Yugoslav Wars

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Disabled Yugoslav tank in Croatia, 1991.
It never changes
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A view to kill
Yugoslavia, literally land of the South Slavs, was formed after World War I. It brought together six ethnic groups. They spoke a common language, Serbo-Croatian, but they had different histories, different beliefs, and distinct identities. After World War II, Yugoslavia was subdivided along ethnic lines into six republics and forcibly held together by Tito under communist rule. But when Tito died and communism fell, those republics pulled apart.
—Michele Norris, host of "All Things Considered" on NPR.[1]

The Yugoslav Wars were a series of ethnically-motivated wars and insurgencies between 1991 and 2001 that led to the breakup of Yugoslavia. Serbian politician Slobodan Milošević took control of Yugoslavia during this tumultuous time and attempted to use the situation as a means of carving chunks out of Bosnia and Croatia in order to create a "Greater Serbia."[2] This aim increasingly took precedence over the preservation of Yugoslavia, and it was followed with other irredentist movements such as "Greater Albania" and "Greater Croatia." It's a general rule of thumb that Greater Anywhere means bad news for the people living next door to Anywhere.

Slovenia and Croatia were the first to leave the union in 1991, which resulted in a brutal independence war for the latter. When Bosnia tried to leave in 1992, however, ethnic Serbs living in its borders objected, and the situation devolved into a bloody civil war that introduced the world to the concept of "ethnic cleansing." Croatia also fought against Serbs within its own borders, but ethnic Croats in Bosnia didn't align with the Bosniaks against the Serbs there until near the end of the war. It was complicated. Kosovo, a region in Serbia populated by ethnic Albanians, was also met with atrocities when it tried to gain its independence, leading to a NATO bombing campaign. Its status is still disputed.[1]

The conflicts are especially notable for notorious war crimes such as mass murder, rape as a military tactic, and attempts at genocide. In 1993, the United Nations established the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for the purpose of prosecuting war criminals, and it didn't issue its final judgement until more than two decades later in 2017.[3]

A Serbian propaganda music video produced during the war called "Karadžić, Lead Your Serbs", gained popularity on the internet and helped create the "remove kebab" meme that is now circulated among white supremacists to refer to a desired ethnic cleansing of Muslims.[4] The song was originally meant to boost morale among Serbian forces and used derogatory language towards Croatian nationalists and Bosniak Muslims.

The International Center for Transitional Justice, a non-profit human rights organization, estimated that the Yugoslav wars resulted in the deaths of over 140,000 people and left four million displaced.[5] The whole tragic affair is a good cautionary tale of what can happen when a diverse nation's leaders embrace crude and divisive ethnic nationalism.


The six republics of Yugoslavia before the war.

Yugoslavia was a mistake[edit]

Although a unified South Slavic state had been a dream for much of the Victorian era, it only came into being after the dismemberment of the Austrian Empire in World War One. With no better idea on what to do with Austria's southern holdings, the victorious powers essentially wished the Southern Slavs luck in creating their new country. The specifics of how this could be done were contentious however, as the politicians who represented the region's various nationalities disagreed over which of them would dominate the newly created polity. The Serbs won out, and Serbia functionally annexed the Croatian, Bosnian, and Slovenian lands to form the aptly named Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes on December 1st, 1918. Serbia had simply expanded its own governing structures to rule this new kingdom, and the subsequent ethnic tensions convinced King Aleksander I to suspend the parliament, rename the country to "Yugoslavia", and create a royal autocracy, eventually resulting in his assassination in 1934.[6]

Tito's rise and regime[edit]

Emblem of Tito's Yugoslavia. Note that the torches emphasize unity.

Yugoslavia joined the Axis, but a coup against their government convinced Nazi Germany to invade. War in Yugoslavia was an absolute clusterfuck, as communists, nationalists, royalists, fascists and other factions all fought in what was effectively a civil war.[6] The Axis, for their part, were locked in a brutal struggle against two primary factions of partisans: the Chetniks, a Serbian group who wanted to restore the monarchy, and the (creatively named) Partisans led by the communist Croat Josip Broz Tito.[7] The two anti-Axis factions did not get along. The third, and worst, faction were the Ustashi (or Ustaša), a Croatian fascist movement. When the Axis invaded Yugoslavia, they carved out Croatia into an "independent" state led by Ante Pavelić, which participated in the Holocaust and began its own campaign of genocide against Serbians.[8] The Ustashi murdered between an estimated 300,000 to 700,000 Serbians.[9] Genocide was also motivated by differences in religion, as the Catholic Ustashi murdered or forcibly converted Serbs in part to destroy Eastern Orthodoxy and did so with cooperation from local clergy of the Catholic Church.[10]

