Atrocities were committed by and against all sides in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the Yugoslav war, but in this article we will focus on the Serb strategy of gender-selective mass executions of non-combatant Muslim men in Bosnia-Herzegovina, particularly during 1992-1995. The campaign was an attempt to ethnically cleans Bosnia-Herzegovina of Muslims, and had both gendercidal and genocidal aspects.
As the Yugoslav federation began to crumble in the 1980s, a declining economy fuelled ethno-nationalistic movements and sentiments, and old divisions along ethnic and religious lines became the focal point for violence – and eventually for a full-scale war that raged on in various configurations until 2001.
One of the leaders who rose to power in the midst of this was Slobodan Milosevic, who consolidated his authoritarian rule in Serbia the late 1980s, and strongly promoted the idea of establishing Greater Serbia – a wide-spanning and sovereign Serbian republic controlled by ethnic-Serbs.
Using the Yugoslav army, the Serbian regime under Milosevic shelled large parts of Croatia into submission in 1991. Among other things, they largely destroyed the city Vulkovar and carried out a genocidal massacre there. In the spring of 1992, an alliance formed by Serbia under Milosevic and breakaway Bosnian Serbs headed by Radovan Karadzic launched a genocidal and gendercidal ethnic cleansing campaign in those parts of Bosnia that they saw as part of Greater Serbia.
Simultaneously, the Muslims in Bosnia found it difficult to arm themselves as the international community had imposed an arms embargo on both sides. This embargo was not much of a hindrance for the already well-armed Serbs, but hampered the Bosnian Muslim´s ability to defend their own communities.
The Serbian ethnic-cleansing campaign in Bosnia-Herzegovina adhered to gendered strategies that were already well established on the Balkan peninsula, and which has been observed in many other conflicts around the globe both before and after.
As Bosnian Prime Minister Hasan Muratovic would later describe the Serb strategy in 1996: “Wherever they [the Serbs] captured people, they either detained or killed all the males from 18 to 55.” (Source: Quoted by Mark Danner in “Bosnia: The Great Betrayal,” New York Review of Books, 26 March, 1998.)
In his work, Mark Danner summarized the step-by-step strategy of the Serbian forces as follows:
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 years old.
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.
(Source: Mark Danner in “Bosnia: The Great Betrayal,” New York Review of Books, 26 March, 1998.)
The gendercidal massacre at Brcko
One of the largest mass-killing events that took place during the ethnic-cleansing campaigns in Bosnia-Herzegovina was the massacre at Brcko. During the Serb offensive in 1992, Brcko was a strategically important “choke point” on the Drina River.
In the words of Mark Danner:
“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.” (Source: Mark Danner, “Bosnia: The Great Betrayal,” New York Review of Books, 26 March 1998.)
Most of the mass-killings of males in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the ethnic-cleansing campaign of 1991-1994 were smaller than the event in Brcko and they have also remained less known, especially internationally.
An attempt to record and investigate has been made by the Helsinki Watch/Human Rights Watch, who has included what they know about in their larger report War Crimes in Bosnia-Hercegovina.
Here are just a few quotes from the report:
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. (Trnopolje)
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. (Skelani)
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. (Carakovo)
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 Srebrenica massacres of 1995
For information about the mass-killings in Srebrenica in July 1995, see our separate article.
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