History - a short overview

Along with neighbouring areas, present-day Bosnia first was settled by Illyrians, to be followed by the Romans. After the Roman Empire had been divided into East and West in 395 AD, Bosnia, together with →Croatia, became part of the Western Roman Empire. On the other hand, present-day →Serbia was swallowed by the Eastern Roman Empire, soon to be called Byzantium. The border between both Empires in those times as well as the Serbian-Bosnian border today was marked by the small Drina river. The first Slavic tribes settled around the 6th century. Bosnia became a part of Serbia, but only until the year 960. After that, the area was a plaything for several stronger kingdoms. At the end, only one empire proved to be strong enough. The Turkish occupation started in 1463 and soon included the whole of Bosnia. Despite several uprisings, the Turkish stayed for more than 400 years.

During the long period of foreign rule, many Bosniaks converted to Islam, and so even today most Bosniaks are Muslims. Hence, Bosnia emerged as the interface between Islam and Christianity - in the middle of Europe. After the defeat of the Turks in 1879 (see also →History of Bulgaria), the Congress of Berlin made Bosnia a part of Habsburg-ruled Austria-Hungary. Naturally, Bosniaks were not happy about the new foreign rule. As a matter of fact, affinity to the neighbours in the East remained much higher.

In 1914 the situation escalated, as one of the many archdukes of the Austria-Hungarian monarchy was assassinated in →Sarajevo by a Bosnian Serb. Austria-Hungary, feeling provoked, instantly declared war on →Serbia, Russia was ready to help the Serbs and declared war on Austria, with Germany joining in to back Austria etc. The end of the story is well known. After World War I and the defeat of Austria-Hungary, Bosnia became a part of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which was renamed Yugoslavia (yugo = Southern) in 1929. Twelve years later, during WW II, Bosnia was occupied by fascist →Croatia. Soon the partisan movement grew stronger. Especially in mountainous Bosnia, partisans offered stiff resistance. After the war, Bosnia-Herzegovina was granted the status of a republic within the newly-founded and communist-led Yugoslavia under the rule of marshal Tito.

Even before 1990, a conflict smouldered below the surface. →Slovenia, →Croatia and →Macedonia started to sever with the crumbling Yugoslavia. In Bosnia, Muslims and Croats formed an alliance and declared independence in 1991. The strong Serbian minority in Bosnia didn't approve of the decision and installed their own government in Pale, a small town near →Sarajevo.

A country in ruins: frontline in Mostar
A country in ruins: frontline in Mostar

And so the tragedy started. It was not just a tragedy for Bosnia, but also for the EU and the United Nations. Both immediately acknowledged Bosnia's independency, which of course was provoking the Bosnian Serbs - without being asked, they were to be forced into the new country. In March 1992, Bosnians confirmed the wish for independence in a public decree, boycotted by Bosnian Serbs. Soon after, Bosnian Serb snipers picked off some demonstrators in →Sarajevo leaving the first civilians dead. One month later, the capital came under siege, and Serb dominated forces of the JNA (Yugoslav National Army) soon managed to seize around 70 % of Bosnia. Croats and Bosniaks, still allied, tried to resist but were not really successful. Bosnian Serbs under the rule of psychiatrist Radovan Karadžić immediately launched ethnic cleansing operations in the occupied territories. Responses by the EU and UN were limited to wagging a finger at Bosnian Serbs.

Things got even worse in 1993. At that point, it was not just Serbs against the rest, but also Croats fighting Bosniaks. Especially the area around →Mostar became the scene of a bloody showdown between Bosniaks and Croats. In the West around the city of Bihać a local Bosnian commander called Abdić established his own little province with a private army of about 6,000 troops. The conflict in Bosnia deepened when he started to fight Bosnian regulars as well. The UN slowly took action and created so called Protected Areas - all of them Muslim enclaves encircled by Bosnian Serbs. The protected areas included the above-mentioned Bihać, Goražde, Srebenica, Tužla and Žepa. Unfortunately, the UN forgot to protect the protected areas. Sarajevo was besieged and heavily shelled for more than 3 years. In July 1995, Bosnian Serbs overran the protected area of Srebenica, killing approximately 6,000 fleeing Bosniaks. At that time, around 400 UN soldiers were present - however, they were not allowed to use any sort of weapons. Shortly after, another protected area, Žepa, fell.

After a while, the UN was present, having sent in so-called UNPROFOR forces. However, the 'blue helmets' were not allowed to use firearms and therefore helpless. One day, the Bosnian vice-president was dragged out an armoured UNPROFOR car by Serbian militia and executed immediately in front of the poor soldiers. Finally it was planned to send in other international troops in order to protect - not the civilians, but the withdrawal of UNPROFOR forces. More than 30 cease-fire agreements were negotiated - none of them lasted. Instead, all parties used the truce to strengthen their positions and re-form military units. Many peace initiatives with beautiful names such as Vance-Owen or Vance-Stoltenberg were put forward. All of them more or less amounted to the same conclusion - Bosnia needs to be partitioned along ethnic lines. Still, other countries hesitated to intervene for several reasons. The situation in Bosnia was highly confusing, and the mountainous terrain didn't promise a quick and bloodless operation. Furthermore, there's no oil in Bosnia. At least the Bosnian Serbs didn't hesitate and chained around 300 UN soldiers and observers to potential air raid targets, e.g. military obejcts etc. Worldwide, images of concentration camps flickered on TV screens - now in technicolor.

September 1995: Sarajevo's deadly siege had already lasted more than 3½ years, leaving an estimated 16,800 citizens dead. Four months after the fall of Srebenica, the UN eventually gave permission to launch massive air raids. Within a few days, NATO forces in their first military combat action in history flew more than 500 attacks against Bosnian Serbs. Almost at the same time, rapid reaction forces managed to crack and lift the siege of the capital using heavy artillery. This again forced Bosnian Serb leaders together with Serbia's president Milošević, who of course massively suppported Bosnian Serbs, to return to the negotiating table.

The quintessence of the Bosnian tragedy is the bitter realization of the fact that such atrocities are not limited to faraway places like Kongo, but are also possible in the middle of Europe. Another lesson taught was the fact that the UN is not strong enough to handle a full-scale war. The same helplessness appeared a few years later before the 2nd Iraq war. At the end, the Dayton Accord was widely accepted. According to this agreement, prewar external borders were confirmed, but Bosnia was divided into two so-called entities - 51% belong to the Federation Bosnia-Herzegovina (abbr. FD), commonly known as the Muslim-Croat Federation, 49% are to be the territory of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, for short Republika Srpska (RS), with the capital being transfered to Banja Luka. The narrow Posavina-Corridor in the North of Bosnia connects the Eastern and Western parts of the RS. The situation in Brčko near the corridor proved to be too complicated, and so the town was granted the status of an "International Town".

At least both parties agreed on a common flag, common currency (with two versions!), common number plates and so on. Traffic between FD and RS is increasing. The international community is pumping money into the country to rebuild the infrastructure. More-or-less moderate politicians took over in the RS. International IFOR-forces are in place to protect the precious peace. However, it will take more than one generation to return to normal life and to normalize relations between all ethnic groups (see also →Mostar!)




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