10 Facts of the Balkan Civil War

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BELGRADE, Yugoslavia- The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was one of the largest, most developed and diverse countries in the Balkans, and comprised of six republics: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia, within which various ethnic groups lived. The two separate regions of Kosovo and Vojvodina were autonomous provinces within the Republic of Serbia. The Balkan Civil War, also known as the Yugoslav Civil War, lasted from 1991-2001.

1. Rise of Nationalism

Slovenia was the first of the six republics to formally leave Yugoslavia, declaring independence on 25 June 1991. This triggered an intervention of the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), which turned into a brief Ten-Day War. It ended in a clear victory for Slovenia with the JNA retreating.

2. No Serbs, No War.

A new Serbian leader named Slobodan Milošević, a former Communist who turned to nationalism and ethnic hostility to achieve dominance, lost interest in Slovenia, a country with almost no Serbs. Instead, former Yugoslav President Milošević directed his attention to Croatia, a Catholic country where Orthodox Serbs made up 12 percent of the population.

Although Croatia had declared independence on the same day as Slovenia, it could not avoid civil war as the Croatian Serbs rejected the authority of the new state, and rebelled with the backing of JNA and Serbia. After intense fighting, the key cities of Dubrovnik (a UNESCO World Heritage site) and Vukovar fell. The Serbs began the first mass executions, killing hundreds of Croat men and burying them in mass graves.

3. Ethnic Cleansing

Bosnia and Herzegovina next experienced the brutality of the Balkan Civil War. The population in Bosnia consisted mainly of Bosnian Muslims (43%), Bosnian Serbs (33%), and Bosnian Croats (17%).  As such, Bosnia was strategic to both Serbia and Croatia.

In March 1992, Bosnian Serbs boycotted a referendum for independence, which more than 60 percent of Bosnian citizens had voted for. A month later, Bosnian Serbs rebelled with the backing of the JNA and Serbia, and declared land under their control to be a Serb republic in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnian Serbs with superior military might engaged in ethnic cleansing, a systematic campaign of persecution of non-Serbs. They soon controlled more than 60 percent of the country.

Bosnian Croats, on the other hand, disregarded the authority of the Bosnian government and declared their own republic with the backing of Croatia. The civil war in Bosnia turned into an intense three-sided fight and civilians of all ethnicities became victims of unspeakable crimes. Approximately more than 100,000 people were killed and two million people (more than half the population in Bosnia) were driven from their homes.

The worst atrocity of the Balkan Civil War took place in July of 1995 when Srebrenica, a UN-declared safe area, came under siege by forces led by the Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladić. Serb forces, in an act of genocide, executed more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim males. The remaining women and children were expelled from their homes.

4. Forced Displacement and Weakened Economy in Croatia

According to UNDP, more than half the population in Croatia was internally displaced. Many were forced to leave or became refugees; over 1,500 were killed and approximately 2,500 were wounded. After four years of bitter fighting and the blitz of ethnic cleansing, the civil war significantly weakened Croatia.

Current national statistics reflect the residual legacy of the war. The UNDP reports 21.1% unemployment in December 2012. Young people under the age of 25 were among the most affected; 40 percent remained unemployed, and over half of them had searched for work for more than a year. About 20.6 percent of the 4.4 million population are at-risk of poverty level.

5. Rape Used as a Weapon on Women

During the Balkan Civil War, systematic and organized rape was carried out on women. Women’s groups estimate that at least 2,500 to 3,000 women survived sexual violence and brutality during the civil war in Croatia.

In current day Croatia, women continue to experience the legacy of the Balkan war crimes. Women’s rights organizations report that a woman experiences physical abuse every 15 minutes. The Ministry of Interior indicates that police respond to 29 cases of domestic violence daily. According to Center for Education, Counseling and Research’s (CESI) survey conducted, one-third of Croatian men acknowledge having perpetrated physical violence against a female spouse or partner.

Tens of thousands of women were raped in Bosnia, the hotbed of ethnic cleansing. Girls as young as 12 years old were taken to rape camps and brutally raped, even elderly women were not spared. The most well-known rape camps were in the Bosnian town of Foca – the high school, Hotel Zelengora and Partizan Sports Hall, where as many 70 women were held captive as sex slaves, some for as long as 8 months.

After the civil war ended, a number of Foca’s Muslims resettled in Sarajevo, too traumatized to come back.

