Sunday, 14 January 2018

Bosnia - A Short History by Noel Malcolm

Recently read a troubling book on the history of Bosnia entitled "Bosnia - A Short History" by Noel Malcolm

"Bosnia - A Short History" by Noel Malcolm

The book charts the history of Bosnia for the last two thousand years or so, but this post focusses only on the content related to the nineteenth century onwards.

1800 - Largely Muslinm landowners and Christian peasants. Uprisings in neighbouring Serbia and other political events made Muslims feel surrounded and they became more intolerant and suspicious. Relations between Muslims and Jews "good, and frequently better than between Muslims and Christians".

1839 - Ottoman decree that all subjects, regardless of faith, to be treated equally - but these new laws not really implemented in outlying parts of Ottoman empire. Bosnia was not in a good condition at this time, due to effects of fighting with Ottomans. High taxation of peasants (both Muslim and Christian)

1856 - Tanzimat "reorganisation" of Ottoman empire broke down the political power of the land owning class. Bosnian authorities aware that neighbours Croatia and Serbia were keen to annex Bosnia.

1860s - Local ruler Topal Osman-Pasa oversaw building of roads, libraries, schools and implememation of other reforms.

1874-76 - Many local uprisings against brutal tax collection when harvests had failed. Some Christian Orthodox activists took the opportunity to declare their loyalty to Serbia. Bosnian Army acts and burns down hundreds of villages, kill thousands. 100k to 250k refugees flee Bosnia.

1879 - Congress of Berlin decides that Bosnia, while still theoretically part of the Ottoman empire, would be occupied by Austria-Hungary. Bosnia raised am army of some 40,000 men, against the 82,000 Austro-Hungarian troops. After three months the invaders had completed conquered Bosnia. Large scale economic investment then followed - building of roads and railways, construction of mines and steelworks, construction of schools.

The Berlin Congress

1902 - US journalist W E Curtiss comments that "members of the different mutual respect and toleration"

1908 - "Young Turk" revolution resulted in Austro-Hungary formally annexing Bosnia - to the anger of neighbouring Serbs.

1912 - Neighbouring Montenegro and Serbia declare war on Ottoman Empire and achieve quick success in driving Ottomans out of Kosovo and Macedonia, massacring Albanian Muslims in the process, causing tens of thousands of refugees and force converting Bulgarian speaking Muslims and stoking anti Austian feelings in Bosnia. By 1913 Serbia had doubled the size of its territory and was posing a threat to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. War was imminent.

1914 - Archduke Franz Ferdinand decided to visit Sarajevo on the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo. After his assassination Austro-Hungarian government asked Serbia to clamp down on agitators in a number of ways. Serbia agreed to all bar one. And that one refusal was enough for Germany to pressure for war against Serbia.

1918 - Activism (that had been ongoing for a number of years) for the creation of a Yogoslavia comprising Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia became reality. The Muslim population of Bosnia was by this time largely peasant smallholders. The Croat Muslims were led by Mehmed Spaho and the Yugoslav Muslim Organisation.

1930 - American writer Hornby commented that:
"Glancing at the peaceful little stalls where Christians, Musselmans and Jews mingle in business... I wondered if tolerance is not one of the greatest of virtues".

1941-1945 (WW2) - During this period there were actually a number of layers of conflict in Yugoslavia - the annexation by Germany and Italy; the general Axis-Allied conflict; a civil war in Croatia; and confict between the two main Serb resistance organisations (Ustaše and Chetniks). At least a million people died - mostly Yugoslavs killed by Yugoslavs. Anti Jewish laws were introduced almost immediately on arrival of German forces. Of some 14,000 Bosnian Jews, nearly 12,000 were killed by the end of the war. The Ustaše (a Croation nationalist group) attempted to ethnically cleanse Serbs and Jews from Bosnia (Bosnia and Croatia had been combined into one administrative area). Muslim groups protested against these crimes, and violence against Bosnian Muslims by both by Serbs and Croats.

Ustase in Sarejvo, WW2;

With conflict coming into Bosnia from all directions, many Muslims formed their own local militias and felt that some kind of autonomy was the only solution. Any changes were in the gift of the Germans. Malcolm states that the resulting 1942 Bosnian Muslim memorandum to Hitler "complained bitterly about killings of Muslims by the Ustasa, and requested that all Ustasa activity on Bosnian territory should be stopped". To protect the country it asked for permission to expand the Muslim Volunteer Legion, and to reassure the Germans it suggested that the Legion be placed under direct German control."

