I put off working on this one for a while because this is a damned complicated conflict and I knew it would be a lot of work to try and present an accurate description of events. However, it is time to tackle the Bosnia conflict…
Now, if you just want to look at pictures or you consider yourself an expert, feel free to jump down and skip the text below. However, I put a lot of work into writing this and I think in the final product I have done a respectable job of explaining the conflict in an understandable and unbiased fashion. So, if you wish to hear an impression of the causes and the conflict from an independent source, please continue reading:
Croats, Serbs and Muslims have a particular history and cultural background, but they are all South Slavs and speak essentially the same language. Their chief distinguishing characteristic is religious. Croats are Roman Catholics; Serbs are Orthodox Christians; and Muslims are generally descended from those Slavs who converted to Islam during the 500-year Ottoman occupation.
The stage was set for conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina when the Serbian propaganda machine shifted its focus from the mythical Ustasha hordes of Croatia (following the declaration of independence from Yugoslavia of Croatia) to the mythical Islamic fundamentalist threat. Bear in mind though that Bosnia’s Muslim population, especially after 50 years of socialism, was mainly secular and very pro-European.
Representing 44% majority of the country’s population, Bosnian Muslims feared that both Serbian and Croatian lust to take Bosnia and Herzegovina would leave them nation-less. For years they were sandwiched between the power struggles of Croatian and Slovenia on one hand and Serbia on the other.
As was done in Slovenia and Croatia (which led to declarations of independence for both), a referendum for independence was held in Bosnia in March 1992. The Bosnian Croats and Muslims were among the 65% of Bosnia’s population who voted in favor, while a majority of the Serbian population boycotted the vote. Despite Serbian threats, Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence. The day the results were announced Serb paramilitary forces set up barricades and sniper posts near the parliament building in Sarajevo. On the 6th of April 1992 the European Union and the United Nations recognized Bosnia-Herzegovina as an independent state. On the same day the JNA (Yugoslav National Army) and Serbian paramilitaries attacked Sarajevo. Tens of thousands of Sarajevans of all nationalities took to the streets to protest in front of the barricades. As they peacefully marched towards the barricade a sniper from the hill fired into the crowd, killing a Serbian woman from Sarajevo and a Muslim girl from Dubrovnik. This sparked the beginning of what would be a long and brutal campaign against Bosnia’s populations.
As the West struggled to make sense of the Bosnian conflict, Serbian paramilitaries (grouped under the banner of the “Serb Volunteer Guard”) had already moved into northeastern Bosnia. Led by Zeljko Raznatovic (aka Arkan) and his Tigers of Serbia, they began to systematically terrorize, loot and kill non-Serbs. The goal was to conquer territories to the west in order to link them to the breakaway Serb region in Croatia and extend south all along the border with Serbia (thus linking the Serbian areas and securing supply lines).
The psychology of convincing the local Serb population that they were under threat was a decisive factor in turning the Bosnian Serbs against their neighbors. Months of television reports warned Serbs of Croatian fascists and an impending Muslim jihad. The fighting in Croatia, for example, was often portrayed by the Belgrade-run Radio Television as a repeat slaughter by the Utasha regime that had killed so many Serbs in World War II. It was easy to manipulate and scare the largely uneducated peasant Serb population of eastern Bosnia.
At their peak, the Serbs had linked with their brothers in arms in the Croatian Krajina and the Slavonia region in eastern Croatia, and the realization of a Greater Serbia was in sight. At this point Milosevic had gained much of what he and Serbs saw as Serbian land, and his tactics changed to political maneuvering to secure his new-found Serbian state.
Characters like Arkan get most of the press because of their talent for self-promotion. But, there are plenty of characters such as Major Rajko Kusic that were in the field as well.
Journalist Kim Willsher does a far better job than I could of summing up Rajko Kusic:
…known as the Butcher of Rogatica, and little more than a jumped-up thug. Kusic, a short, dumpy man with a droopy moustache, was not a professional soldier, but a militiaman in charge of an armed gang of ethnic cleansers. Before the war he worked as a foreman in an engineering factory at Rogatica, but when the conflict erupted he organised an irregular force of local Serbs known as the Rogatica Mountain Brigade.
A classic tin-pot brigand, he would swagger around armed with a pump-action shotgun, flanked by bandolier-swathed militiamen clutching heavy machineguns, terrorising local Muslims. As the Serb ethnic-cleansing juggernaut thundered across Bosnia leaving thousands of dead and dispossessed in its wake, Kusic rounded up Rogatica’s Muslims and gave them a choice. Stay or go. In fact, there was no choice. Those who elected to remain in the homes their families had lived in for generations were herded into the town’s sawmill and slowly fed into the jaws of the spinning blades.