The Chetniks, for their part, also committed massacres and war crimes against non-Serb civilians, which eventually convinced the Allies to support Tito's Partisans.[11] The result? A socialist Yugoslavia that often opposed the Soviets as much as the West and received money from both.[12] Although Tito kept Yugoslavia in one piece, ethnic tensions still bubbled beneath the surface. The central government had to give concessions to ethnic Albanians in Kosovo after their violent protests in 1968, and the 1970s saw both decentralization and more local representation but also a purge of liberals, nationalists, and reformers.[13]

Beginning of the end[edit]

Ethnic nationalism became a serious problem again after Tito's death, and Serbia's leader Slobodan Milošević started revoking the autonomy of Kosovo and Vojvodina and pushing for a more Serbian centralized federation.[2] This made the other republics of Yugoslavia nervous and accelerated their breakdown in relations with Serbia. Civil war became inevitable in 1990 when Yugoslavia's Communist Party collapsed due to the irreconcilable differences between the Serbs and the various minorities.[14] Milošević ominously warned that Serbia would go to war to keep its people inside one country should the other republics attempt to break away.

Things fall apart[edit]

Yugoslav tanks ambushed near the Italian border.
War is when the young and stupid are tricked by the old and bitter into killing each other.
Grand Theft Auto IV protagonist Niko Bellic on the Yugoslav Wars.[15]

Ten-Day War (1991)[edit]

Things started to go pear-shaped when Slovenia held an independence referendum in 1991 and counted 88.2% of the votes in favor.[16] The Slovenian government spent spring 1991 still seeking a confederation agreement from Belgrade; this lack of success convinced them to declare independence in the summer. Although stating that the declaration would come into effect on June 26th, the Slovenians actually adopted it a day earlier in order to gain an initial advantage of surprise.[17]

The Yugoslav government reacted by sending troops into Slovenia to occupy its border crossings and isolate the new nation from the rest of the world.[16] Popular resistance and guerrilla tactics against the Yugoslav army were effective, and European public opinion was in favor of the Slovenians. The war was mostly low-intensity, and it ended when the Slovenians agreed to postpone their independence for three months.[17]

Croatian War of Independence (1991–1995)[edit]

Territory controlled by Serbs during the Bosnian and Croatian wars.

Croatia declared its independence at around the same time as Slovenia, and hostilities there began between Serbian pro-unionists living in Croatia and Croats who supported independence. The Serbian rebels were backed by Milošević, and they managed to seize about a third of Croatia's territory while brutally murdering ethnic Croats.[18]

In late 1991 the Serbian government announced that it had abandoned the concept of a united Yugoslavia, instead aiming to peel off the Serbian chunks of Bosnia and Croatia and forming a Serb-majority nation alongside the loyalists in Montenegro.[19] Yugoslavia's diplomatic isolation truly set in when its forces shelled the Croatian city of Dubrovnik's Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site.[20]

United States Secretary of State Cyrus Vance helped negotiate a plan for peace which called for the demilitarization of the areas in Croatia under Serbian and Yugoslav control.[21] Most of the major military operations in the war ended at this point, but the war itself continued. Croatia retook the Serbian-controlled areas with Operation Storm in 1995, effectively ending the war.[22] Operation Storm resulted in 200,000 Serbs being forced from their homes in Croatia, although the UN rejected Serbia's legal claim that Croatia had committed an act of genocide.[23]

Bosnian War (1992–1995)[edit]

With Slovenia and Croatia rapidly gaining international recognition, Bosnia held its own independence referendum in 1992. Serbs living in Bosnia boycotted the vote, but those who participated in the referendum nearly unanimously voted to leave Yugoslavia.[24] This happened in spite of efforts by Serbian militias to intimidate people out of voting.[25]

Bosnia exploded into violence between the Bosniaks, who wanted to keep their country in one piece, and the Serbs, who wanted to either remain in Yugoslavia or else secede from Bosnia and form their own country. To this end the Serbian Democratic Party in Bosnia-Herzegovina organized itself into a rival government called the Republika Srpska led by Radovan Karadžić.[26] Bosniaks and Croats living in Bosnia originally allied against the Serbs, but their relationship deteriorated and resulted in the "war within a war" that lasted until 1994.[27]

Bosnian Serb foot patrol.

The Republika Srpska controlled two nearly-separate areas in Bosnia, a situation Karadžić attempted to resolve by ordering policies of ethnic cleansing against Bosniaks stuck in between.[28] The UN Commission of Experts observed the situation in 1993 and defined ethnic cleansing as "rendering an area ethnically homogenous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area."[28] Upon occupying a non-Serb area, Bosnian Serbs would order civilians to mark their houses with white flags or bedsheets and to wear white armbands when leaving the house.[29] Karadžić's forces also established concentration camps and committed many infamous massacres.

