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Bosnia and Herzegovina

Torture & Ethnic Cleansing in the Bosnian War

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Torture & Ethnic Cleansing in the Bosnian War

From 1992 to 1995, the people of Bosnia endured a wave of ethnic violence as Serbian and Bosnian Serb armed forces launched a campaign of terror against the Bosnian Muslim population.  Their war against civilians shocked the world's conscience and added the term "ethnic cleansing" to the world's lexicon of atrocity. 

According to the Bosnian Book of the Dead—a casualty report published in 2007 by the Research and Documentation Center in Sarajevo—the Bosnian War claimed 350,000 recorded casualties including 97,207 deaths, 40% of whom were civilians.  Of those killed, the casualty report estimates that approximately 66 % were Bosnian Muslims, 26 % were Serbs, and 8% were Croats. [1] In addition to those who lost their lives, countless more were traumatized in a program of torture, mass rape, forced labor and confinement in concentration camps. [2] The fate of Bosanski Samac—hometown of CJA client Kemal Mehinovic—captures the scale of devastation.  Prior to the war, the town was home to 17,000 Bosnian Muslims and Croats. By May 1995, less than 300 of these residents remained. [3] Such was the ruthless efficiency of ‘ethnic cleansing.’

History & Population

Bosnia-Herzegovina’s population of 4,590,310 is an aggregate of three “constituent peoples”: Bosnian Muslims or Bosniaks (48% of the population), Bosnian Serbs (37.1%) and Bosnian Croats (14.3%). [4]

Tensions between the “constituent peoples” are inextricably linked to the region’s long history of foreign occupation. From 1463 until the end of World War II, Bosnia was ruled by the Ottoman and later the Austro-Hungarian Empires.  By the 16th century, Bosnia went through a period of increased Islamicization and Bosnian Muslims became the ethnic majority, enjoying a privileged economic and legal status under Ottoman rule. [5] Each successive ruler left its mark on the populace, overlaying Islamic, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox ethno-religious identities.

The Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941 put Bosnia and Herzegovina under the control of the Independent State of Croatia. [6] The Croat “Ustasha” regime set up death camps throughout the region and exterminated thousands of Serbs, Jews, Romani and political dissidents. [7].  The Serbian “Chetnik” rebels retaliated against German and Croat forces, resulting in a brutal civil war that took the lives of one million Yugoslavs. [8].   Allied forces began to lend support to another Yugoslav resistance group, the Partisans, commanded by Josip Broz Tito.  Tito led Yugoslavia into independence and oversaw the creation of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1945, an act that stitched the region together into a tenuous nation-state.

Decades later, the federation would crumble with the death of Tito and the decline of the Soviet Union.  As the framework of unity through state-socialism eroded, competing nationalist movements rose to the foreground. Ethnic tensions and divisive nationalist rhetoric increased as the political and economic stability of Yugoslavia eroded.  The period between 1988 and 1990 was marked by the development of political parties that mobilized support along ethnic identities, effectively curtailing Tito’s creed of brotherhood and unity. [9] The electoral regulations surrounding the 1990 parliamentary elections required that the division of seats in parliament reflect the ethnic population of the country, thereby turning the issue of political representation into one of ethnic identity.  [10].  When Slovenia and Croatia declared independence in 1991, the Yugoslav armed forces—by this point an instrument of Serb nationalism—prepared to reclaim territory in the breakaway regions as well as in Bosnia-Herzegovina. [11]

The Bosnian War (1992 - 1995)

Following a referendum boycotted by ethnic Serbs, Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence on March 3rd, 1992. Despite efforts at a power-sharing plan, the descent into war proved inevitable.  On April 17, 1992, the Yugoslav army and Bosnian Serb paramilitary forces launched their attack, pushing to form a land-bridge between Serbia proper and Serb ethnic enclaves in Bosnia and Croatia. In the first weeks of the war, they seized 50%-70% of the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina and declared a de facto independent State: the Republika Srbska. [12] For 44 months, Republika Srbska forces would lay siege to Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital with a majority Muslim population.  From the hills around the city, Republika Srbka snipers casually murdered pedestrians while heavy guns rained shells onto neighborhoods once praised as bastions of cosmopolitan coexistence between Muslims and Orthodox, Catholics and Jews. [13]

The President of the Republika Srbska was psychiatrist Radovan Karadžić, a self-proclaimed “warrior-poet” whose rhetoric reflected the cult of violence that had infused Serb nationalism:

“The gentlefolks’ aortas will gush

  without me.

