Who Are Bosnians

In 1945, communist guerrilla fighter Josip Broz Tito, better known as Marshal Tito, reestablished the Yugoslav federation, which had existed from 1918 to 1941 and then had been dismembered by Nazi Germany. The constituent nations of the reconstituted Yugoslavian republic were Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia (see Map 1).

The word "Yugoslavia" means "land of the South (Yugo) Slavs." The central part of Yugoslavia was populated by three major groups (Serbs, Slavic Muslims, and Croats), all of whom spoke dialects of the South Slavic language until recently called Serbo-Croatian. The vast majority of Croats were Roman Catholic and lived in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and some parts of Serbia. The vast majority of Serbs were Orthodox Christians and lived in Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and parts of Croatia and Bosnia known as the Krajina. Slavic Muslims were concentrated in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the adjacent areas in Serbia and Montenegro, and in Macedonia. Croatians used a Latin-based script, while Serbs preferred a Cyrillic script (based on Greek characters), but despite dialectical differences, Serbs,

Croats, and Bosnian Muslims spoke the same language. Many Serbs and Croats were devoted to the ideal of a multireligious and multiethnic Yugoslavia. Religious nationalists, however, desired religiously homogeneous national states, a greater Catholic Croatia and a greater Orthodox Christian Serbia. Slovenes and Macedonians spoke South Slavic languages distinct from but belonging to the same language family as Serbo-Croatian. The non-Slavic Albanians were primarily Muslim and resided in Macedonia and a region in Serbia known as Kosovo, adjacent to the independent nation of Albania. A large Hungarian population lived in another province of Serbia, Vojvodina.

Like the rest of Europe, Yugoslavia had been torn apart in World War II. Slovenia had been made part of the Greater German Reich. Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina had been incorporated into a puppet state of Nazi Germany. Italy had occupied parts of the coastline. Germany had occupied and ruled Serbia through a collaborationist Serbian regime. The "independent" Croatian state under German and Italian occupation was controlled by a fascist militia known as the Ustashe, dedicated to an independent "Greater Croatia." In 1941 the Ustashe began to "cleanse" Croatia of Serbs either by forcing them to convert to Roman Catholicism or by killing and expelling them. Various groups of Serb fighters organized themselves as a nationalist guerrilla force, called the "Chetniks," loyal to the Serb royal dynasty. Some Chetniks espoused the idea of a "Greater Serbia" and carried out atrocities against non-Serbs. Tito's army of Partisans, on the other hand, was made up of people from all the major Yugoslav religious and ethnic groups and fought for a unified Yugoslavia under communist rule. At the end of the war,

the Partisans carried out mass executions against both their Ustashe and Chetnik enemies.

After the war Tito set out to reestablish Yugoslavia and to balance the various nationalities. "Brotherhood and Unity" was the slogan meant to replace calls for independent and greater Croatia and Serbia. By the 1970s Tito had positioned Yugoslavia as a communist state independent of the Kremlin and a leader of the nonaligned movement—finding a strategic niche between Soviet and Western spheres. Yugoslavia was relatively robust economically. The hatreds and tragedies of World War II began to fade, particularly in the new generations, and intermarriage increased. The 1984 Winter Olympic Games brought thousands of visitors to Sarajevo; many came away enchanted by the culture they found.

After Tito's death in 1980, Yugoslavia was ruled by a rotating presidency; each term would be filled by a representative of a different Yugoslav republic. In the late 1980s Serbs became involved in a bitter struggle with Albanians in the region of Kosovo. As Serb nationalism demanded a Greater Serbia in ways that would never have been tolerated under Tito, the other republics, especially Slovenia and Croatia, became fearful. By 1987 a Serbian communist party official, Slobodan Milosevic, used the Serb nationalism to dominate Yugoslavia. The Slovenes and Croats declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 and Yugoslavia disintegrated.[7]

The Yugoslav army invaded Slovenia but retreated; there were few Serbs in Slovenia and Serbia had no territorial ambitions in it. Croatia was different. The new Croatian president, Franjo Tudjman, countered Milosevic's aggressive Serb nation-

alism with an aggressive Croat nationalism. Tudjman refused to acknowledge the full extent of Ustashe persecution of Serbs during World War II. While moderate Croats and Serbs tried to prevent war, the nationalists associated with Tudjman and Milosevic stoked it. The result was a brutal conflict between the Yugoslav army with its allied Serb militias on one side and the new Croat army on the other.

