Understanding Yugoslavia

By Cameron Hewitt

Americans struggle to understand the complicated breakup of Yugoslavia — especially when visiting countries that have risen from its ashes, such as Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Talking to the locals can make it even more confusing: Everyone in the former Yugoslavia seems to have a slightly different version of events, and mildly plausible (but specious) conspiracy theories run rampant. A very wise Bosniak once told me, “Listen to all three sides — Muslim, Serb, and Croat. Then decide for yourself what you think.” A Serb told me a similar local saying: "You have to look at the apple from all sides." That’s the best advice I can offer. But since you may not have time for that on your brief visit, here’s an admittedly oversimplified, as-impartial-as-possible history to get you started.

Balkan Peninsula 101

For starters, it helps to have a handle on the different groups who’ve lived in the Balkans — the southeastern European peninsula between the Adriatic and the Black Sea, stretching roughly from Hungary to Greece. Despite its current, somewhat sinister connotations, the word "Balkan" probably comes from a Turkish term meaning, simply, "wooded mountains." The Balkan Peninsula has always been a crossroads of cultures. The Illyrians, Greeks, Celts, and Romans had settlements here before the Slavs moved into the region from the north around the seventh century. During the next millennium and a half, the western part of the peninsula — which would become Yugoslavia — was divided by a series of cultural, ethnic, and religious fault lines.

The most important religious influences were Western Christianity (i.e., Roman Catholicism, first brought to the western part of the region by Charlemagne and later reinforced by the Austrian Habsburgs), Eastern Orthodox Christianity (brought to the east from the Byzantine Empire), and Islam (brought to the south by the Ottomans).

Two major historical factors made the Balkans what they are today: The first was the split of the Roman Empire in the fourth century a.d., dividing the Balkans down the middle into Roman Catholic (west) and Byzantine Orthodox (east) — roughly along today’s Bosnian-Serbian border. The second was the invasion of the Islamic Ottomans in the 14th century. The Ottoman victory at the Battle of Kosovo Polje (1389) opened the door to the region and kicked off five centuries of Islamic influence in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, further dividing the Balkans into Christian (north) and Muslim (south).

Because of these and other events, several distinct ethnic identities emerged. The major ethnicities of Yugoslavia — Croat, Slovene, Serb, and Bosniak — are all considered South Slavs. The huge Slav ethnic and linguistic family — some 400 million strong — is divided into three groups: South (the peoples of Yugoslavia, explained next, plus Bulgarians), West (Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks), and East (Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians).

The South Slavs, who are all descended from the same ancestors and speak closely related languages, are distinguished by their religious practices. Roman Catholic Croats or Slovenes are found mostly west of the Dinaric Mountains (Croats along the Adriatic coast and Slovenes farther north, in the Alps); Orthodox Christian Serbs live mostly east of the Dinaric range; and Muslim Bosniaks (whose ancestors converted to Islam under the Ottomans) live mostly in the Dinaric Mountains. Two other, smaller Orthodox ethnicities have been influenced by other large groups: the Montenegrins (shaped by centuries of Croatian and Venetian Catholicism) and the Macedonians (with ties to Bulgarians and Greeks). To complicate matters, the region is also home to several non-Slavic minority groups, including Hungarians (in the northern province of Vojvodina) and Albanians, concentrated in Kosovo (descended from the Illyrians, who lived here long before the Greeks and Romans).

Of course, these geographic divisions are extremely general. The groups overlapped a lot — which is exactly why the breakup of Yugoslavia was so contentious. One of the biggest causes of this ethnic mixing came in the 16th century. The Ottomans were threatening to overrun Europe, and the Austrian Habsburgs wanted a buffer zone — a “human shield.” The Habsburgs encouraged Serbs who were fleeing from Ottoman invasions to settle along today’s Croatian-Bosnian border to defend the realm (known as Vojna Krajina, or “Military Frontier”).

Imagine being a simple Croat farmer in a remote village. One day your new neighbors move in: big, tough, highly trained Serb refugees with chips on their shoulders after having been kicked out of their ancestral homeland. And imagine being one of those Serbs: angry, frightened, and struggling to make a new life far from home. The cultural clash between these two groups reverberated for centuries.

Another legacy of the Ottomans — which directly resulted in the strife of the 1990s and continued tension today — was their occupation of Kosovo. This southern province is considered the ancestral homeland of the Serbs, whose civilization began here before they moved their capital north to Belgrade, fleeing the Ottomans after the Battle of Kosovo Polje. Under Ottoman rule, Kosovo was opened up to settlement by Muslim Albanians, who quickly came to represent a majority of the population. Centuries later, Kosovo — today 95 percent Albanian — looms large in the Serb consciousness, and their loss of this land still deeply offends them.