  The last chance to get stained with blood

  I let go by.” [14]

Intervention & International Justice

By 1993, reports of war crimes spurred the U.N. Security Council to take action.  In May 1993, the U.N. created the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY)—the first international war crimes tribunal since World War II.  The U.N. Security Council also established so-called “safe areas” in Bosnia-Herzegovina with the mission of protecting the civilian population.  However, unclear rules of engagement and limited resources hampered the U.N. peacekeepers. [15] On July 11, 1995, U.N. forces effectively surrendered Srebrenica, a “safe area to be protected by all means,” to advancing Bosnian Serb forces.  Led by General Ratko Mladić, Republika Srbska forces committed the largest mass-murder in Europe since the Holocaust: at least 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were massacred while thousands of women were subjected to mass rape and forced deportation. [16] The ICTY officially declared that the Srebenica Massacre constituted an act of genocide.[17]

As it grew clear that U.N. forces were unable to keep the “safe areas” safe, NATO launched an air campaign against Bosnian Serb forces.  The escalating air war and a new Bosnian Muslim and Croat counter-offensive eventually pushed the conflict toward a close. On November 21st, 1995, in Dayton, Ohio, the warring parties initialed the Dayton Peace Accords, bringing the Bosnian war to an end, although violence soon flared up in other Balkan regions.

As Bosnia-Herzegovina began its transition into a post-conflict era, the ICTY initiated prosecutions against the Serbian and Bosnian Serb leadership who held command responsibility for wartime atrocities. The most prominent of these trials—against former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic—lasted from February 2002 until March 14th, 2006, when Milosevic was found dead of natural causes in his cell in the Hague in the Netherlands. [18] [19]  Some of the Tribunal’s precedent setting decisions have altered the landscape of international humanitarian law; recognizing that mass murder at Srebrenica amounted to genocide and the use of rape by members of the Bosnian Serb armed forces was a violation of the Laws and Customs of War and a form of torture under the Geneva Conventions. [20]

Although the majority of ICTY convictions have been against Serbian leaders, the Tribunal has also charged and convicted members of the Bosnian Muslim military government forces for war crimes committed against Serbs and other minorities during 1992 and 1995. [21]  Other Bosnian Muslims and Serbs have been tried before the Bosnian state war crimes court for crimes against civilians and prisoners of war. [22]

The Tribunal’s work still continues. After eleven years in hiding—where he kept an eccentric disguise and continued to publish poetry—Radovan Karadžić was apprehended in the summer of 2008 and sent to face trial before the ICTY in the Hague. [23]  As of early 2009, Ratko Mladić—the Bosnian Serb General chiefly responsible for the siege of Sarajevo and the Srebenica Massacre—still remains at large.

Fugitive Radovan Karadžić in disguise.

Denying safe haven to fugitive war criminals

Many war criminals from the Balkan conflict still remain in hiding, with some even posing as civilian refugees abroad.  Since 1998, CJA has worked to close off the United States as a haven for fugitive human rights violators.  In Mehinovic v. Vuckovic, CJA exposed a Serb torturer living in suburban Atlanta, Georgia and successfully brought an Alien Tort Statute case against him.  CJA has also provided U.S. immigration and Department of Justice officials with information and witnesses necessary for government action to be taken against other suspected war criminals from the former Yugoslavia who have found haven in the United States.


[1] “JUSTICE REPORT: Bosnia's Book of the Dead.” BIRN: Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, June 21, 2007. Available at: http://birn.eu.com/en/88/10/3377/ Accessed November 13, 2009.

[2] Research and Documentation Center, Sarajevo. Available at: http://www.idc.org.ba/aboutus.html see also "Justice Report: Bosnia's Book of the Dead", BIRN: Balkan Investgative Reporting Network, June 21, 2007. Available at: http://www.birn.eu.com/en/88/10/3377/  Accessed August 29, 2009.

