by Jim Bartlett, Editor-in-Chief
Part 1 · The Terrain
Part 2 · Why the War?
Part 3 · The Armies
Part 4 · Land Mines
opens old wounds
Before the war in Bosnia, the people of the Former Yugoslavia lived in harmony under the umbrella of Josip Tito, the WWII resistance leader who became its Communist premiere in 1943. The country was a prime tourist destination boasting an exotic ethnic makeup and breathtaking natural beauty.
All this began to change after Tito's death in 1980 and the evaporation of the Iron Curtain in 1990. With Eastern European nations rushing to the Democratic banner, Yugoslavia was fated to experience a difficult birth into the new age of Democracy. Yugoslavia always had a history of ethnic animosity, but the savagery unleashed during WWII left lasting scars the area was just beginning to leave behind. Those old wounds were re-opened with the fall of Communism in the Eastern Bloc.
In 1989, things began to change for the worse with the sudden plunge into democracy. Mature, populist politicians and former Communist Party hacks intent on maintaining their privileged position began to stir the ethnic pot. Playing on the fears of the ethnic minorities, some real and some imagined, the nationalists formented distrust and suspicion to the boiling point. In April, 1990, the Democratic Croatian Union (HDZ) under Dr. Franjo Tudman won Croatia's democratic elections and things started downhill at a rapid clip. At the time, most of Croatia's 600,000 Serbs were urbanized and fully integrated into Croatia's cosmopolitan society.
From the marble halls of Croatia's capitol city of Zagreb, Tudman's advisors saw little or no problem with these Serbs going along into a new age of an independent, Croat-dominated Croatia. They forgot, however, the section of Serbian society outside the cities. As author and correspondent Misha Glenny put it, "The economic horizons of the rural Serbs are limited, but the early post-feudal concepts of land and home are central to their thinking and sense of security. Passive for decades, when they believed their homes were under threat, their harmless ignorance transformed itself into something extremely dangerous." Equally powerfully forces that were ignored by Tudman and his team were also still lurking beneath the surface.
Religious Hatred in the Farmlands
Unrecognized by the Tudman government was the antipathy held for Serbs by rural Croats especially in the regions of Hercegovina and Eastern Slovenia, where the war eventually broke out. Also hidden just below an otherwise placid surface was the age-old Catholic and Orthodox Christian animosity towards Islam, stemming from the brutal occupation of the region by the Ottoman Turks 400 years prior. After Tudman's ascension to power, certain Croat administrations began pink-slipping Serbs from the civil service and military positions they had traditionally held for generations.
The rural Serbs took this to be a sign of ominous things to come, perhaps even the return of the Croatian Ustashi of WWII who, under the guise of their alliance with Hitler, had slaughtered Serbs on a massive scale. So savage was the conduct of the Ustahi that even the Germans were appalled, and made their disgust known to Berlin in numerous dispatches. Tensions rose and serious blood was about to be spilled. In August, 1990, there had been sporadic clashes, but these had been successfully contained to prevent any widespread outbreak of serious fighting.
Intolerance Grows into War
By May, 1991, Serbian President Slobodon Milosovic had provocateurs in the form of Chetnick agitators stirring up the already HDZ-formented unease of Serbs in Eastern Slovenia. An insignificant suburb of Vukovar, Borovo Selo, was destined to be the site of the spark that set off the powder keg. Serbs and Croats in the area had negotiated a deal whereby Croatian police were not allowed into the town unless authorized.
On May 1st, two out-of-uniform Croat cops broke this regulation and were arrested after a provocative flag-pulling and gunfire incident on the outskirts of the town. On May 2nd, acting on his own initiative, and well aware of the brokered deal, the chief of police in Vincovci sent in 20 more police to find them, then another 150. When the smoke cleared, twelve Croats and three Serbs were dead.
Tensions and violence rose in the area until July and August when the whole of Croatia blew, sent flying inextricably down the path of the most savage kind of fratricidal warfare. This fighting raged in Croatia until late November, when the United Nations secured a tenuous cease-fire that left Serbian elements in control of roughly a third of Croatia which they dubbed the Republiska Serbska Krajina (the republic of Serbian Krajina). By this time, the majority of Croatians had been expelled or "Ethnically Cleansed" from the region and the rift between the parties was irreparable.
Horrors of World War II Return
During the winter of 1991-92, Serbian agitators were busy in neighboring Bosnia. While spared the fighting that rocked Croatia in the summer of 1991, these forces were stirring up the age-old fear of Fundamentalist Islam with peasant Serbs living in the mountains. This was not helped by the fact that in WWII, Muslims from certain regions had actively cooperated with the Fascists, at one time even forming a full S.S. division, the 13th S.S. Gebergsjager, to combat Tito's Partisans. Further complicating a delicate situation was the formation of democratic political parties which tended to run along ethnic lines.
Following the international recognitions of Slovenia and Croatia, full independence from Yugoslavia was the only option open to President Allija Izetbegovic, a Muslim. Living under Serbian rule administered from Belgrade would be unacceptable to Croats and Muslims in Bosnia. Yet Izetbegovic's party, the SDA, would make the same mistake made by the HDZ when it came to purging opposing minorities from the civil services, invariably Serbs. This is even more confusing, considering that early in the political swirl they were associated with the SDS, the Serbian Democratic Party, a fact that would later hurt them in their relationship with the Croats of HDZ.