Over time, however, the trend was for Muslims to leave the German force and join the Partisans, lead by Tito, who captured Sarajevo in 1945. Malcolm comments that :
"[The Bosnian Muslims] looked forward to a time when there would be no more killing. Altogether, 75,000 Bosnian Muslims are thought to have died in the war: at 8.1 percent of their total population, this was a higher proportion that that suffered by the Serbs (7.3%), or by any other people except the Jews and the Gypsies. Muslims fought on all sides - Ustaše, German, Cetnik, Partisan - and had been killed by all sides. Many had been killed in Croatian and German death-camps, including Jasenovac, Buchenwald, Dachau and Auschwitz. They had not started this war, and had fought above all to defend themselves. But the killing was not yet over."

At the end of the war Tito immediately began killing all opposition, with perhaps some 250,000 people dead by 1946. There was a crackdown on organised religion - for Muslims this included the banning of teaching of children in mosques, closure of Muslim cultural societies and Waqf charitable foundations, and the closure of the Muslim printing press in Sarajevo. Many Muslim intellectuals were killed.


1960s-1980s - The pressures eased from the 1960s, particularly when Tito became involved in the non-aligned movement. Throughout the decades after WW2, the Yugoslav economy was badly managed, and began to rack up siginificant western debts as the years wore on. Inflation was 120% in 1987 and 250% by 1988.

1998 - Public protests against austerity measures forced the resignation of the Politburos in Vojvodina and Montenegro. The protests were organised by the new leader of the Serbian Communists - Slobodan Milošević. Milosevic then filled the Politburos with his own supporters and began agitating to make Kosovo a subject region, rather than a equal in a federation, using the resistance of the Kosovan Albanians to portray this as a nationalist struggle.

March 1989 - The Serbian Assembly in Belgrade abolished the political autonomy of Kosovo and Vojvodina, prompting protests which were put down by Serbian military police.

June 1989 - Several hundred thousand Serbs gathered to celebrate the 600th aniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, and were addresses by Milosevic, who now controlled the votes of half the parts of the Yugoslavian Federation - Serbia, Vojvodina, Kosovo and Montenegro. If he could also control Macedonia he would have the ability to rewrite the constritution as he wished. Croatia and Slovenia could see what was coming - Slovenia passed a new constitution, giving itself the right to secede and for its laws to take precedence of federal laws.

Nationalist movements also grew in Bosnia, while a flourishing of new political parties and of elections made it harder for Milosevic to achieve his aim using existing structures. So Milosevic decided to simply carve out an extended Serb area.

In Croatia, this was done by portraying Croatian nationalists as wartime Ustasa extremists; by provoking conflicts between Serb villagers and Croatian police to alienate the villagers; and by inviting the Serb dominated army to "mediate" in conflicts.

These tactics were not going to work in Bosnia, where Serbs were not under any threat, so the approach taken was to tell the Bosnia Serbs that they were threatened by "Islamic Fundmentalists". Bosnia was increasingly feeling itself squeezed between Serb and Croatian nationalists, both of whom had designs on Bosnian territory - but the threat was greater from the Serbian side. So when political parties formed in Bosnia there was a tendency for Croatian and Muslim groups to be one side of the argument and the Bosnian Serbs on the other.

The main Muslim party, the Party of Democratic Action (SDA) was led by Alija Izetbegović, reacting against the nationalism of its neighbours, also focused on their most individual characteristic - their faith. But also campaigned on Bosnias unique multi-national, multi religious nature.

Alija Izetbegović

In his book "Islam between East and West", Izetbegovic praised renaissance art, Anglo Saxon philosophy and culture and the social democratic tradition. It is worth noting that the Bosnian Muslim population was relatively secularised - an effect of Communist smothering of religion, westernisation and urbanisation.

1990 - The Bosnian Elections resulted in an assembly with 99 Muslims, 85 Serbs, 49 Croats and a few others - these numbers broadly matched the population and Izetbegovic formed a coalition of the three main groups and allocated government posts between them. However, the situation became increasingly tense as Milosevic continued breaking apart the federal institutions that held Yugolslavia together.

June 1991, Slovenia and Croatia both declared independence. Milosevic, seeing that both the EEC and US supported "territorial integrity" of Yugoslavia, and federal army tanks entered Slovenian territory the next day. Strong Slovenian resistance meant that the army had to back down. Croatia, however, was soon in a state of full scale war. One of the Serb groups fighting in Croatia was led by a criminal called "Arkan". In Bosnia, nationalist Serb groups, led by Radovan Karadžić, declared "Autonomous Serb Regions" and invited the Federal (largely Serb) army in to "protect" them.


Serb nationalists were openly talking of carving up Bosnia to leave a Muslim "Bantustan" surrounded by Serb controlled territory.

