Twenty years have passed since the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence from Yugoslavia at the beginning of March 1992. Bosnian independence came after Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia had left Yugoslavia in 1991. Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav dictator, proclaimed Serbian “independence” inside Yugoslavia—of which Serbia was the dominant constituent—in 1990.
Milosevic did not object to the secession of Macedonia. But the Belgrade regime sent the Yugoslav People’s Army (YPA) to assault newly-freed Slovenia. Hostilities between the Milosevic government and the well-organized Slovenes lasted only 10 days and left fewer than 100 dead on both sides. The tranquil divorce of Macedonia and the short battle by Slovenia for self-determination are nearly forgotten today. Yet Croatia declared its sovereignty simultaneously with and was attacked at the same time as Slovenia, and underwent four years of war, from 1991 to 1995.
Muslim politicians in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, were less than enthusiastic about independence. Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic, the first post-Yugoslav head of state who had never been a Communist, refused to take sides between Serbia and Croatia. As pointed out in the excellent History of Bosnia, by Marko Hoare (2007), Izetbegovic allowed the YPA to attack Croatia from Bosnia, and opposed international recognition of Slovenia and Croatia. Meanwhile, Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman, the eccentric ex-Communist general who became leader of Croatia, had already met in March 1991 and agreed to partition Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In the first week of April 1992 Serbian “republics” had been set up in the north and west of Bosnia. Serbian irregulars had commenced arrests, executions, internment in concentration camps, rapes, and deportation, with the euphemistic title “ethnic cleansing,” of non-Serbs within the “republics.” The Bosnian Muslim politicians waited almost three months before proclamation of a state of war and a general mobilization.
The Croatian and Bosnian wars are remembered chiefly for the universal shock at the prolific atrocities in both. Of 4.5 million Bosnians, at least 100,000 were killed and two million became refugees. Few were prepared for such horrors in Europe, and the reaction of the European powers was ambiguous. Twelve European states and the United States had recognized independent Bosnia-Herzegovina. But United Nations “protection” troops sent to Sarajevo included British and French contingents whose political leaders expressed marked sympathy for Serbia. The crimes witnessed in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina induced many to dismiss the wars as expressions of irresolvable barbarism.
The United States opposed the breakup of Yugoslavia. Recognizing, however, that the Bosnians had been reluctant participants in the destruction of the former state, Washington provided limited arms and training to the so-called “Muslim forces.” In reality, the “Bosnian Muslim” army included Serbian, Croatian, and Jewish top officers and soldiers. Still, as the war continued, and it appeared that world leaders would stand aside and let the Bosnian bloodletting proceed, Islamist trends appeared in the Bosnian military, and non-Muslim officers were downgraded. An unknown number of so-called “mujahideen,” in the low thousands and ineffectual in combat, traveled to Bosnia to defend the Muslims. But the “mujahideen,” although committing atrocities, won no battles and never influenced the direction of the war.
The Bosnian suffering continued, epitomized by the siege of Sarajevo, in which some 12,000 people were killed, 1,100 of them children. The war’s brutality culminated in the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995, when 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were slaughtered and thrown into mass graves by Serbian forces. Srebrenica occurred under the eyes of Dutch peacekeepers, who appeared less motivated by sympathy for Serbia than by unwillingness to risk their own safety by safeguarding Bosnians. Then the United States intervened, and NATO bombed Serb positions. Bill Clinton pushed Britain and France to agree to a forced peace, and summoned Izetbegovic, Milosevic, and Tudjman to Dayton, where a ceasefire was imposed. The Dayton Accords made the division between a “Serb Republic” and a “Bosniak-Croat Federation” permanent, with each controlling about half the country. The price of peace was appeasement of Serbian ambitions.