The people of Bosnia, especially the Muslims, were caught in the middle. Croat and Serb nationalism is based upon an identification of nationhood with a particular branch of the Christian religion. In such religious nationalism, a Muslim is treated as a second-class citizen at best. The majority of Bosnian Muslims and many of the other Bosnians—Serb, Croat, Jew, Gypsy, and others—rejected the identification of religion and nationhood. These people considered themselves Bosnian. Many people in Bosnia-Herzegovina sought a nation based not on exclusive religious affiliation but on constitutional rule and respect for differing religions.

If Bosnians refused to fight in the Yugoslav army against Croatia, they were labeled as traitors by Serb militants. If they fought in the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army, they were considered enemies by Croat nationalists. The president of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Alija Izetbegovic, had seen this trap and had opposed the independence of Croatia until these explosive issues could be resolved.[8] When war in neighboring Croatia broke out, the Bosnian government was faced with a further trap. If it tried to procure arms, the Yugoslav army and the Serb nationalist militias would interpret the effort as aggression and would attack. If Bosnia refrained from arming itself, Croat nationalists would set up their own militias in Bosnia and any attack by the Serb army

would be justified by blaming the Bosnians for not being better prepared. The final trap was the issue of independence. If Bosnia remained in Yugoslavia, Serb nationalists could persecute non-Serbs in Bosnia and say to the world that the persecution was an "internal affair." If Bosnia declared independence, it would face assault by the heavily armed Yugoslav army and the Serb militias.[9] In a chilling speech before the Bosnian Assembly, a Serb religious nationalist by the name of Radovan Karadzic pointed out the vulnerability of the Muslim population and what lay in store for them if they opposed him: "Do not think that you will not lead Bosnia-Herzegovina into hell, and do not think that you will not perhaps make the Muslim people disappear, because Muslims cannot defend themselves if there is war."[10]

On April 6-7, 1992, after Bosnians had voted for independence in a referendum, the European Community and the United States recognized Bosnia-Herzegovina as a sovereign state. Meanwhile, Bosnian Serb nationalists had declared their own independent "Republika Srpska" (Serbian Republic) and set up their headquarters in the town of Pale, not far from Sarajevo, with Karadzic as their president and backed by Serbia. The Yugoslav army and the Serb militias invaded the new nation from all sides: from the Serb-controlled areas of Croatia known as Krajina, from Serbia, and from Montenegro. Units of the Yugoslav army stationed in Bosnia had ringed the hills around Sarajevo with massive artillery, ostensibly as a "training exercise." And local Bosnian Serb extremists had been armed in advance by agents of Serbian militias and the Yugoslav army. By the fall of 1992, the Serb military had occupied 70 percent of Bosnia-Herzegovina, after rolling over towns and villages that were lacking in basic defense capability. Bosnians had expected an at-

tack by the Serb military; what occurred after Serb nationalists gained military control over most of the country was not expected, however, and to many, inconceivable.

Was this article helpful?

+1 0

Responses

  • j
    Well explained! Thank you. <br /><br />As you mentioned, many Bosnians &quot;were caught in the middle&quot; and Srebrenica massacre happened. Unfortunately, the ones that died were guilty of having a different name. <br /><br />As a kid, I remember being confused and trying to understand what was happening around us and why we are we fleeing away from our homes…I asked my mom who we were, and how one can tell who is croat, serb or bosniak. We shared the same language, same cultures and everything else….Most of my family is blond with blue eyes. I thought well all blonde people must be muslim even though I had no idea what being a muslim meant. <br /><br />Bosnia is a sad chapter in human history and Srebrenica should never be forgotten! <br />
    8 years ago

Post a comment