In 1994 the United States helped broker the Washington Agreement in which Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats made nice again and agreed to divide their lands into semi-autonomous cantons.[30] The Republic of Croatia's military successes near the end of their war allowed them to cooperate with Bosnian forces in Operation Maestral 2, an offensive which secured Croatia and severely weakened the Republika Srpska.[31] The Bosnian War also saw NATO's first ever use of force when they shot down some Serbian aircraft to enforce a no-fly zone and then launched some air strikes against Bosnian Serb forces.[32]

Bosnian and Croatian military advances combined with the NATO strikes finally brought the Serbs to the negotiating table. The result? The Dayton Accords, negotiated in Ohio, which split Bosnia into two chunks: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (created by the Washington Agreement and representing Bosnians and Croats) and the Republika Srpska.[33] The one country, two entities system is still how Bosnia is run to this day, and its complicated nature makes governance extremely difficult.[34]

Kosovo War (1998–1999)[edit]

Novi Sad in flames after a NATO bombing raid.

Serbia considers Kosovo an integral part of its nation. Inconveniently, the region is largely populated by Muslim Albanians.[35] It had been for a long time due to prolonged rule of the Ottoman Turks. Problems started spiraling out of control when Milošević yoinked Kosovo's autonomy in 1989 and ramped up oppression against the ethnic Albanians.[36] The Kosovo Liberation Army formed in response during the early 1990s and started to make a name for itself by launching terrorist attacks.[37] President Bill Clinton's special envoy to the Balkans, Robert Gelbard, described the KLA as, "without any questions, a terrorist group."[38] Amusingly, this didn't stop the US from embracing their cause later on, which just goes to show that "terrorist" is just a synonym for "people we don't like". The tit-for-tat cycle of attacks and reprisals slowly increased the heat in Kosovo, and the situation exploded into yet another goddamn war in 1998.

The KLA was never really a military threat to Serbia, but Milošević's massive overreaction proved to be his undoing. Serbian police began an indiscriminate crackdown against Kosovar villages in an attempt to completely wipe out the KLA once and for all.[39] Serbian police committed massacres against civilians and used torture to extort confessions.[37] Serbian activities escalated into outright ethnic cleansing, prompting condemnations and embargoes from the international community.[35] NATO eventually intervened yet again by conducting a "precision" bombing campaign against Serbia that also saw bombs hit a Serbian city bus, multiple Albanian refugee columns, a Serbian radio station, a Serbian prison, the Dragiša Mišović hospital, and the fucking Chinese embassy in Belgrade.[40] Uh, oops?

After 11 weeks of bombing, Serbia finally agreed to a ceasefire which saw the UN occupy Kosovo.[35] Ethnic violence is still a problem, and Serbia still refuses to recognize Kosovo's independence.[35]

Insurgency in the Preševo Valley (1999–2001)[edit]

Ethnic Albanians also fought against Serbian rule in Serbia itself, hoping to unite their homes with Kosovo.[41] The insurgency saw several hundred people killed, but it ended in a Yugoslav victory and Preševo was demilitarized and granted some extra autonomy.[42]

Insurgency in Macedonia (2001)[edit]

Albanians also rose up against the government of Macedonia, the only instance of the Yugoslav wars touching that country. The Albanians hoped to gain more rights for their minority, but there are claims that they had also hoped to secede.[43] NATO brokered the Ohrid Agreement which granted the Albanians minority rights in exchange for their disarmament.[44]

War crimes and other cheerful topics[edit]

Detainees at the Trnopolje Camp in Bosnia, 1992.

Genocide and ethnic cleansing[edit]

Genocide and ethnic cleansing were tragedies that lasted throughout the Croatian and Bosnian Wars. The UN condemned in 1992 the Serbian policy of ethnic cleansing, which they referred to as "a form of genocide".[45] Human Rights Watch warned in 1993 that "The extent of the violence and its selective nature along ethnic and religious lines suggest crimes of genocidal character against Muslim and, to a lesser extent, Croatian populations in Bosnia-Hercegovina."[46] The US Ambassador to Croatia sent a telegram to President Clinton describing "indiscriminate shelling and gunfire" against Bosnian cities, the use of prisoners for forced labor, and harassment of ethnic minority groups in an attempt to drive them out of their homes.[47] Serbs weren't the only guilty parties, as subsequent war crimes trials uncovered instances of ethnic cleansing committed by Croats.[48]

One of the most infamous instances of genocide was the Srebrenica massacre, where 8,000 Bosniaks were murdered.[49]

Genocide denial[edit]

Exhuming a mass grave in eastern Bosnia.

