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December 4, 2018

Bosnia: Inhumane Genocide or Devastating War?

When determining the nature of a war, we often look at the events leading up to it. Whether it be economic instability, political inaptness, or social and cultural determinants, it can be figured out. However, approximately 25 years ago, the Bosnian War was not considered a genocide, due to the severity of the conflict and the implications that the term genocide carried at the time. By definition, a genocide is “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group.”1 In this state, however, genocide failed to be the term used to describe the atrocities that occurred during the Bosnian War. Instead, the term ethnic cleansing was utilized as a facade to divert the public from the real problem of this war. And indeed, the cover-up worked for a few years. Nonetheless, the debate whether Bosnia was suffering a genocide or simply ethnic cleansing still existed well after the war ended. So, the question remains, did Bosnian Serbs ever engage in genocide? And if so, why did the U.S. delay its response to aid Non-Serb Bosnians in this time of crisis?

In June of 1991, prior to the war’s beginning, Bosnia held a referendum on independence and voters chose to secede from Yugoslavia. Slobodan Milosevic was one of the Serbian Presidents of Bosnia at the time. Convinced by their leader, Bosnian Serbs chose to separate from Bosnia as well and create their own state within Bosnia.2 This was not agreed to by all Bosnians, but Milosevic was persistent and manipulated the political, or national, identity of Bosnia. By this year, Bosnia’s population consisted of 44 percent Bosniak, 31 percent Serb, and 17 percent Croatian.3 Nonetheless, Serbs wanted to dominate Bosnia. Milosevic utilized a method similar to Hitler’s, in which he made Serbs appear the dominant race in Bosnia. He emphasized the difference in religion, which was a crucial component of each group’s identity. Serbs were practitioners of Orthodox Christianity, whereas other Bosnians largely practiced Islam.4

Serbian leader, Slobodan Misolevic | Courtesy of

Any group that did not belong to the Serbian religion was then utilized as a scapegoat by Serbs in order to highlight their inferiority. The conflict began with demeaning slurs and escalated into violent hate crimes. Serbs wanted to make Bosnia homogeneous, so they took to military action. Additionally, they had an advantage because they obtained their arsenal from the “Serb-dominated Yugoslav National Army.”5 By 1992, this became what some considered to be a Civil War taking place between Bosnia’s different ethnicities. However, the reality was that Serbs were systemically killing off Non-Serbs living in Bosnia. These Non-Serbs consisted of Croats and Muslim Bosnians.

Initially, the Bosnian War, as most countries called it at the time, was deemed a war between different ethnicities, where Serbs were just trying to reclaim the land they believed to be rightfully theirs. The Yugoslavian army was Serb-dominated, and it therefore backed all Serbian procedures at the instruction of Slobodan Milosevic.6 Edicts, or official orders, were issued by the Serbian war presidency. In Celinac, a northern Bosnian town, this began by imposing a curfew on Non-Serbs from 4 p.m. to 6 a.m. Moreover, Non-Serbs were not allowed to:

“meet in cafes, restaurants, or other public places, bathe or swim in the Vrbanija or Josavka Rivers, hunt or fish, move to another town without administration, carry a weapon, drive or travel by car, gather in groups of more than three men, contact relatives from outside Celinac (all household visits must be reported), use means of communication other than the post office phone, wear uniforms: military police, or forest guard, nor sell real estate or exchange homes without approval.”7

Local factories “introduced quotas to limit the number of Muslim or Croat employees to 1 percent of the overall workforce.”8 In Eastern Bosnia, they forcibly evicted Non-Serbs from their towns, often with no warning. By the end of 1993, the Serbs controlled close to three-fourths of Bosnia.9

This was how the Serbs turned to ethnic cleansing, which was considered “the expulsion of a group of people from a geographical area and not the actual physical destruction of that group.”10 Serbs followed the idea of “Say nothing; do these things; do not describe them” as Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg put it. This was the general idea when genocide was practiced.11

