Historical Conflict Among the Serbs, Croats, and Muslims

by Zoran Stanisljevic


The war in Bosnia-Hercegovina has been culminating into a blood bath. The Slavic citizens of the former Yugoslavia have violated the code of international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, and thousands of innocent civilians have been detained, deported or executed (Helsinki Watch, p.1). These violations have been increasing--and the violence occurring within this republic is horrendous. There is widespread pillaging of civilian property, raping of Croatian women, and attacks on medical and relief personnel. Even worse is the taking of hostages and mistreatment of civilians. These methods of violence are known as "ethnic cleansing". Ethnic cleansing is the extermination or expulsion of individuals from a country on the basis of a person's nationality or religion. This "cleansing" is performed by the Serbian forces. The Serbs want to eradicate the Muslims and Croats because of their religious beliefs. In order to begin to understand this war, one must first observe the history of relations among the Serbs, Croats, and Muslims.

Religious persecution can be traced back to the Medieval Period of Bosnia. With the migrations of Croats and Serbs into northern Yugoslavia, the "Bosnians were conscious of being members of distinct communities defined by religion" (Donia and Fine, p.10). By the early seventh century, the Slavs have settled in Bosnia. In the latter half of the seventh century, the Croats invaded Bosnia and "asserted their overlordship" (Donia, p.14).

During the tenth century, Bosnia found itself under a second foreign ruler and became part of the Serbian state. After the "tug-of-war" over territorial acquisition of Bosnia, Hungary asserted itself as ruler. Bosnia vowed never again to let such domination to occur. As a result, Bosnia seceded from international Catholicism. They created their own independent church--the Bosnian Church. Religious persecution finally erupted in the mid 1400's. Bosnia was under papal pressure to obtain western aid (Donia, p.283). In order to prevent a Turkish threat, Bosnian church leaders were forced to accept Catholicism. Those who would not were executed or exiled. This has "played an acute part in the violence that has marked the end of Yugoslavia" (Donia, p. 28).


Ottoman Bosnia: Conversion to Islam

By the time of the Ottoman conquest in 1463, there had been a large scale change in religion. There was an upsurge of conversions towards Islam. It was later evident that the Ottomans categorized the people by ethnicity. Many Bosnians accepted the Islamic lifestyle, but they themselves did not convert. They adopted some Islamic practices; however, this society diligently "continued to follow most of their domestic customs and many Christian practices" (Donia, p. 44).


Muslims: "The Landed Elite in Bosnia"

A serious ethnic clash erupted in the early 1800's. The peoplebelonging to the Serbian Orthodox Church in Bosnia were enraged by the size of the Muslim's share of land. The "landed elite" in Bosnia were members of the Ottoman military. This military class received an enormous amount of land because of their service to the government. Hence, these wealthy Muslim soldiers were "in a position to influence local officers" (Donia, p. 53). Greed now became the primary driving force for these soldiers (Muslims). Large shares of land were acquired by the Muslims and used for their personal use.

Moreover, the Serbs in Bosnia developed hostile feelings toward the Muslims. Clashes had occurred between the viziers and local Bosnians "who saw their customary way of life being threatened by reforms, which they also felt could only weaken the state" (Donia, p. 60). As a result, outside Muslim forces intervened in 1829 and large scale executions were carried out to restore order.


Education and Equality for the Orthodox Community

Because of the shortage of funds for the Orthodox Monarchy, education was not available to many of its citizens. Many bishops of the local churches were not interested in education. "The few schools that achieved some standards were rarely able to achieve any continuity, usually declining or even closing after the death or departure of the individual" (Donia, p. 66). Only the wealthy groups of society (Muslims) could afford a high quality education. The state itself had not maintained a school system for many of the Orthodox communities. Instead, the local rabbis provided "whatever education and local justice their respective communities were to have" (Donia, p. 67). The Muslims were the only ethnic group that were provided with a background of high-quality education.

The Catholics (Croats), on the other hand, received enormous benefits from the Islamic educational system. These instances prompted many Orthodox teachers to seek autonomy--seeing "themselves as Serbs, and were teaching their charges that to be Orthodox meant to be Serb" (Donia, p. 66). This was the ideology that lead to ethnic cleansing--liberation from the Muslims and Croats. This ideology had now become a motive for the Serbs to annihilate the Muslims and Croats.


Bosnian Society: Growth of Ethnic Consciousness

During the mid-eighteenth and the late nineteenth century, Bosnia's economy was based on agriculture. Within this period, Muslims were in control of all farming activities. These landlords continued "to dominate the country economically and socially through the early twentieth century" (Donia, p. 76). The Orthodox peasants were known as kmets--signifying the status of a serf. The peasants gave three-fourths of their crops to the Muslim landlords. As a result, "the lines separating religious communities had stabilized and hardened by the early twentieth century" (Donia, p. 80).

Ethnic consciousness grew among the Muslims, Croats, and Serbians. The Catholics were recognized as Croats; the Orthodox Bosnians regarded themselves as Serbians. The Muslims refused to decline themselves as a nation. Instead, they sought recognition "as members of a religious community" (Dania, p. 80).


Independent State of Croatia: Genocidal Atrocities Against Serbs (1941)

The final and most devastating blow toward the Serb, Croat, and Muslim relations occurred in 1941. The Independent State of Croatia was created by Nazi and Italian fascist governments, Known as Ustasas. Between 1941 and 1945, hundreds of thousands of Serbs and others were executed. "Serbian military and paramilitary forces commonly refer to Croats and Muslim forces in the current war as 'Ustasas'" (Helsinki Watch Report, p. 21). Since this atrocity, the Serbs have refused to allow the Muslims to regain control of Bosnia-Hercegovina. They believed that such cruelty inflicted on the Serbs must never reoccur.


