Dissolution of Yugoslavia 101: This Is Not a War, This Is Ethnic Cleansing

In the previous article of our "Dissolution of Yugoslavia 101 " article series, the Croatian and Slovenian Wars were mentioned, which began with the aggression of the Serbo-Yugoslav Army as a result of the declaration of independence of the Republics of Slovenia and Croatia. The peace negotiations, which started with the intervention of the Western states, gave hope to Bosnia-Herzegovina for independence, and in this direction, Bosnia began to take steps for independence, unaware of the sad end that awaited it. In this article, it will be discussed how the war that started with a spark turned into an ethnic cleansing supported by irredentist policies and how the Bosnian War was remembered as the shame of humanity.

Srebrenica. Photo by James Nachtwey

Multi-party general elections were held in Bosnia and Herzegovina in November 1990. According to the election results, the Party of Democratic Action (SDA) led by Muslim Alija Izetbegovic, then the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) led by Radovan Karadzic, and finally, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) led by Stjepan Kljuic, won seats in the parliament respectively. As it can be seen, Bosnia and Herzegovina were already divided into three in every respect, it would not be easy to put the pieces together. The declaration of independence of Slovenia and Croatia most affected Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The separation of these two republics from Yugoslavia meant a Bosnia and Herzegovina that would be completely crushed under the rule of Serbia. This is why immediately after the referendum held in March 1992, the Assembly of Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence. But the Serbs living in Bosnia and Herzegovina did not want independence, but, on the contrary, wanted to unite with Serbia. Therefore, in response to this declaration of independence, a Serbian Republic (Republika Srpska) was proclaimed by the Serbian nationalists within the borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina with the support of the Belgrade administration. From this point on, things were all balled up; these three nations, who had shared the same lands for centuries, were now on the verge of disintegration and chaos.

The Serbian Republic, which was created in Bosnia-Herzegovina, owed all its political, economic, and military support to the Belgrade administration. With the propaganda that a Muslim state would be created in Bosnia and Herzegovina and all Serbs would be massacred, Republika Srpska had brought Serbian paramilitaries from Belgrade. In addition, according to the Serbs, the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina jeopardized the ideology of "Greater Serbia", where all Serbs would unite and live under the same land. Thus, 80,000 Bosnian Serb soldiers serving under the Yugoslav Army were also prepared for the war to be waged in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Thus, the Serbs began to occupy villages and towns near the border with Serbia in order to take them away from the Muslims. But the occupation turned into a complete ethnic cleansing, and the world press was shaken by videos of bodies being transported by trucks. As an example of this, 49,000 Muslims used to live in the city of Zvornik in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, while none remained in the city after the massacre. These people were killed, some of them were taken to concentration camps, and the rest were exiled. It was almost like the biggest massacre after the Holocaust was happening in front of Europe's door. However, unfortunately, this was only the beginning of a series of terrible events to come.

However, it would not be right to see the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina only as a part of the Greater Serbia ideal. As a matter of fact, the ideology of "Greater Croatia", which can be considered as a project to unite the Croats living in the Herzegovina region, especially in the south of Bosnia-Herzegovina, to their homeland, has a great share in the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. According to Croatian nationalism, there is no separate Bosniak nation; Bosniaks are "Islamized Croats" under the influence of the Ottoman Empire. Thus, the Tudjman-led Greater Croatia project was as responsible for the Bosnian War as was the Serbian aggression. Both irredentist nationalist movements aimed to annex Bosnia and Herzegovina. For this purpose, negotiations were held between Serbia and Croatia to share Bosnia and Herzegovina. The first meeting was held in Karadjordjevo on March 26, 1991, between Croatian President Tudjman and Serbian President Milosevic. The second and third talks between the two nationalist leaders were held in Austria from February to May 1992. As a result of this meeting, it was decided to connect 60% of Bosnia and Herzegovina's territory to Serbia and 30% (Herzegovina region) to Croatia. The remaining 10% would allow the establishment of a Muslim Bosnian state in the small-central region.

The remains of the Stari-Most Bridge in Mostar. Photo by Edward Serotta.

As it turned out, Croatia and Serbia had already decided the fate of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Of course, in this case, no one asked Bosnian Muslims anything. Drafts drawn up on paper were just an extension of radical nationalist ideas. Serbs attacked from the north and east of Bosnia and Herzegovina, while Croats went to war with Muslims in the south. This war, called the Croatian-Muslim War, lasted from 1992 to 1994. During this period, the concentration camps that Croats created for Bosnian Muslims would also be recorded in history. Bosnian Muslims, caught between two irredentist policies, were deprived of a decently organized army and a sufficient amount of military ammunition. The result was a massacre for Bosnia.

Srebrenica, which was the refuge of Muslim refugees at the beginning of the war, would be the last straw. The mass slaughter of 8,372 people by the Serbian Army and Serbian paramilitaries, was remembered as the greatest crime against humanity after World War II. This massacre, which was carried out with the connivance of the Western powers, was later accepted as a legally documented genocide. All this brutality in front of the eyes in the modern world of the 20th century has also revealed that humanity has not progressed as much as it was thought. SFR Yugoslavia, driven into the abyss by nationalist policies, has already collapsed; Bosnia and Herzegovina, which wanted to survive this destruction, was almost shot in the back. Lost lives, exhausted hopes, and all this suffering as a result of irredentist policies left behind only a fragmented Bosnia and Herzegovina that could not be found how to unite it.


  • Bora, Tanıl. Bosna-Hersek: Yeni Dünya Düzeni’nin Av Sahası. İstanbul: Birikim Yayınları, 1994.

  • Mesic, Stipe. The Demise of Yugoslavia: A Political Memoir. Central European University Press, 2004.

  • Sancaktar, Caner. “Sosyalist Yugoslavya’nın Yıkılışında Hırvat Milliyetçiliğinin Rolü.” Akademik İncelemeler Dergisi, 2019. Dergi Park, doi:10.17550/akademikincelemeler.608920.

  • “Srebrenica Massacre.” Wikipedia, 22 Sept. 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Srebrenica_massacre.

  • “The Death of Yugoslavia: The Gates of Hell 4/6.” YouTube, uploaded by Ethnovision, 7 Jan. 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=XDOrEGQtXSg&list=PLdw7wnKe0wiUSNdugFGpnSfm6wt-9gvUt&index=7.

Author Photo

Umut Açıkgöz

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