Injured Bosnian woman is brought to a hospital | Courtesy of Reuter

That was the reality that many countries, including the United States, refused to recognize. The Bosnian War of 1991-1995 was, in fact, a genocide. This became clear with the Srebrenica Massacre, one of three towns that the Bosnian government still had control over. The United Nations had placed peacekeeping forces here in 1993 in order to protect Non-Serb Bosnians fleeing from the war. These forces, however, were not enough when the Serb army forced its way into the town.12 Srebrenica was the place where Serbs crossed the line between ethnic cleansing and genocide, “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group.”13 Serbs systematically exterminated Non-Serbs by taking Bosnian women and girls and placing them in concentration camps. In these concentration camps, these females were stripped of their dignity and rights. They were raped and sexually assaulted often until they became impregnated with Serbian seeds. This was done with the aim to eliminate the Bosnian race and to increase the Serb population.14 As for the male Bosnians, sometimes Serb forces “forced fathers to castrate their sons or molest their daughters.”15 All the men, ranging from newborns to the elderly, were either killed on the spot or taken to mass murder sites to be executed. The murders committed towards Bosnians in Srebrenica range between seven and eight thousand. No matter the action, Serbs had a deliberate policy of destruction and degradation to ensure that the Non-Serbian Bosnians knew that they were below the Serbian race.16

“The purging of Non-Serbs was not only an explicit war aim of Serb nationalists; it was their primary aim.”17

Serbian heads sent to the forces | Courtesy of Flickr

Through this massacre, Serbs participated in war crimes as well as crimes against humanity. War crimes are the violation of laws of war, which was done because Serbs killed prisoners of war.18 Crimes against humanity is the mass killing of a large number of the civilian population, and “a form of genocide that occurs during wartime.”19 Genocide focuses on the mass killing of a particular group, which in this case was the Non-Serb Bosnians.

In 1995, the Srebrenica Massacre, along with the Sarajevo market bombing, finally caught the attention of international forces. Humanitarian intervention took place. The United States along with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) aided Bosnian and Croat forces by bombing Serb positions as well as providing a ground offensive. This led to Milosevic agreeing to enter peace negotiations hosted by the U.S., which “resulted in the creation of a federalized Bosnia divided between a Croat-Bosniak federation and a Serb republic.”20

But why did it take the United States four years of the Bosnian War and Serbians demeaning other Bosnians to intervene in the war? The U.S. was aware of this genocide occurring and made no advance to aid Bosnia until it was too late and thousands died. At the time, they claimed they never realized the war was actually a genocide occurring. Instead, they looked to the European Union to fix the problem. However, well into the Balkan Wars, European weaknesses were exposed. Still, the U.S. decided to rely on European Union to claim responsibility in a solution to the Bosnian War, knowing that their leadership was nonexistent. Essentially, they appeared to avoid any sort of involvement in Bosnia. They just stood by, allowing it to happen.21

In our day and age, we tend to have a clear idea of the term “genocide.” However, in 1991, when the Bosnian War was just beginning, the United States did not step up to its title of a global leading power. They did not attempt to stop Serbians from first demeaning and subjugating other Bosnians, then killing several thousands of them due to oblivion from the U.S.’s part. It is important to define situations for what they are, rather than hiding behind terms due to the fear of their power.

Today, we see the Bosnian War as what it was, the Bosnian Genocide. The Serbian Army in Bosnia participated in terrorism, ethnic cleansing, as well as genocide against Non-Serbs.


  1.  The Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 2014, s.v. “Genocide,” by Laurence A. French.
  2. Samantha Power, A Problem From Hell (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002), 247.
  3. “Bosnian Genocide,”, August 21, 2018. Accessed November 20, 2018.
  4. Tony Barber, “The Bosnian Crisis: Serbs, Croats and Muslims: who hates who and why,” Independent Minds UK, August 9, 1992. Accessed November 20, 2018.
  5. Samantha Power, A Problem From Hell (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002), 249.
  6. “Bosnian Genocide,”, August 21, 2018. Accessed November 20, 2018.
  7. Samantha Power, A Problem From Hell (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002), 250.
  8. Samantha Power, A Problem From Hell (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002), 250.
  9. “Bosnian Genocide,”, August 21, 2018. Accessed November 20, 2018.
  10. “Bosnian Genocide,”, August 21, 2018. Accessed November 20, 2018.
  11. Samantha Power, A Problem From Hell (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002), 249.
  12. “Bosnian Genocide,”, August 21, 2018. Accessed November 20, 2018.
  13.  The Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 2014, s.v. “Genocide,” by Laurence A. French.
  14. Leona Pallansch, “Identity Politics, Subject Bosnian War,” (Lecture, Introduction to Global Affairs, St. Mary’s University, October 29, 2018).
  15. Samantha Power, A Problem From Hell (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002), 251.
  16. Samantha Power, A Problem From Hell (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002), 301.
  17. Samantha Power, A Problem From Hell (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002), 251.
  18. The Columbia Encyclopedia, 2018, s.v. “war crimes,” by Paul Lagasse.
  19.  The Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 2014, s.v. “Genocide,” by Laurence A. French.
  20. “Bosnian Genocide,”, August 21, 2018. Accessed November 20, 2018.
  21. Samantha Power, A Problem From Hell (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002), 323-327.