Recognition of Bosnia's Independence: A Revival of Islam

The tensions that have surmounted within Bosnia-Hercegovina are due to the Muslims' support for Bosnia's independence. When Bosnia's sovereignty was declared in October 1991, the Serbians objected profusely. The Serbian forces in the country refused to allow the Muslims and Croats major control over a portion of Yugoslavia. The Yugoslav army has continuously supported the Serbian forces. Moreover, the Croats (Croatian Democratic Union) and the Muslims (Muslim Party of Democratic Action) have formed an alliance against the Serbs. As a result of this alliance, Serb forces have vowed to use extreme force to "ethnically cleanse" Bosnia-Hercegovina. "Although such atrocities are being committed on wide scale, they are by no means restricted to that region" (Watch, p.11).


Ethnic Cleansing: Acts of Genocide

The acts of genocide are not just confined within the Bosnia-Hercegovinian territory. The Serbs oppose the independence of Bosnia. They are seeking aunion with Serbia. The Serbs believe "that an independent Bosnian state would be a unitary entity in which a combined Muslim and Croatian majority would persecute a Serbian minority" (Watch, p. 46). The Serbs point to the time in 1941 when the Muslim and Croats persecuted, and murdered thousands of Serbian people. The main idea behind ethnic cleansing is that the Serbs "have the right to live in one state...that nationalists, not republics, have the right to secede from Yugoslavia" (Ibid, p. 46).


Disappearances of Non-Serbian soldiers

Non-Serbian individuals have been taken from their homes in broad daylight. People have disappeared even in places where detention centers are located. An instance occurred in the town of Zaklopasa--a municipality of Vlasenica. Cetniks (Serb forces) entered the farm of a Croatian family. One of the family members was told by the Cetniks to give up any weapons they had in their possession. The individual emphatically denied that his family had any weapons. He even offered to give the Cetniks his cows. Suddenly the Cetniks "kept shooting for several minutes all over the village, despite the fact that no one was shooting at them" (Watch, p. 53). Two other individuals from the family were taken away because they were cousins of a leader of the Muslim party. These people were never seen again.


The Unexplained Deaths of Serbs

Even Croatian forces have committed terrible acts of violence--especially within the Croatian territory. There are "reports of Serbs who were killed shortly after being arrested by Croatian forces or whose bodies were found in Croatian--controlled territory" (Watch, p.318). In most of these cases involving deaths, the circumstances are unknown. On the other hand, there has been significant evidence that indicates members of the Croatian police. The particular police force in question is located in the region of Siroh. Investigators have been conducting investigations, but no arrests have been made. One example of an unexplained death is the following:

A corpse of a thirty-eight year-old male Serb was found in the Danube River. The individual was thrown in while still alive. The body was in the water for up to four days. He also bore scars on his back, which suggest possible signs of torture. What is very interesting is that the man had been arrested by Croatian police. He was interrogated for two days, and then released. He was not seen alive thereafter (Ibid, p.318.)


Raping of Muslim Women

Women were constantly selected from Muslim cities throughout former Yugoslavia and were sent to Chetnik camps or abandoned schools, where they were raped. These women and girls were raped and tortured for many days. They were even raped in front of their fathers (UN Security Council, p. 5). The girls and women who became pregnant stayed at these Chetnik camps while the other women were traded for Serbian prisoners of war. The pregnant females "were transferred to a hospital and fed twice a day because, as the Cetniks said, they had to bear their offspring" (Ibid, p. 5).


Concentration Camps

Serbian soldiers have placed prisoners of war in concentration camps. These camps are typically located in abandoned cattle houses. The prisoners are given water at times; however, rarely all the prisoners are given food. A camp in Trnopolje illustrated these horrid conditions. "Serbian soldiers wandered through Trnopolje camp nightly, brutally beating the male prisoners and randomly raping female prisoners" (UN, p. 3). Although these concentration camps have currently been "improved," many of the employees there disagree. Some Serbian soldiers are against the war, but fear for their lives. These soldiers are afraid to voice their opinion and cannot leave their jobs at these camps. Consequently, they have vowed to help the Muslim and Croatian prisoners in any way they can.


Croatian Detention Centers: Torture and Mistreatment

There are nine detention centers, which are occupied by Croatian forces, throughout Croatia. There have been "documented cases of torture and mistreatment by the Croatian army or police (Watch, p.319). One Serb who was beaten at the police station kept shouting that he was not involved in any crime; however, the Croatian police beat him while his head was submerged in a bucket of water (Ibid, p.319). The incident excited the Croatian police, who continued beating the man for nine hours.

This bloody rivalry among the Serbs, Croats, and Muslims have been traced back to the Medieval times. Although history has portrayed the Muslims and Croatians as savages, this does not justify the Serbian ethnic cleansing of the former Yugoslavia. This history is a vicious cycle in which no ethnic groups have learned from one another. Instead, ignorance and deeply rooted hostile feelings are exacted upon the people of former Yugoslavia.


Works cited

Donia, Robert J. and John V.A. Fine, JR. Bosnian and Hercegovina. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

War Crimes in Bosnia-Hercegovina: Helsinki Watch Report: Human Rights Watch. New York: Human Rights Watch, 1992.

United States Submission of Information to the UN Security Council in Accordance with Paragraph 5 of Resolution 777 (1992) and Paragraph 1 of Resolution 780 (1992).






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