After the Ottoman threat subsided in the late 17th century, some of the Balkan states (basically today’s Slovenia and Croatia) became part of the Austrian Habsburg Empire. The Ottomans stayed longer in the south and east (today’s Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia) — making the cultures in these regions even more different. By the mid-19th century, the Ottoman Empire had become the dysfunctional “Sick Man of Europe,” allowing Serbia to regain its independence through diplomatic means. Meanwhile, Bosnia-Herzegovina was taken into the Habsburg fold (frustrating the Serbs, who already had visions of uniting the South Slav peoples).

But before long, World War I erupted, after a disgruntled Bosnian Serb nationalist — with the aim of uniting the South Slavs — killed the Austrian archduke and heir to the Habsburg throne during a visit to Sarajevo. This famously kicked off a chain of events that caused Europe, and the world, to descend into a Great War. During the war, the Serbs fought valiantly (alongside England, France, and the US) with the Allies, while their Slovene and Croat cousins — citizens of the multiethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire — were compelled to take up arms against them. Many Serbs, already eyeing a hypothetical future union of South Slavs, felt betrayed to see their would-be compatriots fighting against them.

South Slavs Unite

When the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell at the end of World War I, the map of Europe was redrawn for the 20th century. After centuries of being governed by foreign powers, the South Slavs began to see their shared history as more important than their differences. The Serbs pushed for the creation of an independent South Slav state, recognizing that a tiny country of a few million Croats or Slovenes couldn’t survive on its own. And so, rather than be absorbed by a non-Slavic power, the South Slavs decided that there was safety in numbers, and banded together to form the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (1918), later known as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (Land of the South Slavs — yugo means “south”). “Yugoslav unity” was in the air. But this new union was fragile and ultimately bound to fail (not unlike the partnership between the Czechs and Slovaks, formed at the same time and for similar reasons).

From the very beginning, the various ethnicities struggled for power within the new Yugoslavia. The largest group was the Serbs (about 45 percent), followed by the Croats (about 25 percent). Croats often felt they were treated as lesser partners under the Serbs. For example, many Croats objected to naming the country’s official language “Serbo-Croatian” — why not “Croato-Serbian”? Serbia already had a very strong king, Alexander Karađorđević, who assumed that his nation would have a leading role in the federation. A nationalistic Croat politician named Stjepan Radić, pushing for a more equitable division of powers, was shot by a Serb during a parliamentary session in 1928. Karađorđević abolished the parliament and became dictator. Six years later, infuriated Croat separatists killed him. By the time World War II came to Yugoslavia, the kingdom was already on the verge of collapse. The conflicts between the various Yugoslav groups set the stage for a particularly complex and gruesome wartime experience.

World War II

Observers struggle to comprehend how it was possible for interethnic conflict to escalate so quickly here in the early 1990s. Most of the answers can be found in the war that shook Europe 50 years earlier. In the minds of the participants, the wars of the 1990s were a continuation of unresolved conflicts from World War II.

Capitalizing on a power struggle surrounding Yugoslavia's too-young-to-rule king, and angered by a popular uprising against the tenuous deals that Yugoslavia had struck with Nazi Germany, Hitler sent the Luftwaffe to air-bomb Belgrade on April 6, 1941. This classic blitzkrieg maneuver was followed by a ground invasion, and within 11 days, Yugoslavia had surrendered. The core of the nation (much of today’s Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina) became the misnamed Independent State of Croatia, which was run by a Nazi puppet government called the Ustaše. Meanwhile, much of today’s Serbia was occupied by Nazi Germany, Slovenia had a Quisling-like puppet dictator, and Montenegro was folded into Mussolini’s Italy.

Many Croat nationalists supported the Ustaše in the hopes that it would be their ticket to long-term independence from Serbia. Emboldened by their genocide-minded Nazi overlords, Ustaše leaders used death camps to exterminate their enemies — specifically, the Serbs who, they felt, had wronged them in the days of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Not only were Jews, Roma, and other Nazi-decreed “undesirables” murdered in Ustaše concentration camps, but also hundreds of thousands of Serbs living in Croatia and Bosnia. (Estimates range from 800,000 — the highball figure taught to Yugoslav schoolkids — to the offensively low 40,000 posited by nationalistic Croatian leaders in the 1990s.) Other Serbs were forced to flee the country or convert to Catholicism. Most historians consider the Ustaše camps to be the first instance of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. Half a century later, the Serbs justified their ruthless treatment of Croats and Bosniaks as retribution for these WWII atrocities.

In the chaos of war, two distinct resistance movements arose, with the shared aim of reclaiming an independent Yugoslavia, but starkly different ideas of what that nation would look like.

First, in the eastern mountains of Yugoslavia rose the Četniks — a fearsome paramilitary band of mostly Serbian men fighting to re-establish a Serb-dominated monarchy. Wearing long beards and traditional mountain garb, and embracing a skull-and-crossbones logo adorned with the motto “Freedom or Death” in Cyrillic, the Četniks were every bit as brutal as their Ustaše enemies. In pursuit of their goal to create a purely Serb state, the Četniks expelled or massacred Croats and Muslims living in the territory they held. (To this day, if a Croat wants to deeply insult a Serb, he’ll call him a “Četnik,” and a Serb might use “Ustaše” to really hit a Croat where it hurts.)

