Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1992-1995

The perpetrators of the Bosnian genocide introduced the term “ethnic cleansing” into common parlance to sanitize the deaths of 100,000 people. These deaths were not the result of ancient hatreds, but of the cynical manipulation of difference by politicians amid the breakup of the multi-ethnic state of Yugoslavia.

After World War II, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Slovenia united to form the communist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia led by president Josip Tito. Tito sought a balance of power that did not privilege any group over the others, but this system calcified ethnic boundaries and fed resentment. His death in 1980 left a power vacuum which was exploited by politicians who began to build blocs of support based on ethnic identity. Bosnia-Herzegovina was the most ethnically diverse region of Yugoslavia. While Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) formed a large part of the population, they lived together with many Serbs and Croats in the same towns and cities. When Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence in 1992, this threatened the power of the Serb-dominated center of power and their dreams of a “Greater Serbia.”

The Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), which was controlled by the Serbs, used Bosnian Serb paramilitary forces as a cover to invade newly independent Bosnia. These forces used murder, terror, and expulsions to remove non-Serbs from the country. Frequent massacres were accompanied by a systematic campaign of mass rape and forced impregnation. The most infamous massacre was the murder of 7,000 Bosniak men and boys and the expulsion of 23,000 women, children, and elderly men from Srebrenica, a UN-designated safe area. Those who survived the massacres were sometimes sent to concentration camps where torture and starvation were the norm. The civilian population of the city of Sarajevo was subjected to a years long siege and bombing campaign. Cultural and religious buildings and objects were systematically destroyed.

Serb forces claimed that Bosniaks were plotting a genocide against the Serbs, and that their actions were in self defense. This claim was belied by Bosnia’s lack of an army and inability to muster large-scale conventional resistance to an invasion, particularly after an international arms embargo prevented Bosniaks from arming themselves. In 1994, NATO initiated air strikes to stop the attacks. In December 1995, the Dayton Peace Accords ended the conflict and a force was created to maintain the ceasefire.

The inroads the Serbian campaign made into Bosnian territory can be seen on the map. Labeled “Republika Srpska,” these areas are held by Serbs today. Most of the non-Serb populations of these areas were murdered, expelled, or fled the violence and were replaced by local and imported Serb populations. The city of Sarajevo is divided into ethnically segregated neighborhoods, and deep animus remains. More than 90% of Bosnians now live in ethnically homogenous areas. Genocide denial is rife in Serbia and beyond, despite the important work of the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), an ad hoc tribunal convened in 1996 to try perpetrators of the genocide. After 161 indictments, including of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic and Srebrenica perpetrator General Radislav Kristic, the ICTY’s mandate expired in 2017.


Jones, Adam. Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. 3rd ed. London: Routledge, 2017.

Mennecke, Martin. “Genocidal Violence in the Former Yugoslavia: Bosnia Herzegovina.” In Centuries of Genocide: Essays and Eyewitness Accounts, edited by Samuel Totten and William S. Parsons. 4th ed. New York: Routledge, 2013.

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