Despite the overwhelming evidence, mass graves, court verdicts, and admissions by some Serb leaders, there are some people who deny the existence of genocide or claim it was much smaller than generally believed. Denialists or revisionists include some Serb leaders but also non-Serb figures including Mick Hume (of Living Marxism and later Spiked), and media scholar Edward S. HermanWikipedia.[50][51]

One of the most notorious examples was when Living Marxism magazine accused British TV news company ITN of lying about the existence of a Serb-run concentration camp at Trnopolje; LM claimed it was actually a collection centre for refugees not a concentration camp and ITN had faked a photograph, and ITN sued them for libel. A few useful idiots leaped to LM's defence, like the Financial Times, the BBC's John Simpson, Fay Weldon, William Boyd, Doris Lessing, Auberon Waugh, Harold Evans, and George Walden, but most swiftly retracted their support once they realised how wrong LM was.[52] Idriz Merdzanic, a Bosnian Muslim doctor imprisoned in the camp, gave evidence of the true nature of the camp, testifying in court about rapes and sometimes-fatal punishment beatings, and explaining how he had hidden a camera in a water tank to take photos of the atrocities and then passed it to an ITN reporter.[53]

Blood and bullet holes at the site of Srebrenica.

In 2019 when the German writer Peter Handke was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, there was renewed attention to his history of questioning the Bosnian genocide. Mats Malm and Eric Runesson of the Swedish Academy, responsible for approving the award, said they had found "no evidence for the claim that Handke hailed bloodshed, worshipped a monster or denied war crimes while attending Slobodan Milosevic’s funeral."[54] Most of the allegations against Handke were a little more subtle than this, although Handke did speak at the funeral of genocidal Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic in 2006.[55] Rather than outright denial, Handke downplayed the significance of Serbian atrocities, claiming the Srebrenica massacre was a revenge attack for Bosnian crimes (which were less serious in nature), and questioning whether other attacks on civilians such as the shelling of Sarajevo had been proven to be done by Serbs (the notion that the Bosnians shelled their own civilians is a common claim by denialists, but one with no evidence).[54] Just asking questions, you see.

Concentration camps[edit]

Bosnian Serbs established a still-unknown number of concentration camps in order to house the many prisoners they took from among the Bosnian Muslims. Prisoners were exposed to overcrowding, beatings with rifles and metal sticks, malnutrition, and slaughter.[56] The camps were also surrounded by anti-personnel landmines. British Journalist Ed Vulliamy was the first to break the story and reveal to the world what the Serbs were doing in Bosnia.

Rape as a weapon of war[edit]

An 18-year-old girl recovering from gang rape and her subsequent abortion.

Rape was not only condoned but encouraged by Serbian authorities as a means of ethnic cleansing.[57] Investigators from the European Community described how women were confined in "rape camps" where rape was inflicted in "particularly sadistic ways to inflict maximum humiliation on victims, their families, and on the whole community".[58] A 28-year-old Bosnian woman named Senka described her experience of being gang-raped by Serbian soldiers, saying "They ripped off all my clothes till I was naked. Two of the Chetniks held me and two of them had intercourse with me. After those two had raped me, the others did the same. My friend was raped in the same room by the same soldiers. I recognized two of the Chetniks as my former neighbours from Gorazde."[58] Investigators also found that women were held in the camps even after they became pregnant, specifically with the aim of making abortion of the fetuses impossible.[58] They also found that there were instances where the women's brothers and fathers would be forced at gunpoint to rape them as well.[58] War crimes trials have found that at least 20,000 women were subjected to this kind of treatment.[58]

The British organization "Remembering Srebrenica" interviewed an 18-year-old girl (pictured) who was burned with cigarette butts, cut with a razor, mocked for her religion, and raped 16 times, often at knife and gunpoint.[59] She says they told her that, "there were too many Muslim people and a lot of Muslims were going to give birth to Serbian children," and also said that "If I would not have been able to get an abortion, I would have killed myself."[59]

Rogues gallery[edit]

Below you'll find a small sampling of some of the worst war criminals of the Yugoslav conflicts.