The second resistance group — fighting against both the Četniks and the Ustaše — was the ragtag Partisan Army, led by Josip Broz, who was better known by his code name, Tito. The clever and determined Partisans had dual aims: to liberate Yugoslavia as a free nation on its own terms, and to make that new state a communist one. Even while the war was still underway, the Partisan leadership laid the foundations for what would become a postwar, communist Yugoslavia.

After years of largely guerrilla fighting among these three groups, the Partisans emerged victorious. And so, as the rest of Eastern Europe was being “liberated” by the Soviets, the Yugoslavs regained their independence on their own. Soviet troops passed through, in pursuit of the Nazis, but were not allowed to stay. After the short but rocky Yugoslav union between the World Wars, it seemed that no one could hold the southern Slavs together in a single nation. But one man could, and did: Tito.

Tito’s Yugoslavia

Communist Party president and war hero Tito emerged as a political leader after World War II. With a Slovene for a mother, a Croat for a father, a Serb for a wife, and a home in Belgrade, Tito was a true Yugoslav. Tito had a compelling vision that this fractured union of the South Slavs could function.

But Tito's new Yugoslavia could not be forged without force. In the first several years of his rule, Tito sometimes resorted to ruthless strong-arm tactics to forcibly persuade his subjects. Many soldiers who had fought against the Parisians were executed to create an intimidating example. To this day, Croatians — many of whose grandparents fought proudly with the Ustaše, furthering their ideal of an independent Croatian state — feel that they were disproportionately targeted by Tito, and in some cases, denied development funding in retaliation for their prior support of Partisan enemies. In particular, Croats resented Tito's treatment of Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, the spiritual leader who (like many Croats) had supported the Ustaše. Stepinac was arrested, sham-tried, convicted, and died under house arrest. (Croatia is the Yugoslav successor state where you'll find the least Tito nostalgia.) Similarly, the Četniks — who had also fought Tito's Partisans in the war — felt bruised as they gave up on their dreams of reinstalling the Serbian king. Ultimately Tito prevailed, and while many Yugoslavs weren't entirely convinced of his vision, they went along with it...for the time being.

Tito’s new incarnation of Yugoslavia aimed for a more equitable division of powers. It was made up of six republics, each with its own parliament and president: Croatia (mostly Catholic Croats), Slovenia (mostly Catholic Slovenes), Serbia (mostly Orthodox Serbs), Bosnia-Herzegovina (the most diverse — mostly Muslim Bosniaks, but with very large Croat and Serb populations), Montenegro (mostly Orthodox — sort of a Serb/Croat hybrid), and Macedonia (with about 25 percent Muslim Albanians and 75 percent Orthodox Macedonians). Within Serbia, Tito set up two autonomous provinces, each dominated by an ethnicity that was a minority in greater Yugoslavia: Albanians in Kosovo (to the south) and Hungarians in Vojvodina (to the north). By allowing these two provinces some degree of independence — including voting rights — Tito hoped they would balance the political clout of Serbia, preventing a single republic from dominating the union.

Each republic managed its own affairs, but always under the watchful eye of president-for-life Tito, who said that the borders between the republics should be “like white lines in a marble column.” "Brotherhood and unity" was Tito's motto, nationalism was strongly discouraged, and Tito’s tight — often oppressive — control kept the country from unraveling.

Tito’s Yugoslavia was communist, but it wasn’t Soviet communism; you’ll find no statues of Lenin or Stalin here. Despite strong pressure from Moscow, Tito broke away from Stalin in 1948 and refused to ally himself with the Soviets — and therefore received good will (and $2 billion) from the United States. He ingeniously played the East and the West against each other. He’d say to both Washington and Moscow, “If you don’t pay me off, I’ll let the other guy build a base here.” Everyone paid up.

Economically, Tito’s vision was for a “third way,” in which Yugoslavia could work with both East and West without being dominated by either. Yugoslavia was the most free of the communist states. While large industry was nationalized, Tito’s system allowed for small businesses. Though Yugoslavs could not become really rich, through hard work it was possible to attain modest wealth to buy a snazzy car, a vacation home, Western imports, and other niceties. By some GDP and other economic measures, Yugoslavia was at times more prosperous than poorer capitalist European countries like Italy or Greece. This experience with a market economy benefited Yugoslavs when Eastern Europe’s communist regimes eventually fell. And even during the communist era, Yugoslavia remained a popular tourist destination for visitors from both East and West, keeping its standards more in line with Western Europe than the Soviet states. Meanwhile, Yugoslavs, uniquely among communist citizens, were allowed to travel to the West. In fact, because Yugoslavs could travel relatively hassle-free in both East and West, their “red passports” were worth even more on the black market than American ones.

Things Fall Apart

With Tito’s death in 1980, Yugoslavia’s six constituent republics gained more autonomy, with a rotating presidency. But before long, the fragile union Tito had held together started to unravel.

