By Gerard Toal
Twenty years ago this week, ethnic cleansing began in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Though there were numerous instances of ethnicized violence before this, it was the northeastern town of Bijeljina that became ground zero for a practice the Bosnian war would make infamous. The pre-war population of the municipality was 59% Serb (57,389) and 31% Muslim (30,229), with approximately ten thousand others who identified themselves as Yugoslavs (the forgotten identity in Bosnia), Croats (only 490), and persons of other or unknown nationality. The inevitable recitation of nationality percentages matters only because the perpetrators who fell upon Bijeljina and tore it apart as a community made them matter with their guns.
The town was the first town seized by rebellious Serb military forces, an assortment of different armed gangs, and what happened there established a pattern that was repeated across much of Bosnia-Herzegovina in the following months. First came a vanguard of paramilitary thugs from Serbia led by Željko Ražnatović (Arkan), a leader among the rising gangster class in Belgrade at the time. On 1 April 1992, they began the terrorism and plunder, evicting Muslim residents from their houses, businesses and places of work, executing many on the spot. Then, local wannabe gangsters and ‘volunteer units’ got in on the act, in a second wave of plunder. Providing cover and security for the crime were armed reservists from the JNA, the Yugoslav military force that by this time was operating under the control of figures loyal to Slobodan Milosevic, the leader of Serbia and prime mover in the unfolding actions. Soon, Bijeljina’s Muslims were either dead, imprisoned, or in terrorized flight. Serb flags were flying over the town’s mosques by 4 April.
Ten years ago I stood before an empty lot where one of these mosques once stood in the central square of Bijeljina. To my left was the town’s municipal building, which still flew the Serbian flag. Across the street was a stall selling trinkets, mostly t-shirts and mugs with pictures of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic emblazoned with ‘Serbian Hero’ in English. It was Karazdic who in October 1990 thundered that he would never permit Bosnia to have “solid state borders” which he claimed “are intended to sever the living flesh of Serb peoples.” To prevent this vividly imagined threat, he lead a joint criminal conspiracy to actually dismember Bosnia, and establish upon its territory a new ethnically exclusivist state that by August 1992 had simply the name Republika Srpska. More than three years of war followed the terror in Bijeljina. The town’s mosques were destroyed in 1993. Homes were destroyed in the name of creating homelands, real human flesh abused and destroyed in the name of protecting an imagined national geo-body, and genocidal acts perpetrated against those feverishly imagined as innately threatening.
Today, the visitor to Bijeljina will see a reconstructed mosque in the center of town but will encounter few Muslims who have returned to their former hometown. The ethnic cleansing begun twenty years ago fundamentally remade Bosnia’s ethnic geography. Despite a massive effort by the international community to allow victims of ethnic cleansing to reclaim the property seized from them in 1992 as a vital step towards returning to their homes, thereby reversing ethnic cleansing, most Bosnians have chosen to reclaim their property only and to not return. Some keep their property, others rent it, and some have sold up in order to rebuild lives elsewhere amongst their own nationality. Local conditions vary, of course, but Bosnia is probably now more segregated than it has ever been in its history, and remains troubled by the legacy of a war that claimed over one hundred thousand lives. Healing has hardly begun, while shirking responsibility for past brutalities, and denial of war crimes is widespread.
Though its founding fathers are on trial for war crimes in the Hague, Republika Srpksa is unashamedly forging ahead. The current President of Republika Srpska has spoken openly about holding a referendum across the entity since 2006, the implicit and sometimes explicit message being that eventually there will be a referendum on its independence from Bosnia-Herzegovina, the state created by the Dayton Peace Accords. Such a referendum would be illegal, polarizing, and a warrant for new violence and possibly war. Ghosts from Bosnia’s past still haunt international calculations in places like Libya, where it was feared that Benghazi would become ‘another Srebrenica,’ and Syria, where observers frequently compare Homs to Sarajevo. But there are few exportable lessons from the Bosnian conflict because its circumstances were distinctive. We know that ethnic cleansing is difficult to stop once unleashed and almost impossible to reverse. This is hardly uplifting but the international effort to return people their property, and let them choose whether to physically return or sell, has made a positive difference in the lives of thousands. Bosnia today is uniquely challenged because of what began twenty years ago this week. The legacy of ethnic cleansing endures.
Gerard Toal is Professor of Government and International Affairs at Virginia Tech National Capital Region and co-author of Bosnia Remade: Ethnic Cleansing and Its Reversal, which recently won the Julian Minghi Outstanding Research Award for 2011.