Ariana Melendez

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Recent Comments


  • Lucia Rogel

    My knowledge of this conflict in Bosnia has been little to nonexistent. This article helped me comprehend a broader understanding of the genocide and differentiate the reasoning and form of action in terms of civil wars, terrorism, and the patterns in one group placing the “others” in concentration camps and what that really means. I was touched by the Serbians’ attempts in increasing their population in Bosnia and the fear that this group instilled in Non-Serbian Bosnians, especially when not only were Non-Serbians being kicked out of their homes and had their lifestyle heavily altered but their customs and the impact that the series of events had on the culture of Non-Serbian Bosnians. From religion to daily life, the actions of the Serbians have a deep impact on more than taking away thousands of lives.

  • Raul Colunga

    It is a difficult time when a nation declares independence especially from a socialist society into a democratic one. From the start, Bosnia had problems with corruption which does not bode well for stability. Milosevic used his political momentum to incite inequality against the bosniaks and croats which prevented the state from becoming stable and transitioning into a prosperous country.

  • Rhys Kennedy

    The amount of information in this article was very abundant and enlightening on a topic that is not well known. I know that the Bosnian Genocide/War that occurred in the 1990s but I certainly did not know this much about it and now I do and am encouraged to do more research into it especially to see if there have been any developments.

  • Victor Rodriguez

    Being completely honest, I did not know much about the Bosnian War. I thought it was devastating and horrible to see how situations like these continue to happen throughout history. There is no justification nor morality in such evil acts. I can not believe how countries did not intervene sooner. No group should ever feel superior or better than others. I believe that this type of discrimination is terrifying and is a threat to humanity. As a humanity, there should be no reason why we should let countries do these types of acts. History exists so that we become better and that we do not let innocent people get harmed. Any kind of hateful. It is very disappointed to see how people can be murdered and tortured to that extent without no one doing anything.

  • Lulu Guadalupe Avitua-Uviedo

    very interesting article, and the truth is there are many people who either were in denial or unaware of the genocide in Bosnia, which is really sad. The truth is, some do not pay attention unless it’s in their own country. I’m glad you bring awareness to us all about what Bosnians went through, your article educates us all enough to touch our curiosity for more research. Writing about what the boys and girls went through simply to eliminate one group and have continued growth in another is absurd. This also shows, there is discrimination in so many countries for the same wrong reasons.

  • Maria Rivera

    Before I read this article, I had limited knowledge about the Bosnian War, but I have a much better understanding now. It was horrific reading about some of the things that took place; it should certainly meet the criteria for genocide. The term “genocide” has always been criticized due to its narrow definition. This makes it difficult to actually prosecute anyone for the vile crime — so disappointing reading about the lack of intervention from the United States.

  • Stephen Talik

    Situations like this really drive home the point that often countries are too slow to force their way into a situation and put a stop to it. The fact that the rest of the world sat back and watched as genocide took place and did nothing about is awful. While there is certainly a modicum of proof needed, as countries want to stay out of wars, the moment examples of what was going on came to light the countries and organizations of the world should have thrown caution to the winds and forcibly stopped the conflict.

  • Aracely Beltran

    To be quite honest before college, I had no idea what the term genocide meant. I would hear people talk about how much of an abomination this was to humanity. Then I decided to look up the definition and understood what they were referring to but didn’t think about it again. However, I am glad I read this article and I feel so ignorant and terrible for not knowing about what people went through. This was definitely genocide and not just war, the United States failed to help people even if it weren’t Americans, we are all human. Regardless of our ethnicity, race, religion, culture, etc. no one deserves to go through such things.

  • Kacey Diaz

    Before reading this I didn’t have much background knowledge on the Bosnian War, but after reading this I do want to look more into it. After reading this article it is hard to come to the understanding that with all of this going on, why didn’t other countries step in faster. Things like this have happened time and time again in the past. Isn’t it time to start learning from the past and our mistakes?

  • Kendall Guajardo

    I never knew much about the Bosnian War before this article but it was explained very beautifully. It is tragic that this was allowed to happen especially at the time that it did. I think although the U.S is a huge power in the international arena, a lot of its interventions into conflict are politically or economically charged. It is hard to see the motivation that the U.S had to intervene after four years as said in the article if anything other than pressure to act. I really liked your interpretation of the war and to truly define what it meant to the non-Serb Bosnian s and Croatians. Genocide seems fitting as ethnic cleansing did not do justice to the magnitude of casualties from the war.

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