The breakup began in the late 1980s, with squabbles in the autonomous province of Kosovo between the Serb minority and the ethnic-Albanian majority. Remember that the Serbs consider Kosovo the cradle of their civilization — the medieval homeland of their most important monasteries and historic sites. Most significantly, it was the location of the Battle of Kosovo Polje (“Field of Blackbirds”), an epic 14th-century battle that formed the foundation of Serbian cultural identity...even though the Serbs lost to the Ottoman invaders (sort of the Serbian Alamo). One Serb told me, “Kosovo is the Mecca and Medina of the Serb people.” But by the 1980s, 9 of every 10 Kosovans were Albanian, and the few Serbs still living there felt oppressed and abused by Albanian leadership. To many Serbs, this was the most pressing of the many ways in which they perceived that they'd been victimized by their neighbors for centuries.

Serbian politician Slobodan Milošević saw how the conflict could be used to Serbia’s (and his own) advantage. In April of 1987, Milošević delivered a rabble-rousing speech to aggrieved Serbs in Kosovo, pledging that Serbia would come to the aid of its brothers (famously asserting, “No one has the right to beat you”). He returned two years later for the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo Polje, arriving by helicopter to evoke old prophecies of a winged savior coming to unite the Serb people. Once there, he delivered another inflammatory speech (“Six centuries later, now, we are being again engaged in battles....They are not armed battles, although such things cannot be excluded yet”). With these visits, Milošević upset the delicate balance that Tito had so carefully sought, while setting the stage for his own rise to the Serbian presidency.

When Milošević-led Serbia annexed Kosovo soon after, other republics (especially Slovenia and Croatia) were concerned. The Croats and Slovenes had always had reservations about Yugoslav unity, and with the sea change indicated by Milošević's rhetoric, they decided it was time to secede. Some of the leaders — most notably Milan Kučan of Slovenia — tried to avoid warfare by suggesting a plan for a loosely united Yugoslavia, based on the Swiss model of independent yet confederated cantons. But other parties, who wanted complete autonomy, refused. Over the next decade, Yugoslavia broke apart, with much bloodshed.

The Slovene Secession

Slovenia was the first Yugoslav republic to hold free elections, in the spring of 1990. Voters wanted the communists out, and they wanted their own independent nation. The most ethnically homogeneous of the Yugoslav nations, Slovenia was also the most Western-oriented, prosperous, and geographically isolated — so secession just made sense. But that didn’t mean it would be achieved without violence.

After months of stockpiling weapons, Slovenia closed its borders and declared independence from Yugoslavia on June 25, 1991. Belgrade sent in the Yugoslav People’s Army to take control of Slovenia’s borders with Italy and Austria, figuring that whoever controlled the borders had a legitimate claim on sovereignty. Fighting broke out around these borders. Because the Yugoslav People’s Army was made up of soldiers from all republics, many Slovenian troops found themselves fighting their own countrymen. (The army had cut off communication between these conscripts and the home front, so they didn’t know what was going on — and often didn’t realize they were fighting their friends and neighbors until they were close enough to see them.)

Slovenian civilians bravely entered the fray, blockading the Yugoslav barracks with their own cars and trucks. Most of the Yugoslav soldiers — now trapped — were young and inexperienced, and were terrified of the improvised (but relentless) Slovenian militia, even though their own resources were far superior.

After 10 days of fighting and fewer than a hundred deaths, Belgrade relented. The Slovenes stepped aside and allowed the Yugoslav People’s Army to leave with their weapons and to destroy all remaining military installations as they went. When the Yugoslav People’s Army cleared out, they left the Slovenes with their freedom.

The Croatian Conflict

In April of 1990, a retired general and historian named Franjo Tuđman — and his highly nationalistic, right-wing party, the HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union) — won Croatia’s first free elections. Like the Slovenian reformers, Tuđman and the HDZ wanted more autonomy from Yugoslavia. But Tuđman’s methods were more extreme than those of the gently progressive Slovenes. Tuđman invoked the spirit of the Ustaše, who had ruthlessly run Croatia’s puppet government under the Nazis. He removed mention of the Serbs as equal citizens of the new nation. He reintroduced symbols that had been embraced by the Ustaše, including the red-and-white checkerboard flag and the kuna currency. (While many of these symbols predated the Ustaše by centuries, they had become irrevocably tainted by their association with the Ustaše.) The 600,000 Serbs living in Croatia, mindful that their grandparents had been massacred by the Ustaše, saw the writing on the wall and began to rise up.

The first conflicts were in the Serb-dominated Croatian city of Knin. Tuđman had decreed that Croatia’s policemen must wear a new uniform, which was strikingly similar to Nazi-era Ustaše garb. Infuriated by this slap in the face, and prodded by Slobodan Milošević’s rhetoric, Serb police officers in Knin refused. Over the next few months, tense negotiations ensued. Serbs from Knin and elsewhere began the so-called “tree trunk revolution” — blocking important Croatian tourist roads to the coast with logs and other barriers. Meanwhile, the Croatian government — after being denied support from the United States — illegally purchased truckloads of guns from Hungary. (A UN weapons embargo, which was designed to prevent the outbreak of violence, had little effect on the Serb-dominated Yugoslav People’s Army, which already had its own arsenal. But it was devastating to separatist Croatian and — later — Bosnian forces, which were just beginning to build their armies.) Croatian policemen and Serb irregulars from Knin fired the first shots of the conflict on Easter Sunday 1991 at Plitvice Lakes National Park.

