last Muslim enclave in eastern Bosnia.  It was defended by the UN forces throughout 1994 –1995.

By 1994 more than 57,000 people had crowded into the beleaguered town of Gorazde, now a population of c.20,000. Many of them were refugees from surrounding villages. Many buildings were destroyed and all of the houses on the front line were shelled. Numerous families found shelter together.

The people of Goražde showed a strong will to survive. Life continued through home-made electricity generators floating on the river, providing 400 watts of electricity, which was enough to provide light and to allow people to occasionally read at night and to heat food throughout the bitter winter. Food was scarce and malnutrition common in the town.

In turn it was not until the cease-fire and Dayton Accord in 1995 that the roads from Goražde to Sarajevo were opened to civilian and UN traffic. Conditions in Goražde had been harsh, bearing the scars of years of a bitter struggle, and the town had remained virtually cut off during this time.

Today the town has returned to normality but its buildings and roads still show the pockmarks of war.

War Crimes

In 2001, Serbian General Radislav Krstic, who played a major role in the Srebrenica massacre, was convicted of genocide and sentenced to 46 years in prison. By early 2008, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia had convicted a further 45 Serbs, 12 Croats and 4 Bosniaks of war crimes in connection with the war in Bosnia. 

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