Atrocities were committed by all sides and against all sectors of the population in Bosnia-Herzegovina between
1992 and 1995. But the Serb strategy of gender-selective mass executions of non-combatant men was the most
severe and systematic atrocity inflicted throughout. The war in Bosnia can thus be considered both a genocide
against Bosnia's Muslim population, and a gendercide against Muslim men in particular.
The Yugoslav ("Southern Slav") federation, cobbled together from the disintegrated Ottoman Empire after World
War I, was torn apart by combined Nazi invasion and ethnic conflict during the Second World War. Indeed, the
slaughter of Serbs, Jews, Muslims, Croats, and Roma (Gypsies) constituted one of the most genocidal theatres of that war; the Jewish population was nearly exterminated. A partisan movement led by Josip Broz Tito (a Croat) seized power with Allied help, massacred its enemies, and established a comparatively liberal socialist state, creating an
atmosphere for a sense of Yugoslav nationhood to flourish (an idea that lives on today in "Cyber-Yugoslavia").
The federation began to unwind after Marshal Tito's death in 1980, with economic crisis and foreign debt speeding
the dissolution of the union. A new generation of extreme-nationalist politicians arose to fan the flames of ethnic
hatred as a springboard to personal power. In Serbia, President Slobodan Milosevic consolidated his highly
authoritarian brand of rule after 1987, imposing a police state on the restive Serb province of Kosovo and its ethnic-Albanian majority in 1989. Franjo Tudjman, meanwhile, won presidential elections in Croatia by reviving the symbolism and rhetoric of the fascist Ustashe, Croatia's Nazi collaborationists, who fifty years earlier had inflicted genocide on the Serbs, Jews, and Roma within their reach.
While Tudjman and others played an important role in ensuring that the breakup of Yugoslavia would be violent, it
was overridingly Milosevic's ambitions of a "Greater Serbia" that sparked the onset of fullscale war in both
Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Using its dominant control over the Yugoslav army, the Serb regime shelled
large parts of Croatia into submission in 1991 (including the destruction of the Danube city of Vukovar and the
subsequent genocidal massacre: see below). The Bosnian government, almost defenseless, desperately sought to
stay out of the widening conflict. But the following year, in Spring 1992, Milosevic -- in alliance with Radovan
Karadzic's breakaway Bosnian Serbs -- launched the genocidal and gendercidal "ethnic cleansing" of those parts of
Bosnia intended for "Greater Serbia." Sarajevo's time-honoured ethnic harmony was shattered by a protracted
Serb siege. Meanwhile, the outside world dithered ineffectually, imposing an arms embargo on the Bosnian
Muslims equal to the one it imposed on the well-armed Serbs. Europe's worst conflict since the Second World
War was underway, and the military imbalance placed Milosevic's genocidal ambitions within reach.
In the light of long-established and heavily "gendered" strategies of intercommunal conflict in the Balkans, it was hardly surprising that the gender-selective massacre of non-combatant males would emerge as the dominant and most severe atrocity inflicted on the civilian population in the modern Balkans wars. Regardless of their often-atrocious maltreatment of other population groups (including the destruction of entire cities and the mass rape of women), Serb forces -- and to a lesser extent Croats and Muslims -- concentrated their attention systematically on "battle-age" men. As the Bosnian Prime Minister Hasan Muratovic described the Serb strategy in 1996, "Wherever they [the Serbs] captured people, they either detained or killed all the males from 18 to 55 [years old]. It has never happened that the men of that age arrived across the front-line." Citing Muratovic's comment, Mark Danner summarized the Serbs' modus operandi as
A panel from Joe Sacco's memorable work, Safe Area Gorazde
1. Concentration. Surround the area to be cleansed and after warning the resident Serbs -- often they are
urged to leave or are at least told to mark their houses with white flags -- intimidate the target population
with artillery fire and arbitrary executions and then bring them out into the streets.
2. Decapitation. Execute political leaders and those capable of taking their places: lawyers, judges, public
officials, writers, professors.
3. Separation. Divide women, children, and old men from men of "fighting age" -- sixteen years to sixty
4. Evacuation. Transport women, children, and old men to the border, expelling them into a neighboring
territory or country.
5. Liquidation. Execute "fighting age" men, dispose of bodies.
All of the largest atrocities of the Balkans war were variations on this gendercidal theme -- targeting males almost
exclusively, and for the most part "battle-age" males. The five worst acts of mass killing in the modern Balkans
wars were also the worst in Europe since the killing of tens of thousands of disarmed enemy men by Tito's
partisan forces in 1945-46. At Vukovar in November 1991, between 200 and 300 Croatian men, "mostly lightly
wounded soldiers and hospital workers," were pulled out of the hospital surroundings -- some with the catheters
still dangling from their arms -- executed, and buried en masse outside city limits. (See Stover and Peress, The
Graves: Srebrenica and Vukovar.)