Neighbor vs. Neighbor
Most villages and towns in Bosnia were mixed ethnically with one district flying the green crescents of the Muslim SDA, another the red-checkered shield of the Croat HDZ, while still others flew the blue and white of the Serbian SDS. When war came, it would be neighbor on neighbor, with the butcher, baker, and candlestick-maker slugging it out with whatever they could lay hands on. But the biggest punch on the block was still lurking below the surface.
All during this pre-war political swirl, Serbian president Slobodan Milosovic and SDS leader Radovan Karadzic knew that the situation couldn't last and were busily preparing for the inevitable. Milosovic, facing a rapidly-shrinking Yugoslav Republic, was determined to hold onto Bosnia and saw the Serbs under Karadzic as the way to do it. All through the winter and spring of 1991-92, Milosovic was reinforcing the Jugoslav National Army (JNA) in Bosnia and arming the Serbian paramiltaries with everything at the JNA's disposal, then the fourth largest army in Europe. This imbalance of power was to doom the SDA's dreams of an ethnically-harmonious and united Bosnia.
In the spring of 1992, they began digging in above Sarajevo with the excuse of "defending the city". The war in Croatia had alerted everyone to the possibility of what war would bring, but most went on about their business. At the beginning of March, 1992, the European Community announced that Bosnia would be recognized as an independent nation following the results of a soon-to-be held referendum. The referendum was won by the SDA and HDZ, and soon, war erupted across the entire region.
Ethnic Cleansing: War's New Weapon
When the war finally came, the JNA rolled out of their barracks with vigor and Serb paramilitary units followed, leaving the most savage acts of pillaging and rape in their wake. It was a one-sided match with the JNA's heavy weapons blasting lightly armed BiH militia, and putting a stranglehold on Sarajevo.
Closely behind was a rag-tag collection of Chetnick paramilitary squads and "Volunteers" from Serbia proper who were self-proclaimed defenders of the Serb people and warriors against fundamentalist Islam. Whatever weight they may have lent to the efforts of the JNA are debatable. They did have a panache for systematic rape, murder, and pillage on a scale unprecedented since WWII. Before the lines finally stabilized, they had seized 70% of Bosnia and busied themselves expelling all non-Serbs in waves of "ethnic cleansing" that became infamous worldwide.
The stabilizing of the front was not to be the end of dramatic and bloody events in Bosnia. In the Spring of 1993, for reasons still unclear, the forces of SDA, BiH and the Bosnian Croat HDZ backed the HVO. Initially allies, they turned on each other with a viciousness that was appalling even by the standards set by the Serb Chetnicks.
The fighting raged for a year before a U.S.-led negotiation team secured a cease-fire and set up a tenuous Muslim-Croat alliance. In the meantime, vast amounts of men and material were expended on the bloodbath and the ancient city of Mostar, once the showcase of multi-ethnic harmony, was utterly destroyed. It remains to be seen if the wounds caused by this pointless struggle can be repaired.
In the meantime, while actively aiding the HVO in it's war against the Muslims in Hercegovina, the Croatian government in Zagreb was steadily increasing the strength, organization, and discipline of its national army, the Harvatski Vonjik, or HV. Croatia was economically crippled.
A third of Croatia was still occupied by rebel Serb forces from the war in 1991. Without the land held by the Serbs along Croatia's Dalmatian coast, its tourist-fed golden goose, Croatia remained largely inaccessible. With Serb forces weakened by various political moves on the part of Milosovic, attrition from the ongoing war with the BiH, and spread thin over hundreds of miles of active front lines, the Croat HV struck.
1995 Sees Serb Defeats
The summer of 1995 saw several lightning campaigns carried out by the HV that have routed the Serbs from all but a tiny part of Croatian soil. The first was the retaking of a sizable Serbian bulge in Slovenia that had effectively disrupted commerce from Zagreb in the west to Osijek in the east along Croatia's top "finger" bordering northen Bosnia.
The next came in Dalmatia and drove the Serbs from their traditional stronghold in Knin and away from the tourist areas on the coast. The third was a blitzkreig across the rolling hills of Banija around Karlovac in the center of the country, and a lifting the siege of Bihac in the western tip of Bosnia. Such setbacks divided and demoralized Serb leadership and this was quickly exploited by the BiH and the HVO.
In August,1995, following yet another breadline massacre, the Clinton administration launched a series of NATO air raids that further crippled Serb supply and communication lines and threw their military off balance. This opportunity was seized by offensives that have driven the Serbs into their present holdings in Eastern Bosnia and Posavina around Banja Luka.
These recent gains conveniently redrew the physical front lines to match the map lines concocted by the U.S.-led group conducting the peace negotiations. The signing of the full peace accord at Dayton, Ohio, has, with one exception, sealed the lines as they are and put a general cease-fire into effect across the country.
Serious questions remain concerning occupied Croat land in the east around Vukovar, and the implementation of various parts of the accord. But now, a 60,000-man NATO peace force will deploy to Bosnia to begin implementing the provisions of the accord. That much is certain. Whether the parties will ever forgive each other for the savagery they have inflicted, and come to a lasting accommodation, remains to be seen.
International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia The United Nations
Coalition for International Justice
Major War Criminals/Suspects CalTech's Bosnia Site
Reports on War Crimes in the Former Yugoslavia CalTech's Bosnia Site
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