Twenty years have now passed since the brutal subjugation of the besieged town of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina, after which 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were slaughtered by Serbs commanded by ex-Yugoslav army general Ratko Mladic. The terrible episode is itself worth commemorating, and its background also merits review for what it reveals about Western – and, especially, Clinton administration – policy toward the Balkan Wars of the 1990s.
When the Bosnian war began in 1992 – during the withdrawal of ex-Yugoslav forces from Croatia and after Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence – Srebrenica was mainly Muslim, with members of that faith accounting for about 64 percent of the town residents, Orthodox Christian Serbs at 28 percent, and the rest identified as Catholic Croats, Yugoslavs, or “other.”
To remember Srebrenica is, for close observers, to recall the whole Bosnian War. During the Yugoslav breakup, Bosnia-Herzegovina was in in no hurry to leave the Communist state. Slovenia, however, saw commercial advantages to being a separate country thanks to its elevated standard of living (the highest in the socialist “federation”) and borders with Italy, Austria, and Hungary. In Croatia, nationalist sentiments were most aggravated. Even in both of those “republics,” prominent voices called for maintaining Yugoslavia as a looser federation or customs union. To that, the Serb Communist bosses headed by Slobodan Milosevic said no. Still, the Yugoslav war did not have to happen. Of all the Communist countries, Yugoslavia, with a liberated intellectual life and a record of encouraging free enterprise, could have led the Eastern European transition away from its collectivist heritage to stability and prosperity. It was not to be.
Yet when Slovenia and Croatia declared independence in 1991, Alija Izetbegovic, head of the multiethnic Bosnian presidency, advocated for continuation of a reorganized Yugoslavia comprising Serbia and Montenegro as a core, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia as associated “republics,” and Slovenia and Croatia as sovereign members of a confederation. To that also, Milosevic and his cohort replied negatively, as did the new Croatian president Franjo Tudjman. But the Izetbegovic effort reflected the Bosnian president’s belief that Yugoslavia could be preserved. Although defamed by Serbian propagandists as an Islamist radical, Izetbegovic was a moderate Muslim, and his political organization, the Party of Democratic Action) was (and remains) a movement representing Muslim community interests rather than Islamic ideology. Izetbegovic’s attempts to maintain peace included disarming the Bosnian territorial defense units. The Muslim leader cleaved to the notion that a three-member presidency made up of Muslims, Serbs, and Croats, would keep Bosnia-Herzegovina together.
He was mistaken. In February-March 1992, Bosnia-Herzegovina held a referendum on independence, which was boycotted by the Serbs and approved by the rest of the voters. Bosnian self-determination was proclaimed, but Serb radicals and Bosnian defenders in Sarajevo had already established competing barricades in the city. Serbian forces swarmed west across the border between the two Yugoslav “republics,” seizing the Bosnian frontier and expelling and murdering Muslim, Croat, and other inhabitants.
Thus a new and repellent euphemism appeared in global politics and media: “ethnic cleansing.” The term implied that non-Serbs were filth or infected. Serbian atrocities in Bosnia-Herzegovina were vile, including mass rapes, the establishment of concentration camps, and the deliberate destruction of cultural monuments such as the National and University Library in Sarajevo and hundreds of Ottoman-era mosques and Croatian Catholic churches. Most of northern and eastern Bosnia succumbed to Serbian aggression quickly. By 1993, numerous Muslim refugees had gathered in the eastern Bosnian enclaves of Zepa, Srebrenica, and Gorazde, surrounded by Serbian troops. Srebrenica fell at the beginning of July 1995, and Zepa at the end of the month. Only Gorazde was held by the Bosnians.