In June 1991, the republics of Slovenia and Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia, beginning the country’s break up. The next month, the Yugoslav army—largely composed of Serbs and controlled by Slobodan Milosevic—invaded Croatia, justifying the act as a means to protect the Serbian minority there. The city of Vukovar fell, and the Serbs conducted mass executions of hundreds of Croat men, burying them in mass graves.
When Bosnia’s independence from Yugoslavia was recognized by the United States and the European Union on April 7, 1992, Bosnian Serb forces backed by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army immediately launched offensives to control areas they coveted. Behind the front lines, Bosniak and Croatian civilians bore the brunt of Serbian assaults in what became known as “ethnic cleansing”: torture, rape, murder, robbery, and forced displacement.
The Bosnian government army tried to defend its territory, at times in alliance with, and other times in opposition to, Croatian forces. While all sides committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, Bosnian Serb forces systematically perpetrated abuses throughout the areas they controlled. The conflict included an intensive bombing campaign of Bosnia’s capital in “the Siege of Sarajevo”—in which snipers in hills around the city shot at civilians as they tried to get food and water—as well as roundups and mass executions, confinement in concentration camps, torture, and systematic rape
In the summer of 1995, the Bosnian Serb army prepared to capture and “cleanse” the three towns in eastern Bosnia that remained under Bosnian government control: Srebrenica, Zepa, and Gorazde. Planning for these offensives occurred even though the international community in 1993 had declared these enclaves “safe havens” to be disarmed and protected by UN peacekeeping forces.
Massacre at Srebrenica
On July 11, 1995, Bosniak civilians fled the Serbian advance on Srebrenica and sought shelter at the UN base north of Srebrenica at Potocari. A column of Bosniak men, including some armed, decided to try to walk to Bosnian government-held territory. By late afternoon, Serbian forces arrived at the gates of the UN base and that night terrorized, raped, and killed some Bosniak civilians sheltering by the UN compound.
On July 12th, buses began arriving at Potocari. The crowd was separated: women and children were allowed to board the buses and were transported to Bosnian government-held territory. During the trip, the buses were stopped several times and searched. More men and some women were taken off to be killed or raped. Men and boys taken from the crowd at Potocari were held by Serbian forces. Some were killed immediately. Others were bused to mass killing sites. On July 13th, the Dutch soldiers expelled the remaining refugees from the UN base.
The column of Bosniak men fleeing through the forest encountered Serbian military units, and intense fighting occurred. Some men made their way to government-held territory; others died; and others surrendered to the Bosnian Serbs. The captured men were taken to execution sites and murdered. The killing operation continued for days.
Only after Bosnian Serb forces overran the UN safe haven at Zepa and dropped a bomb in a crowded Sarajevo market did the international community respond forcefully. In August 1995, NATO launched three weeks of bombing on Bosnian Serb positions in conjunction with a Bosnian government and Croatian ground offensive that helped push the Serbs back to negotiations. The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina ended in December 1995 with a peace agreement negotiated in Dayton, Ohio, and known as the Dayton Accords.
By the end of the fighting, more than 100,000 civilians had been killed, more than 20,000 were missing and believed to be dead, and two million had become refugees.