See also[edit]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Former Yugoslavia 101: The Balkans Breakup. NPR.
  2. 2.0 2.1 The policy of ethnic cleansing. Final report of the United Nations Commission of Experts established pursuant to Security Council Resolution 780 (1992)
  3. See the Wikipedia article on International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
  4. See the Wikipedia article on Remove Kebab.
  5. Transitional Justice in the Former Yugoslavia. International Center for Transitional Justice.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Yugoslavia. ThoughtCo.
  7. Partisans: War in the Balkans 1941 - 1945. BBC.
  8. Croatia should apologize for World War II genocide before joining the EU. Christian Science Monitor.
  9. Ustaše — The Fascists That Made The Nazi’s Look Like Boyscouts.
  10. Why Pope Francis isn't welcome in Serbia. Public Radio International.
  11. Serbian Courts Reinterpret History to Forgive Chetniks’ Crimes. Jelena Djureinovic. Balkan Insight.
  12. Josip Broz Tito. Britannica.
  13. Tito's Yugoslavia. Globalsecurity.
  14. Milosevic's Yugoslavia: Communism crumbles. BBC.
  15. Michael Hollick: Niko Bellic. IMDb.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Path to Independence. Government of the Republic of Slovenia.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Slovenian War of Independence. Local Life Ljubljana.
  18. Twenty years on, Croatia celebrates end of war as Serbia mourns. Reuters.
  19. Serb-Led Presidency Drafts Plan For New and Smaller Yugoslavia. New York Times. December 1991.
  20. See the Wikipedia article on Siege of Dubrovnik.
  21. See the Wikipedia article on Vance plan.
  22. See the Wikipedia article on Operation Storm.
  23. UN court dismisses Croatia and Serbia genocide claims. BBC News.
  24. Bosnian War. Britannica.
  25. Meštrović, Stjepan Gabriel (1996). Genocide After Emotion: The Postemotional Balkan War. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-12294-8. p. 36.
  26. Radovan Karadzic Fast Facts. CNN.
  27. See the Wikipedia article on Croat–Bosniak War.
  28. 28.0 28.1 Ethnic Cleansing in Bosnia. Remembering Srebrenica.
  29. White Armband Day. Remembering Sbrebrenica.
  30. See the Wikipedia article on Washington Agreement.
  31. See the Wikipedia article on Operation Mistral 2.
  32. Bosnian War. Britannica.
  33. Dayton Accords. Britannica.
  34. Bosnia and Herzegovina: the world's most complicated system of government?. The Guardian.
  35. 35.0 35.1 35.2 35.3 Kosovo conflict. Britannica.
  36. The Roots of the War. PBS.
  37. 37.0 37.1 Kosovo Liberation Army. Britannica.
  38. Terrorist Groups and Political Legitimacy. Council on Foreign Relations.
  39. Cradle Of Hate Serb Oppression Of Ethnic Albanians In Kosovo Could Ignite Balkans Again. The Spokesman-Review. March 10, 1998.
  40. See the Wikipedia article on Civilian casualties during Operation Allied Force.
  41. Insurgency in the Preševo Valley (1999–2001). On War.
  42. See the Wikipedia article on Insurgency in the Preševo Valley.
  43. See the Wikipedia article on 2001 insurgency in the Republic of Macedonia.
  44. See the Wikipedia article on Ohrid Agreement.
  45. UN General Assembly.
  46. Human Rights Watch World Report 1993 - The former Yugoslav Republics. Refworld.
  47. Galbraith Telegram.
  48. "Prosecuter v. Jadranko Prlic, Bruno Stojic, Slobodan Praljak, Milivoj Petkovic, Valentin Coric and Berislav Pusic"
  49. See the Wikipedia article on Srebrenica massacre.
  50. See the Wikipedia article on Bosnian genocide denial.
  51. Srebrenica massacre is ‘fabricated myth’, Bosnian Serb leader says, Independent (UK), 14 Apr 2019
  52. John Simpson: I was on wrong side in Bosnia death camps libel trial, Observer Staff, The Observer (The Guardian website), 22 April 2012
  53. Doctor's secret Serb camp photos, The Guardian, 9 Mar 2000
  54. 54.0 54.1 Now the Nobel prize succumbed to the literary art of genocide denial, The Intercept, 26 Oct 2019
  55. Protest and boycotts as Austrian author accused of supporting Milosevic to receive Nobel prize, The Daily Telegraph (UK), 9 Dec 2019
  56. Concentration Camps. Remembering Srebrenica.
  57. Brouwer, Anne-Marie de (2005). Supranational Criminal Prosecution of Sexual Violence. Intersentia. ISBN 978-90-5095-533-1.
  58. 58.0 58.1 58.2 58.3 58.4 Rape: weapon of war. New Internationalist. Archived.
  59. 59.0 59.1 Sexual Violence in Bosnia. Remembering Sebrenica.
  60. Visegrad Rape Victims Say Their Cries Go Unheard. Balkan Insight.