By the time Croatia declared its independence (on June 25, 1991 — the same day as Slovenia), it was already embroiled in the beginnings of a bloody war. Croatia’s more than half-million Serb residents immediately declared their own independence from Croatia. The Yugoslav People’s Army (now dominated by Serbs, as many Croats and Slovenes had defected) swept in, ostensibly to put down the Croat rebellion and keep the nation together. The ill-prepared Croatian resistance, made up mostly of policemen and a few soldiers who defected from the People’s Army, were quickly overwhelmed. The Serbs gained control over the parts of inland Croatia where they were in the majority: a large swath around the Bosnian border (including Plitvice) and part of Croatia’s inland panhandle (the region of Slavonia). They called this territory — about a quarter of Croatia — the Republic of Serbian Krajina (krajina means “border”). This new “country” (hardly recognized by any other nations) minted its own money and raised its own army, much to the consternation of Croatia — which was now worried about the safety of Croats living in Krajina.

As the Serbs advanced, hundreds of thousands of Croats fled to the coast and lived as refugees in resort hotels. The Serbs began a campaign of ethnic cleansing, systematically removing Croats from contested territory — often by murdering them. The bloodiest siege was at the town of Vukovar, which the Yugoslav People’s Army surrounded and shelled relentlessly for three months. By the end of the siege, thousands of Croat soldiers and civilians had disappeared. Many were later discovered in mass graves; hundreds remain missing, and bodies are still being found. In a surprise move, Yugoslav forces also attacked the tourist resort of Dubrovnik — which resisted and eventually repelled the invaders. By early 1992, both Croatia and the Republic of Serbian Krajina had established their borders, and a tense ceasefire fell over the region.

The standoff lasted until 1995, when the now well-equipped Croatian army retook the Serb-occupied areas in a series of two offensives — “Lightning” (Blijesak), in the northern part of the country, and “Storm” (Oluja), farther south. Some Croats retaliated for earlier ethnic cleansing by doing much of the same to Serbs — torturing and murdering them, and dynamiting their homes. Croatia quickly established the borders that exist today, and the Erdut Agreement brought peace to the region. But most of the 600,000 Serbs who had once lived in Croatia/Krajina were forced into Serbia or were killed. While Serbs have long since been legally invited back to their ancestral Croatian homes, relatively few have returned — afraid of the “welcome” they might receive from the Croat neighbors who killed their relatives or blew up their houses just two decades ago.

The War in Bosnia-Herzegovina

As violence erupted in Croatia and Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina was suspiciously quiet. Even optimists knew it couldn’t last. At the crossroads of Balkan culture, Bosnia-Herzegovina was even more diverse than Croatia; it was populated predominantly by Muslim Bosniaks (43 percent of the population), but also by large numbers of Serbs (31 percent) and Croats (17 percent). Bosniaks tended to live in the cities, while Serbs and Croats were more often farmers.

In the fall of 1991, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s president, Alija Izetbegović, began to pursue independence. While most Bosnian Croats and virtually all Bosniaks supported this move, Bosnia’s substantial Serb minority resisted it. Bosnian Serbs preferred to remain part of an increasingly dominant ethnic group in a big country (Yugoslavia) rather than become second fiddle in a new, small country (Bosnia-Herzegovina). And so the Serbs within Bosnia-Herzegovina created their own “state,” called the Republic of the Serb People of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Its president, Radovan Karadžić, enjoyed the semisecret military support of Slobodan Milošević and the Yugoslav People’s Army. The stage was set for a bloody secession.

In the spring of 1992, as a referendum on Bosnian independence loomed, the Serbs made their move. To legitimize their territorial claims, the Serbs began a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Bosniaks and Croats residing in Bosnia. Initially Karadžić’s forces moved to take control of a strip of Muslim-majority towns (including Foča, Goražde, Višegrad, and Zvornik) along the Drina River, between Serbia proper and Serb-controlled areas closer to Sarajevo. They reasoned that their claim on this territory was legitimate, because the Ustaše had decimated the Serb population there during World War II. The well-orchestrated Karadžić forces secretly notified Serb residents to evacuate before they invaded each mixed-ethnicity town, then encircled the remaining Bosniaks and Croats with heavy artillery and sniper fire in an almost medieval-style siege. Many people were executed on the spot, while others were arrested and taken to concentration camps. Survivors were forced to leave the towns their families had lived in for centuries.