(link to ordering information for Sacco's book).
The story of Vlasic (Ugar Gorge) is that of another ruthless act of gender-selective mass killing. On 21 August
1992, a convoy of prisoners from the Serb-run Trnopolje concentration camp were driven to Muslim and Croat
territory. En route, men were separated from women, driven off in separate buses, and executed at the edge of the ravine. Some 200-250 men are believed to have died.
But neither Vukovar nor the Ugar Gorge could hold a
candle to a more obscure slaughter -- at Brcko during the Serb offensive of 1992. Although much about the incident remains shadowy, Brcko, a strategic "choke point" on the Drina River, appears
to have been the target of a systematic gender-selective slaughter that strongly foreshadowed the nightmare at
Srebrenica three years later. Mark Danner, who has investigated what little is publicly known about the events,
summarizes them as follows:
During the late spring and early summer of 1992, some three thousand Muslims ... were herded by Serb troops into an abandoned warehouse, tortured, and put to death. A U.S. intelligence satellite orbiting over
the former Yugoslavia photographed part of the slaughter. "They have photos of trucks going into Brcko
with bodies standing upright, and pictures of trucks coming out of Brcko carrying bodies lying horizontally,
stacked like cordwood," an investigator working outside the U.S. government who has seen the
photographs told us. ... The photographs remain unpublished to this day. (Danner, "Bosnia: The Great
Betrayal," New York Review of Books, 26 March 1998.)
The vast majority of mass killings and gender-selective slaughters between 1991 and 1994 were smaller in
magnitude, and went virtually unrecorded. The best place to find accounts of them, in English at least, is the
Helsinki Watch/Human Rights Watch report, War Crimes in Bosnia-Hercegovina. The litany of atrocities in a narrow stretch of Volume II alone makes clear the pervasiveness and systematic character of the gendercide in
Bosnia-Herzegovina, in a way that the more epic mass killings perhaps do not:
In my village, about 180 men were killed. The army put all men in the center of the village. After the
killing, the women took care of the bodies and identified them. The older men buried the bodies.
We were met by the Cetniks [Serb paramilitaries], who were separating women and children from the men.
Many of the men were killed on the spot -- mostly over old, private disputes. The rest of us were put on
buses and they started to beat us. (Kozarac)
The army came to the village that day. They took us from our houses. The men were beaten. The army
came in on trucks and started shooting at the men and killing them. (Prnovo)
The army took most of the men and killed them. There were bodies everywhere. (Rizvanovici)
The shooting started at about 4:00 p.m., but we were surrounded and could not escape. They [Serb troops]
finally entered the village at 8:00 p.m. and immediately began setting houses on fire, looking for men and
executing them. When they got to our house, they ordered us to come out with hands raised above our
heads, including the children. There were four men among us, and they shot them in front of us. We were
screaming, and the children cried as we were forced to walk on. I saw another six men killed nearby.
Our men had to hide. My husband was with us, but hiding. I saw my uncle being beaten on July 25 when
there was a kind of massacre. The Serbs were searching for arms. Three hundred men were killed that day.
We came out of the shelter. They were looking for men. They got them all together. We saw them beating
the men. We heard the sounds of the shooting. One man survived the executions. They killed his brother
and father. Afterwards the women buried the men. (Biscani)
The crowning act of gendercide in the Balkans wars -- at least until "Operation Horseshoe" in Kosovo in 1999 --
came at Srebrenica between July 12 and 17, 1995. After the atrocities of 1992 and further fighting in 1993,
Srebrenica had been declared one of five "safe areas" under UN protection. Tens of thousands of desperate
Muslims sought protection there. Despite privations and squalor, the safety held -- until July 1995, when Serb
forces overran the enclave. As Dutch U.N. troops and the international community looked on, the Serbs separated
the men, most of them elderly and infirm, from the children and women. While the other members of the
community were bused to safety in Muslim-held territory, thousands of Srebrenica's men were taken out to open
fields, executed, and buried in mass graves. Thousands of other unarmed men were rounded up and hunted down
in nearby forests, in what Serb commander Ratko Mladic called a "feast" of mass killing.
How many died?