[3] Mehinovic v. Vuckovic, First Amended Complaint, December 14, 1998.

[4] "Background Note: Bosnia and Herzegovina", U.S. State Department,
August 2009. Available at: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2868.htm  Accessed August 29, 2009.

[5] Bosnia, A Short History, Noel Malcolm, New York University Press 1996, p. 53.

[6] “History of Bosnia and Herzegovina
from the origins to 1992,” Thierry Domin, available at http://www.nato.int/SFOR/indexinf/121/p03a/chapter5.htm Accessed November 13, 2009.

[7] The Geography of Genocide, Alan Cooper, University Press of America 2008.

[8] “History of Bosnia and Herzegovina
from the origins to 1992,” Thierry Domin, available at http://www.nato.int/SFOR/indexinf/121/p03a/chapter5.htm Accessed November 13, 2009.

[9] The War in Bosnia-Herzegovina: ethnic conflict and international intervention, Steven L. Burg & Paul Shoup, M.E. Sharpe, Inc. 1999, p. 46.

[10] Id. at 49.

[11] Seasons in Hell: Understanding Bosnia's War, Ed Vulliamy, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998.

[12] War Crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina, A Helsinki Watch Report, Human Rights Watch, New York, 1992.

[13] "Is Poetry a War Crime? Reckoning for Radovan Karadzic the Poet-Warrior", Jay Surdukowski, Michigan Journal of International Law, Vol. 26, No. 2, 2005. Available at: http://students.law.umich.edu/mjil/article-pdfs/v26n2-surdukowski.pdf

[14] "One Word Against Another: Political Poetry in the Former Eastern Block", Richard Jackson. Available at: http://www.utc.edu/Academic/English/pm/polpoet.htm  (quoting Radovan Karadzic, "Goodbye Assassins").

[15] "Bosnia: The Turning Point", Mark Danner, The New York Review of Books, February 5, 1998. Available at: http://www.markdanner.com/articles/show/58

[16] Id.

[17] Prosecutor v. Krstic, Judgment, ICTY. Available at: http://www.un.org/icty/krstic/Appeal/judgement/krs-aj040419e.pdf

[18] Milosevic Trial Public Archive. Available at: http://hague.bard.edu/links.html

[19] Slobodan Milosevic Profile, Trial: Track Impunity Always. Available at: http://www.trial-ch.org/en/trial-watch/profil/db/facts/slobodan_milosevic_108.html

[20] UN International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia [ICTY]. Available at http://www.icty.org/sections/AbouttheICTY. Accessed November 13, 2009

[21] Id. Former Bosnian army leader Rasim Delic was found guilty of allowing the cruel treatment of captive Bosnian Serb soldiers by the El Mujahed Detachment of the Bosnian army (EMD) under his command. “Bosnian army commander sentenced to three years in prison,” Lula Ahrens, Radio Netherlands, September 15, 2008. Available at http://static.rnw.nl/migratie/www.rnw.nl/internationaljustice/tribunals/ICTY/080915-Delic-ICTY-redirected. Accessed November 16, 2009. The ICTY also tried and convicted Enver Hadzihasanovic and Amir Kubura, former high level Muslim commanders for the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, for failing to take necessary and reasonable measures to prevent or punish several crimes that forces under their command committed in central Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1993 and 94. The ICTY found that the Mujahadeen forces under Enver Hadzihasanovic’s control severely beat and psychologically abused five civilians from the Croatian and Serbian community in Travnik, murdered two individuals in separate camps, and cruelly treated civilians and prisoners of war in five detention facilities in 1993. “Tribunal Convicts Enver Hadzihasanovic and Amir Kubura,” UN ICTY, March 15 2006, Available at http://www.icty.org/sid/8786. Accessed November 16, 2009.

[22] “Bosnian Muslim ex-commander arrested for war crimes,” The Center for Peace in the Balkans, November 05, 2009. Available at http://www.balkanpeace.org/index.php?index=article&articleid=15644. Accessed November 16, 2009.

[23] "Radovan Karadzic's New-Age Adventure", Jack Hitt, The New York Times, July 22, 2009. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/26/magazine/26karadzic-t.html.