World leaders, including the EEC appointed negotiator Lord Carrington, took little action.

September 1991 - The United Nations placed an arms embargo on Yugoslavia. This had little effect on the well stockpiled Serbs (who also purchased 14,000 tonnes of arms from the middle east just before the embargo came into force), but made it difficult for the Croatians to resist attacks on their territory. Vokovar was almost completely destroyed and hundreds of its inhabitants were then killed by Serb forces.

January 1992 - The EEC recognised Slovenia and Croatia and a UN brokered peace deal was finalised a few weeks later.

Bosnia, facing a future under Serb control now also began to move towards independence, with a referendum held in early 1992. Despite Serb forces urging a boycott and preventing ballot boxes from entering Serb held territory, some 64% of the population votes, overwhelmingly for independence of "Bosnia-Hercegovina, a state of equal citizens and nations of Muslims, Serbs, Croats and others who live in it".

Whilst Croatia and Serbia moved towards partition of Bosnia between them, the EEC and Lord Carrington remained focussed on a "cantonization" solution.

Malcolm comments that there was no evidence that the Bosnian government was contemplating any kind of discriminatory laws against any of the groups in Bosnia but added that:
"a kind of political psychosis has been created by the Serb and Serbian peolitians and media, in which the 'defence' of the 'rights' of the Bosnian Serbs was given such absolute status that people ceased even to wonder whether they were really under attack. Once this psychosis was fully established, the final step to military action was small one to take"

April 1992 - Bosnia was recognised as an independent state by the EC on 6th April 1992

Soon, well planned military operations were being undertaken by largely Serbian (i.e. from Serbia, not Bosnian Serbs) forces, including those of Arkan. Malcolm comments that "it is quite clear that the attack was "mainly achieved by federal army forces...directed by Belgrade, and paramilitary groups from Serbia.".

Vedran Smailović plays in the ruins of the Sarajevo National Library in 1992

Douglas Hurd, however, was describing the conflict as a Bosnian "civil war" as did the Times repeatedly. The BBC referred to "warring factions" and talked of "a breakdown in law and order".

Villages were subject to federal army artillery fire and their Muslim populations terrified into fleeing, encouraged by random killings of Muslims by the attacking forces. Meanwhile, the local Serb populations, who had already been subject to relentless Serbian propaganda, and had seen news reports of the conflicts in Croatia, were persuaded that there was a real Muslim threat against them.

A Reuters correspondent, Andrej Gustincic, reported from Foča showing what local Serb villagers thought, with a woman commenting:
"There were lists of Serbs who were marked for two sons were down on the list to be slaughtered like pigs. I was listed under rape". Gustincic adds that "None of them has seen the lists but this does not prevent anyone from believing in them unquestioningly"

April 1992 - Resistance was mainly by Bosnian Croats and, later, Croatian army forces. They managed to halt the Federal army advance. It should be noted, however, that Croatian government had their eyes on absorbing Bosnia into its territory too. Remarkably, Izetbegovic remained focused on a Bosnian government that also represented Bosnian Serbs.

May 1992 the most of the UN peacekeepers in Sarajevo were withdrawn.

From Belgrade, Milosevic was repeating the lie that the army and paramilitary forces in Bosnia were "independent" of Belgrade. Malcom comments that :
"The fundamental failure of the Western Politicians was that they looked only at the symptoms of the war, not at its causes:it was as though they did not even want to understand the nature of Milosevic's project...Apportioning responsibility or blame became a matter of pointing to people who were firing guns; and since there were two sides now firing them, the blame was apportioned to both."

Carrington commented:
"Everyone is to blame for what is happening in Bosnia and Herzegovina...and as soon as we get the cease fire there will be no need to blame anybody."

This was the attitude that led to the action by the West that contributed the most to the destruction of Bosnia - the continuing arms embargo.

Malcolm comments that there was a difference in the fighting strategy between the two sides, the Serbs would usually sit back and shell an area for weeks, or even months instead of attacking directly. And the Serb conscript forces were less motivated that the defending Croats and Muslims.

According to Malcolm, if the Bosnian government had been allowed to obtain arms for its defence, it is quite likely that the Serb gains in Bosnia could have been rolled back, at least to the point where the Serbs realized they could not conquer the territory.

However, Douglas Hurd was against this, saying that allowign the Bosnians to defend themselves would "only prolong the fighting".

August 1992 : Images from Serb detention centres began to reach western audiences, as well as estimates of over 9,000 people having been killed there. Reports of mass killings from villages, such as the case of Zaklopača, where 83 men were summarily executed by Serb paramilitaries were also being reported. In some cases there was a deliberate policy of killing educated Muslims and community leaders.