"As of December 1994," writes Sabrina Ramet in Balkan Babel (p. 267), "between 200,000 and 400,000 people
had died since June 1991 as a result of the war between Serbs and non-Serbs, and at least 2.7 million people had
been reduced to refugees. An estimated 20,000-50,000 Bosnian Muslim women had been raped by Bosnian Serb
soldiers in a systematic campaign of humiliation and psychological terror." Most authorities, while accepting that
the death-toll from the Bosnian conflict alone reached six figures, would tend towards the lower end of Ramet's
casualty estimate. But to this must be added the further slaughter during the "endgame" of the war in mid-1995,
including the gendercidal massacre at Srebrenica and the Croat invasion of the Serb-held Krajina region later in the
No reliable statistics exist for the number of male versus female casualties in the Bosnian or Croatian wars. All
members of the civilian population suffered in the protracted and bloody sieges of cities such as Vukovar and
Sarajevo. But the overwhelming weight of testimony and recorded evidence suggests a heavy preponderance of
"battle-age" males among the dead -- probably over 80 percent. One clue can be gleaned from the lists of missing persons from the Bosnian conflict. The International Committee of the Red Cross has noted that "the majority of missing persons [in Bosnia-Herzegovina] are men ... Of the approximately 18,000 persons registered by the ICRC in Bosnia-Herzegovina as still missing in connection with the armed conflict that ended there in 1995, 92% are men and 8% are women." (ICRC, "The Impact of Armed Conflict on Women", 6 March 2001.) This apparent disproportion, combined with the
systematic gender-selective strategies pursued in the individual massacres and "ethnic cleansing" campaigns,
warrants the designation of Bosnia-Herzegovina as one of the worst gendercides in recent decades. Especially in
1992-93, atrocities were also inflicted in the brutal concentration camps operated by the Serbs (e.g., Omarska,
Trnopolje), and to a lesser extent by the Croats (Dretelj). The inmates of these camps were overwhelmingly
Muslim males (95 percent or more); many thousands died from torture, beatings, and summary executions.
Who is responsible?
Although crimes have been committed by all sides in the Balkans conflict, the vast majority of the mass killings and
other atrocities were inflicted by the Yugoslav regime of Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic himself now numbers
among those indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), on the basis of his
genocidal actions in Kosovo. He is presently the only sitting head of state to be so indicted. Four top aides were
indicted alongside him. Among Milosevic's key co-conspirators is his wife, Mirjana Markovic, a leading party
The Yugoslav power structure is extensively penetrated by criminal and paramilitary elements, most notably those
under the control of Zeljko Raznatovic ("Arkan") and Vojislav Seselj. Both of these paramilitary leaders were
deeply involved in the ground-level killing at the major massacre sites. Radovan Karadzic, Prime Minister of the
self-declared "Republika Srpska" (the Serb statelet in Bosnia-Herzegovina), has also been indicted on war-crimes
charges. He was intimately involved in planning and preparing the genocidal actions against the Muslim
population of Bosnia. His top general, Ratko Mladic, supervised the gendercide at Srebrenica and numerous other
acts of mass killing, and is also under indictment.
One must not overlook the men and occasionally women who slaughtered the defenseless victims and buried them
in the mass graves, or killed them in their houses and streets. Again, although extreme nationalism was evident in
Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo, it is the ordinary citizens of Serbia who have overridingly supported
their regime in its campaign to build "Greater Serbia" over the graves of Muslims, Croats, and Kosovars.
The slaughter at Srebrenica, which seemed to mark the apogee of "Greater Serbia," was quickly followed by its
demise. A Croat-Muslim alliance, now rearmed with tacit U.S. assistance, went on the offensive. "On August 4
, with clear U.S. backing, Croatia's army attacked and overran Knin, the symbolic capital of the rebel Serbs
who, at the instigation of Slobodan Milosevic and the Yugoslav army, had seized a quarter of Croatia's territory
and driven out their Croat neighbors in 1990 and 1991. Within hours, the tide of the wars in Yugoslavia had
shifted. The rebel Serbs' leaders abandoned the civilian Serb population in Croatia. The Croatian army sent tens
of thousands of these Serbs fleeing across the Croatian border into Serb-held districts in Bosnia." (Sudetic, Blood
and Vengeance, p. 324.) Many thousands of Serbs, especially the elderly and infirm, were killed by Croat forces in
these new vengeful "cleansings." Milosevic and his Bosnian Serb allies were forced to the negotiating table. In
November 1995, at Dayton, Ohio, they signed a peace treaty with Muslim and Croat representatives that saw
Bosnia-Herzegovina formally preserved as an independent country, though with clear areas of predominance for
Serbs, Muslims, and Croats. The pact was secured by 60,000 NATO peacekeepers -- but Milosevic's "Greater
Serbia" dream remained. It would turn its attentions next to the territory it had first focused upon -- Kosovo, with
its rebellious ethnic-Albanian majority. The result was a renewed bout of "ethnic cleansing" and gendercide in the
Balkans, in 1998-99.
[ Further reading ] [ Back to main ] [ Back to top ]
The most wide-ranging
book ever published on
killing, or "gendercide,"
this collection of
essays is also the first
to explore systematically
the targeting of non-
males in various wartime
and peacetime contexts.
and a full
table of contents.
and the West
well selected, brilliantly
edited collection provides
the most comprehensive
treatment of Western
responsibility for mass
atrocity yet published.
The cumulative impact of
the volume is a devastating
indictment of state terrorism
as practised by the West,
both historically, and now
after September 11 in the
name of 'anti-terrorism.'"
- Richard Falk, Professor
and a full
table of contents.