It was during this initial wave of Bosnian Serb ethnic cleansing — orchestrated by Radovan Karadžić and his generals — that the world began to hear tales as horrifying as anything you can imagine. Militia units would enter a town and indiscriminately kill anyone they saw — civilian men, women, and children. Pregnant women mortally wounded by gunfire were left to die in the street. Fleeing residents crawled on their stomachs for hours to reach cover, even as their family and friends were shot and blown up right next to them. Soldiers rounded up families, then forced parents to watch as they slit the throats of their children — and then the parents were killed, too. Dozens of people would be lined up along a bridge to have their throats slit, one at a time, so that their lifeless bodies would plunge into the river below. (Villagers downstream would see corpses float past, and know their time was coming soon.) While in past conflicts houses of worship had been considered off-limits, now Karadžić's forces actively targeted mosques and Catholic churches. Perhaps most despicable was the establishment of so-called “rape camps” — concentration camps where mostly Bosniak women were imprisoned and systematically raped by Serb soldiers. Many were intentionally impregnated and held captive until they had come to term (too late for an abortion), when they were released to bear and raise a child forced upon them by their hated enemy. These are the stories that turned “Balkans” into a dirty word.

The Bosnian Serb aggressors were intentionally gruesome and violent. Leaders roused their foot soldiers with hate-filled propaganda (claiming, for example, that the Bosniaks were intent on creating a fundamentalist Islamic state that would do even worse to its Serb residents), then instructed them to carry out unthinkable atrocities. For the people who carried out these attacks, the war represented a cathartic opportunity to exact vengeance for decades-old perceived injustices. Everyday Serbs — who, for centuries, have been steeped in messages about how they have been the victims of their neighbors — saw this as an opportunity to finally make a stand. But their superiors had even more dastardly motives. They sought not only to remove people from “their” land, but to do so in such a heinous way to ensure that the various groups could never again tolerate living together.

Bosnia-Herzegovina was torn apart. Even the many mixed families were forced to choose sides. If you had a Serb mother and a Croat father, you were expected to pick one ethnicity or the other — and your brother might choose the opposite. The majority of people, who did not want this war and couldn’t comprehend why it was happening, now faced the excruciating realization that their neighbors and friends were responsible for looting and burning their houses, and shooting at their loved ones. As families and former neighbors trained their guns on each other, proud and beautiful cities such as Mostar were turned to rubble, and people throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina lived in a state of constant terror.

Even as the Serbs and Croats fought brutally in the streets, their leaders — Slobodan Milošević and Franjo Tuđman, respectively — were secretly meeting to carve up Bosnia into Serb and Croat sectors, at the Bosniaks’ expense (the so-called Karađorđevo Agreement). Bosniak President Alija Izetbegović was completely left out of the conversation. For his part, Izetbegović desperately pleaded with the international community to support the peaceful secession of a free Bosnian state. Motivated more by fear than by nationalism, Izetbegović insisted that the creation of an independent Bosnia-Herzegovina was the only way to protect the lives of the Bosniak people. He said, “I would sacrifice peace for a sovereign Bosnia-Herzegovina, but for that peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina I would not sacrifice sovereignty.”

At first, the Bosniaks and Croats teamed up to fend off the Serbs. But even before the first wave of fighting had subsided, Croats and Bosniaks turned their guns on each other. The Croats split off their own mini-state, the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia. A bloody war raged for years among the three groups: the Serbs (with support from Serbia proper), the Croats (with support from Croatia proper), and — squeezed between them — the internationally recognized Bosniak government, with little support from anybody.

The United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) — dubbed “Smurfs” both for their light-blue helmets and for their ineffectiveness — exercised their very limited authority to provide humanitarian aid. Their charge allowed them only to feed civilians caught in the crossfire — an absurd notion in places like Sarajevo, where civilians were forced to live like soldiers. (A political cartoon from the time shows a Bosnian Serb preparing to murder a Bosniak with a knife. A UN solider appears and says, “Not so fast!” He proceeds to feed the Bosniak...then walks away, mission accomplished, while the Serb murders his victim.) Later, the UN tried to designate “safe areas” where civilians were protected, but because the UNPROFOR troops were not allowed to use force, even in self-defense, they became helpless witnesses to atrocities. This ugly situation was brilliantly parodied in the film No Man’s Land (which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2002), a very dark comedy about the absurdity of the Bosnian war.

For three and a half years, the capital of Sarajevo — still inhabited by a united community of Sarajevans (who largely eschewed their individual ethnicities as Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs) — was surrounded by Karadžić’s Bosnian Serb army. Other Bosniak cities were also besieged, most notoriously Srebrenica in July of 1995. While a Dutch unit of UNPROFOR troops sat impotently by, General Ratko Mladić invaded Srebrenica and oversaw the murder of at least 8,000 of its residents, mostly men. Additionally, 35,000 to 40,000 Bosniak women and children were forcibly removed from the city; many of them (including babies) died en route.

After four long years, the mounting mass of atrocities — including the siege of Srebrenica and the bombing of innocent civilians at a market in Sarajevo — finally persuaded the international community to act. In the late summer of 1995, NATO began bombing Bosnian Serb positions, forcing them to relax their siege and come to the negotiating table. The Dayton Peace Accords — brokered by US diplomats at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio — finally brought an end to the wars of Yugoslav succession.