Bosnians and Croats  held in the Manjača concentration camp, near Banja Luka, 1992 

Douglas Hurd admitted that there was "ample justification for action" but refused to allow the Bosnian government to purchase weapons and still viewed the confict as a civil war with no front line and "village divided against village".

Douglas Hurd

John Major, at a UN-EEC conference in August 1992, thought he had managed to gain Serb pledges to put their heavy artillery under UN supervision - but all this meant was that UN monitors were allowed to watch the artillery being fired into Sarajevo.

Sarjevo Parliament on fire after Serb tank shelling, 1992

Despite sanctions, there was no practical way to stop barges containing arms from entering Serbia on the Danube and no way of enforcing the no-fly zone over Bosnia.

The new EEC negotiator, Lord Owen, dropped his support for military action and began treating the Serbs as having equally valid claims as the Bosnians in negotiations.

Lord Owen

Malcolm comments that:
"What was still not fully understood [in the West] was that ethnic cleansing was not a by-product of the war. It was a central part of the entire political project..."

By the second half of 1992, UN (and other) aid agencies were sending aid convoys into Bosnia, protected by UN troops. Effectively, these lightly armed troops became potential Serb hostages, which is why the British Government ended up arguing at the UN against enforcement of the theoretical Bosnia no-fly zone, for fear of retaliation against UK troops there.

Oct 1992 : The Vance-Owen "cantonisation" peace plan emerged which, according to Malcolm, had a number of flaws and had the effect of encouraging the Serbs to take more territory and also to encourage the start of Muslim-Croat conflict and ethnic cleansing over the status of cantons in central Bosnia. By the time (May 1993) the UN human rights rapporteur Tadeusz Mazowiecki warned that the Vance-Owen plan was stimulating ethnic cleansing, it was too late.

The Vance-Owen plan, which encouraged each side
to take more territory before it was implemented 

The German and US governments had considered removing the arms blockade of Bosnia, but had been persuaded not to by Douglas Hurd.

March-May 1993 - Even in Jan 1993, Bosnian forces were able to push back Serb advances, but by March a lack of ammunition and supplies, was making it impossible for Bosnian enclaves to hold out and so, reluctantly, the Bosnian government accepted the Vance-Owen plan.The Vance-Owen plan was signed by all parties on 2 May 1993. The Serb view of the plan was articulated by prominent nationalist Dragoslav Rancic who said:
"It is just the first is not going to last long. Not even Lord Owen believes in it."

He added that the Muslims would eventually be left with a "Balkan Lesotho".

Serb commanders in Bosnia, however, felt they had no need of the Vance-Owen plan and rejected it - they also persuaded Bosnian Serb soldiers and peasants to reject it too.

May 22nd - At a Washington meeting of the foreign ministers of the USA, UK, France and Russia, there was no talk of air strikes, or even of enforcing the Vance-Owen plan. Instead it was decided to create so called "safe areas" for the remaining Bosnian Muslims. In these safe areas they would be guarded by UN forces whose where authorised to return fire if they (the UN forces) were attacked, but not if the actual Muslim refugees were attacked.

On hearing of this plan, Izetbegovic commented that:
"If the international community is not ready to defend the principles which it itself has proclaimed as its foundations, let it say so openly, both to the people of Bosnia and to the people of the world. Let it proclaim a new code of behaviour in which force will be the first and the last argument."

Malcolm cocludes his book but commenting that:
"the atrocities in Bosnia in 1992 were not committed by old men, or even by young Bosnians nursing grudges about the second world war. The pattern was set by young urban gangsters in expensive sunglasses from Serbia, members of the paramilitary forces raised by Arkan and others...what they were doing was to carry out a rational strategy dictated by their political leaders - a method carefully calculated to drive out two ethnic populations and radicalise a third."

And also quotes from a different conflict:
"the Bolsheviks had to spill blood in order to bind their wavering adherents with a band of collective guilt"

"Bosnia - A short History" was published in 1994, and but that time there had already been over 150,000 deaths and 2 million people displaced. For Bosnia, there were years of pain remaining, with perhaps the most chilling example of inhumanity ocurring in 1995, when some 8,000 Bosnians were rounded up and killed by Serb forces in the Srebrenica massacre.

Srebrenica Genocide Memorial

Image Sources
Berlin Congress, Ustase, Tito, Izetbegovic, Sarajevo parliament, Sarajevo library, Manjača camp, Lord Owen, Douglas Hurd, Vance-Owen, Srebnenica Arkan