Those who decided to leave were given an hour’s head start, then hunted down like animals by Kusic’s men with dogs. When caught they were crucified on trees. ‘That,’ added the British source, `is how Kusic does business. It was a bloody nightmare for every-one including the British soldiers who came across him.’
Rajko Kusic remains wanted for war crimes following investigation of his activities in Rogatica. At the end of 2004 reports said that he had turned up in the war in Chechnya, sent there by the Russian secret services at the head of a group of Serbs. His current whereabouts are unknown to The Velvet Rocket staff.
And then there were the rape camps that the Serbs operated throughout Bosnia as part of their ethnic cleansing campaign… The largest rape camp was at the Partizan Sports Complex in the town of Foca, where thousands of Bosnian women were systematically brutalized.
I could go on and on…
Don’t think that it was just Serbs that were unpleasant though. Many in Bosnia-Herzegovina fell prey to the ruthless desire of the majority ethnic group in one region to evict minority groups. That was the policy of the Serbs in many parts of Bosnia; but the same policy was clearly being pursued by Muslims in areas like Gorazde and by Croats in areas such as Mostar.
During the initial stages of the Balkans conflict, the perceived indifference of the West, led the leader of the Bosnian Muslims, Alija Izetbegovic to appeal to Muslim states for assistance. Iran and Saudi Arabia responded happily and helped circumvent an embargo that was preventing Bosnia from legally arming itself. Funds from Iran were channeled through the Iranian embassies in Sarajevo and Vienna, and according to several sources, arms deals were arranged there. The airfield at Visoko, northwest of Sarajevo, served as a secret landing place for arms shipments from Iran, bringing light arms, anti-aircraft ammunition and antitank missiles to Muslim fighters in the growing civil war.
According to British intelligence reports, some two hundred advisers from the Iranian Republican Guard were in Bosnia during that period, and from 1,000 to 3,000 volunteers – including some from Hezbollah – came to help the Muslims. At first they fought as disorganized militias; but soon a special unit was established for the volunteers: the al-Mujahid Brigade, part of the 7th Division of the Bosnian army’s Third Corps.
Some one thousand of these foreign volunteers allegedly remained in Bosnia after the war. Some were in the cities and villages; others established their own communities, taking in hundreds of local supporters and building an infrastructure based solely on Sharia law. In the village of Bocina, for example, the mujahideen fighters settled in the homes of Christians who had been driven out, and instituted a strict religious regime, closer to that of Taliban-controlled villages in Afghanistan than to anything in twenty-first century Europe.
The networks set up by the Revolutionary Guards of Iran in the Balkans, especially in Bosnia and Albania, are certainly still active. For example: An indictment was submitted in 2003 against three former senior officials of Bosnian intelligence (AID), including its former chief Bakir Alispahic, and two of his top aides, who were charged with maintaining illegal links with the Iranian Intelligence Ministry, selling secrets to Tehran and planning terror operations.
During the investigation, authorities uncovered a damning load of evidence in the small village of Pogorelica. There, in an enormous wooden hut, which from the outside looks like a ski lodge, the Bosnian intelligence chiefs were alleged to have run their own private school for terror, under Iranian sponsorship.
Inside this hut there were classrooms and a large armory containing explosives, pistols, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, grenades and ammunition ranging from Russian AK-47s with regular rounds to rifles with telescopic sights and silencers, dumdum bullets and unmarked magazines, preventing the owners from being traced.
And just last month on February 2nd, Bosnian anti-terror police raided the northeastern Bosnian village of Gornja Maoca. Bosnia’s largest Wahabi community lives in Gornja Maoca which is near the northeastern town of Brcko. The residents are farmers who refuse to watch television or use telephones (Editor’s note: That doesn’t sound so bad). They say they do not like to mix with anyone outside of their community. Their children do not attend public schools — itself a violation of the Bosnian laws.
The villagers were accused of “jeopardising Bosnia’s constitutional order and spreading national, racial and religious hatred,” the Bosnian prosecutor’s office said in a statement.
Police also said they uncovered a large quantity of weapons from a number of buildings searched during the raids.
Later in the month, it was announced that among those arrested was a former Bosnian Army commander, 51-year-old Zulfikar Alispago, whose unit allegedly killed 19 civilians and three soldiers during an attack on the Bosnian Croat village of Trusina, south of Sarajevo, during the war.
Conclusion At The Bottom
Visit Sarajevo today and it would not be a surprise to have your first impression be that this city has fully recovered from the violence and deprivations of the 1990s:
Kazandziluk Street is a famous trading place for coppersmiths on the west side of Bascarsija and Sebilj Square. Here you can find great antiques, hand-carved copper dishes and oriental decor on offer.