The Dayton Peace Accords carefully divided Bosnia-Herzegovina into three different units: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosniaks and Croats), the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, and the mixed-ethnicity Brčko District. While this compromise helped bring the war to an end, it also created a nation with four independent and redundant governments — further crippling this war-torn and impoverished region.

The Fall of Milošević

After years of bloody conflicts, public opinion among Serbians had decisively swung against their president. The transition began gradually in early 2000, spearheaded by Otpor, a nonviolent, grassroots, student-based opposition movement, and aided by similar groups. Using clever PR strategies, these organizations convinced Serbians that real change was possible. As anti-Milošević sentiments gained momentum, opposing political parties banded together behind one candidate, Vojislav Koštunica. Public support for Koštunica mounted, and when the arrogant Milošević called an early election in September 2000, he was soundly defeated. Though Milošević tried to claim that the election results were invalid, determined Serbs streamed into their capital, marched on their parliament, and — like the Czechs and Slovaks a decade before — peacefully took back their nation.

In 2001, Milošević was arrested and sent to The Hague, in the Netherlands, to stand trial before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Milošević served as his own attorney as his trial wore on for five years, frequently delayed due to his health problems. Then, on March 11, 2006 — as his trial was coming to a close — Milošević was found dead in his cell. Ruled a heart attack, Milošević’s death, like his life, was controversial. His supporters alleged that Milošević had been denied suitable medical care, some speculated that he’d been poisoned, and others suspected that he’d intentionally worsened his heart condition to avoid the completion of his trial. Whatever the cause, in the end Milošević escaped justice — he was never found guilty of a single war crime.

More War Leaders on Trial

On July 18, 2008, Serbian police announced that they had captured Radovan Karadžić, the former leader of the Bosnian Serb state who is considered one of the worst culprits in the brutal ethnic cleansing during the war.

Karadžić, who went into hiding shortly after the war (in 1996), had been living for part of that time in a residential neighborhood of Belgrade, posing as an alternative-medicine healer named Dr. Dragan David Dabić. (Karadžić had previously received training as a psychiatrist.) This expert on what he called “Human Quantum Energy” had his own website and even presented at conferences.

How did one of the world’s most wanted men effectively disappear in plain sight for 12 years? He had grown a very full beard and wore thick glasses as a disguise, and frequented a neighborhood bar where a photo of him, in his earlier life, hung proudly on the wall...and yet, he was undetected even by those who saw him every day. It’s alleged that at least some Serb authorities knew of his whereabouts, but, considering him a hero, refused to identify or arrest him.

In May of 2011, the last “most wanted” criminal of the conflict — Karadžić’s military leader, General Ratko Mladić — was found and arrested. As of this writing, Karadžić and Mladić are each standing trial in The Hague.

Montenegro and Kosovo: Europe’s Newest Nations

After the departures of Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia (which peacefully seceded in 1991), by the late 1990s only two of the original six republics of Yugoslavia remained united: Serbia (which still included the provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina) and Montenegro. But in 2003, Montenegro began a gradual secession process that ended when it peacefully tiptoed its way to independence in 2006.

The Yugoslav crisis concluded in the place where it began: the Serbian province of Kosovo. Kosovo’s majority Albanians rebelled against Serbian rule in 1998, only to become victims of Milošević’s ethnic cleansing (until US General Wesley Clark’s NATO warplanes forced the Serbian army out). For nearly a decade, Kosovo remained a UN protectorate within Serbia — still nominally part of Serbia, but for all practical purposes separate and self-governing (under the watchful eye of the UN). Reading between the lines, Serbs point out that independent Kosovo quickly became a very close ally of the US, allowing one of Europe's biggest military bases — Camp Bondsteel — to be built in their territory.

On Sunday, February 17, 2008, Kosovo’s provisional government unilaterally declared its independence as the “Republic of Kosovo.” The US, UK, France, Germany, and several other countries quickly recognized the new republic, but the UN didn’t officially endorse it. Serbia opposed the move, and was backed by several countries involved in their own internal disputes with would-be breakaway regions: Russia (areas of Georgia), China (Taiwan), and Spain (Catalunya, the Basque Country, and others).

The new Kosovo government carefully stated that it would protect the rights of its minorities, including Serbs. But the Serbs deeply believed that losing Kosovo would also mean losing their grip on their own history and culture. They also feared for the safety of the Serb minority there (and potential retribution from Albanians who had for so long been oppressed themselves). For a few tense months, international observers watched nervously, worrying that war might erupt in the region once more. There have been a few scuffles, especially in some of the larger Serb settlements. But as of this writing, Kosovo’s independence appears to be holding — representing, perhaps, the final chapter of a long and ugly Yugoslav succession. Kosovo is the seventh country to emerge from the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Finding Their Way: The Former Yugoslav Republics

Today, Slovenia and Croatia are as stable as Western Europe, Bosnia-Herzegovina has made great strides in putting itself back together, Macedonia feels closer to Bulgaria than to Belgrade, and the sixth and seventh countries to emerge from “Yugoslavia” — Montenegro and Kosovo — are fledgling democracies.