UN human rights expert, Rashida Manjoo commented that the current increase of domestic violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina “is linked in many cases to the legacy of the war, and women and men suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and other war-related mental health problems as well as unemployment, poverty or addiction.”

During the 1998-99 civil war, Kosovo became the site of ethnic cleansing where horrific mass rapes – organized and individual – of Kosovar Albanian women by Serbian forces were rife. The U.S. State Department indicates that rape remains an underreported atrocity because of the humiliation attached to the victims in traditional Kosovar Albanian society.

6. “The Poverty of Independence in Kosovo”

In 1998, intense fighting occurred between the Kosovo Liberation Army and Serbian forces when Milošević sought to end Kosovo’a autonomy and bring it under Serbian control. In 1999, NATO carried out a 78-day campaign of air strikes, which resulted in the Milošević regime withdrawing his forces from the Kosovo.

By the end of May 1999, NATO reports that as many as 1.5 million people, or 90 percent of the Kosovo’s population, had been expelled from their homes. An estimated 225,000 Kosovar men were believed to be missing and up to 5,000 Kosvars had been executed. Villages and farms were destroyed.

The U.S. State Department reports that Kosovar Albanians were “systematically stripped of identity and property documents including passports, land titles, automobile license plates, identity cards, and other forms of documentation.” As a result of the “identity cleansing,” an estimated 50 percent of Kosovo may be without papers. The U.S. State Department reported: “By systematically destroying schools, places of worship, and hospitals, Serbian forces sought to destroy social identity and the fabric of Kosovar Albanian society.”

Although Kosovo declared independence in 2008, it has since not fully recovered from the 1998-99 civil war. The international community has poured in more than $5 billion (or €4 billion) into Kosovo since the war ended in 1999, but it remains the poorest region of the former Yugoslavia and Europe.

Kosovo has the highest unemployment rate in Western Balkans. About 45 percent of working age population are unemployed; 150,000 Kosovo residents live on 61 cents (€0.45) per day, or $19 (€14) per month.

7. Creation of The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia

The UN established its first war crimes court and international war crimes tribunal, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), to deal with war crimes that took place during the Balkan Civil War.

The ICTY has charged over 160 persons, including heads of state, prime ministers, army chiefs-of-staff, interior ministers, military and police, and other mid-to-high level political leaders involved in the Yugoslav conflicts.

These indictments addressed crimes committed in the Balkan Civil War in the 1990s against members of various ethnic groups in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Serbia, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. ICTY reports, as of May 2013, 69 individuals have been convicted and currently 25 people are in varying stages of proceedings before the Tribunal.

8. Peaceful Separation for Macedonia

Macedonia, the southernmost republic of the Yugoslav Federation, declared independence in the fall of 1991 and enjoyed a nonviolent separation. It subsequently gained admittance to the UN under the temporary name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). But peace did not last. In January 2001, the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA), a militant group fought with the republic’s security forces with the hope of winning independence for the Albanian-populated areas in the country. The conflict lasted for several months and ended with a peace settlement.

9. Environmental Problems in Kosovo

Kosovo had limited infrastructure and technical expertise prior to the Balkan Civil War. The World Bank reports, “much of the publicly owned infrastructure fell into disrepair or was vandalized, but private investments led to a construction boom which, however, is leading to many environmental problems.”

10. Emerging Economies and European Integration

Croatia became the 28th member of the European Union on July 1, 2013. According to the UN, Croatia is in the process of transformation, from a recipient to a provider of development assistance. Croatia may have limited financial resources, but it is rich in experiences that are relevant to other countries. It is able to pull from its success in prevailing over the results of conflict and on the lessons learned in the course of European integration.

The UN cites Croatia as one of several emerging economies, including Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkey, which are now becoming contributors of development assistance.

– Flora Khoo

Sources: NATO, U.S. State Department, International Relations and Security Network, World Bank, CNN, PBS, Relief Web, Reuter, The Guardian: Balkans, The Guardian, UN Women, UNDP, UNDP: Fighting the Prejuidice, The History Place, ICTY, UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia
Photo: Ron Haviv

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About Author

Flora is from Singapore and she graduated from Regent University with a master’s degree in Journalism. She was drawn to The Borgen Project because of her love for writing and interest in international development issues. She speaks both English and Mandarin and enjoys canoeing.

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