Over one million projectiles from mortars and artillery pounded Sarajevo during its 1,400-day siege. So, what did the craftsmen do with all of the spent cartridges? They carved beautiful designs on them and now offer them for sale:
Sarajevo is sometimes called the Jerusalem of the Balkans. It’s at the crossroads of the West and the East, a place where Islam meets Christianity.
Bosnian government building:
This guy could do incredible things with that soccer ball:
These guys were amazingly fast… They’d probably beat me in under five moves:
This building is efficiently named the Old Synagogue:
Seems serene and charming, doesn’t it?
But then you start noticing blast damage like this on many of the buildings:
And more and more structures that still look like this:
Firearms are still readily available:
And there are still plenty of soldiers about:
Toward the end of the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Markale market on Mula Mustafe Basekije was mortared, allegedly, by the Bosnian Serbs. Although today it is a bustling market it was this massacre that killed over 60 civilians and convinced the Clinton administration to push for air strikes. Within months of the Markale massacre all parties were at the peace table and the Dayton Accords were signed soon after.
Alipasina Mosque was one of the most dangerous spots during the war. Hastily made blinds of sheets, bombed-out buses and whatever was available were placed near the mosque to block the view of snipers:
Food, ammunition and supplies were brought to Sarajevo by its only self-sustaining lifeline – a 700-yard tunnel that ran under the UN-controlled airport. Sarajevo’s population was forced to live with little food and water, no electricity and under constant sniper and artillery fire for over 1,200 days. Some 10,000 civilians were killed in Sarajevo while it was under so-called UN protection.
It was on these hills surrounding Sarajevo that the Bosnian Serbs placed their snipers, mortars and artillery with such devastating effectiveness:
The Iranian influence mentioned in my opening is both covert and overt:
Informed readers will recall that Sarajevo was at the center of a war more than once in the last century…
This bridge pictured below used to be unofficially named Princip’s Bridge, but was changed in 1993 to the more politically palatable name of “Latinska Bridge”. You see, it was here that Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his pregnant wife were traveling when the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip shot and killed them both on June 28th, 1914. The assassination sparked Austria to declare war on Serbia. Russia immediately sided with the Serbs and World War I was game on.
The bridge gets all of the attention because it is more picturesque, but the actual assassination spot was this corner pictured here next to the bridge:
During the 1992-1995 Bosnian war 150,000 to 200,000 people, mostly Muslims, died.
In this war there were no winners. Everyone lost and most people in Bosnia-Herzegovina feel their respective ethnic group is the victim.
In the case of the Bosnian Serbs, they saw the Croatian model as a sign of what was to come should Bosnia become an independent state. The Serbs, with the unhealed wounds of the Jasenovac concentration camp of World War II and the deaths of large numbers of Serbs, favored Yugoslavia remaining intact. Most of them were born in Yugoslavia and it was the only country they (and others) knew. The Bosnian Serbs did not see Yugoslavia as being dominated by Serbia as other ethnic groups did. They saw it as a multi-ethnic state comprised of six republics, all of which had fair and equal representation. To them, and fairly so, it was logical to support and “defend” the country they were born in. They saw the rise of Croatian nationalism and the rise of the Muslim SDA party as a direct threat to them. When the JNA supported the Serbs, it was seen as the legitimate government of Yugoslavia defending its citizens and its territory. To many of them it was very much as if California had declared independence and the federal government sent troops in to quell the rebellion. Therefore, they saw military operations by the JNA and Bosnian Serbs as defensive in nature.
The Bosnian Croat point of view, obviously, differed significantly. The Croats who had once had significant numbers throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina, had seen their numbers drastically reduced throughout history – from the Ottoman and Partisan eras. The Croats, many of whom sided with Hitler in World War II, suffered greatly in defeat. They viewed the early years of Tito’s regime as brutal and murderous. Many Croatian areas viewed by the Partisans as being loyal to the Ustasha and the fascist state, were heavily persecuted and were denied many of the development programs that Tito’s Yugoslavia implemented. This sentiment remains quite heavy in western Herzegovina even today. The Croats strongly felt under-represented in business, government, police and the military and that the Serbs were over-represented. When Croatia proper voted for independence, it was only natural for them to do the same. They viewed Herceg-Bosna, an autonomous Croatian state, as a way to protect their identity and join with Croatia and fit into the majority.
The Bosnian Muslims were caught in the middle of these two nationalist sentiments. The Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) were and are largely a secular Muslim community. They are mostly Slavs, share the same language and a similar identity with their Croatian and Serbian neighbors. They, however, did not have a “reserve” country. Bosnia-Herzegovina was and is the homeland. Whereas much sentiment of the Bosnian Serbs bends toward Belgrade and the Bosnian Croats toward Zagreb, the Bosniaks knew that Sarajevo was their capital and Bosnia-Herzegovina their only country. The Bosnian Muslims were literally stuck in a violent tug-of-war.