And yet, nagging questions remain. Making the wars even more difficult to grasp is the uncomfortable reality that there were no clear-cut “good guys” and “bad guys” — just a lot of ugliness on all sides. When considering specifically the war between the Croats and the Serbs, it’s tempting for Americans to take Croatia’s “side” because we saw them in the role of victims first; because they’re Catholic, so they seem more “like us” than the Orthodox Serbs; and because we admire their striving for independence. But in the streets and the trenches, it was never that straightforward. The Serbs believe that they were the victims first — back in World War II, when their grandparents were executed in Croat-run Ustaše concentration camps. And when Croats retook the Serb-occupied areas in 1995, they were every bit as brutal as the Serbs had been a few years before. Both sides resorted to genocide, both sides had victims, and both sides had victimizers.

Even so, many can’t help but look for victims and villains. During the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, several prominent and respected reporters began to show things from one “side” more than the others — specifically, depicting the Bosniaks (Muslims) as victims. This reawakened an old debate in the journalism community: Should reporters above all remain impartial, even if “showing all sides” might make them feel complicit in ongoing atrocities?

As for villains, it’s easy to point a finger at Slobodan Milošević, Radovan Karadžić, Ratko Mladić, and other political or military leaders who have been arrested and tried at The Hague. Others condemn the late Croatian President Franjo Tuđman, who, it’s now known, secretly conspired with Milošević to redraw the maps of their respective territories. And of course, the foot soldiers of those monstrous men — who followed their immoral orders — cannot be excused.

And yet, you can’t paint an entire group with one brush. While some Bosnian Serbs did horrifying things, only a small fraction of all Bosnian Serbs participated in the atrocities. Travelers to this region quickly realize that the vast majority of people they meet here never wanted these wars. And so finally comes the inevitable question: Why did any of it happen in the first place?

Explanations tend to gravitate to two extremes. Some observers consider this part of the world to be inherently warlike — a place where deep-seated hatreds and age-old ethnic passions unavoidably flare up. This point of view sees an air of inevitability about the recent wars and the potential for future conflict. And it’s hard to deny that the residents of the region tend to obsess about exacting vengeance for wrongdoings (real or imagined) that happened many decades or even centuries in the past.

For others, however, this theory is an insulting oversimplification. Sure, animosity has long simmered in the Balkans, but for centuries before World War II, the various groups had lived more or less in harmony. The critical component of these wars — what made them escalate so quickly and so appallingly — was the single-minded, self-serving actions of a few selfish leaders who shamelessly and aggressively exploited existing resentments to advance their own interests. It wasn’t until Milošević, Karadžić, Tuđman, and others expertly manipulated the people’s grudges that the region fell into war. By vigorously fanning the embers of ethnic discord, polluting the airwaves with hate-filled propaganda, and carefully controlling media coverage of the escalating violence, these leaders turned what could have been a healthy political debate into a holocaust.

Tension still exists throughout the former Yugoslavia — especially in the areas that were most war-torn. Croatians and Slovenes continue to split hairs over silly border disputes, Bosnia-Herzegovina groans under the crippling inefficiency of four autonomous governments, and Serbs ominously warn that they’ll take up arms to reclaim Kosovo. Observers can’t escape the painful truth that, just as grudges held over from World War II were quickly ignited in the 1990s, holdover tensions from the recent wars could someday ignite a new wave of conflict. When the people of this region encounter other Yugoslavs in their travels, they instantly evaluate each other’s accent to determine: Are they one of us, or one of them?

For the visitor, it’s tricky to get an impartial take on the current situation, or even on historical “facts.” As the people you meet will tell you their stories, sometimes it’s just as important to listen to the tone and subtext of their tale as it is to try to judge its veracity. Are they preaching a message of reconciliation or one of provocation?

With time, hard feelings are fading. The appealing prospect of European Union membership is a powerful motivator for groups to set aside their differences and cooperate. The younger generations don’t look back — teenaged Slovenes no longer learn Serbo-Croatian, have only known life in an independent little country, and get bored (and a little irritated) when their old-fashioned parents wax nostalgic about the days of a united Yugoslavia. A middle-aged Slovene friend of mine thinks fondly of his months of compulsory service in the Yugoslav People’s Army, when his unit was made up of Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Bosniaks, Albanians, Macedonians, and Montenegrins — all of them countrymen, and all good friends. To the young Yugoslavs, ethnic differences didn’t matter. My friend still often visits with an army buddy from Dubrovnik — 600 miles away, not long ago part of the same nation — and wishes there had been a way to keep the country all together. But he says, optimistically, “I look forward to the day when the other former Yugoslav republics also join the European Union. Then, in a way, we will all be united once again.”


Cameron Hewitt is the co-author of Rick Steves' Croatia & Slovenia.