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The Yugoslav Wars were a series of wars, fought throughout the former Yugoslavia from 1991 to 1995 — and then again from 1998 until 1999/2001 — between the republics who sought sovereignty on one side and the government in Belgrade on the other side that wanted to either prevent their independence or keep large chunks of their territory under its control. The wars were complex: characterized by bitter ethnic conflicts among the peoples of the former Yugoslavia, mostly between Serbs (and to a lesser extent, Montenegrins) on the one side and Croats and Bosniaks (and to a lesser degree, Slovenes) on the other; but also between Bosniaks and Croats in Bosnia (in addition to a separate conflict fought between rival Bosniak factions in Bosnia). The wars ended in various stages and mostly resulted in full international recognition of new sovereign territories, but with massive economic disruption to the successor states.
Often described as Europe's deadliest conflicts since World War II, the conflicts have become infamous for the war crimes involved, including mass murder and genocide. These were the first conflicts since World War II to be formally judged genocidal in character and many key individual participants were subsequently charged with war crimes. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was established by the UN to prosecute these crimes.
According to International Center for Transitional Justice, the Yugoslav Wars resulted in deaths of 140,000 people. The Humanitarian Law Center writes that in the conflicts in former Yugoslav republics at least 130,000 people lost their lives.
The war(s) have alternatively been called:
The nation of Yugoslavia was created in the aftermath of World War I, and was composed mostly of South Slavic Christians, but the nation also had a substantial Muslim minority. This nation lasted from 1918 to 1941, when it was invaded by Axis powers during World War II. In 1943, a new government called the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was established under Josip Broz Tito, who maintained a strongly authoritarian leadership that was non-aligned with either the United States or the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
In the 1980s, relations among the six republics of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia deteriorated. Slovenia and Croatia desired greater autonomy within the Yugoslav confederation, while Serbia sought to strengthen federal authority. As it became clearer that there was no solution agreeable to all parties, Slovenia and Croatia moved toward secession.
Although tensions in Yugoslavia had been mounting since the early 1980s, it was 1990 that proved decisive. In the midst of economic hardship, Yugoslavia was facing rising nationalism amongst its various ethnic groups. By the early 1990s there was no effective authority at the federal level. The Federal Presidency consisted of the representatives of all 6 republics and 2 provinces and JNA (Yugoslav People's Army) and communist leadership was divided along national lines.
At the 14th Extraordinary Congress of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia in January 1990, the Serbian-dominated assembly agreed to abolish the single-party system; however, Slobodan Milošević, the head of the Serbian Party branch (League of Communists of Serbia) used his influence to block and vote-down all other proposals from the Croatian and Slovene party delegates. This prompted the Croatian and Slovene delegations to walk out and thus the break-up of the party, a symbolic event representing the end of "brotherhood and unity".
The first of these conflicts, known as the Ten-Day War, was initiated by the federal Yugoslav People's Army on 26 June 1991 after the secession of Slovenia from the federation on 25 June 1991.
Initially, the federal government ordered the Yugoslav People's Army to secure border crossings in Slovenia. Slovenian police and Slovenian Territorial Defence blockaded barracks and roads, leading to stand-offs and limited skirmishes around the republic. After several dozen casualties, the limited conflict was stopped through negotiation at Brioni on 9 July 1991, when Slovenia and Croatia agreed to a three-month moratorium on secession. The Federal army completely withdrew from Slovenia by 26 October 1991.
Fighting in this region had begun weeks prior to the Ten-Day War in Slovenia. The Croatian War of Independence began when Serbs in Croatia, who were opposed to Croatian independence, announced their secession from Croatia. This was triggered by a provision in the new Croatian Constitution that replaced an explicit reference to Serbs in Croatia as a "constituent nation" with a generic reference to all other nations, and was interpreted by Serbs as being reclassified as a "national minority".
The JNA had disarmed the Territorial Units of the two northernmost republics prior to the declaration of independence, so the fledgling Croatian state had to form its military from scratch. This was hindered by an arms embargo, imposed by the UN on Yugoslavia.
The Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) was ostensibly ideologically unitarian, but its officer corps was predominantly staffed by Serbs. As a result the JNA opposed Croatian independence and sided with the Croatian Serb rebels. The Croatian Serb rebels were unaffected by the embargo as they had the support of and access to supplies of the JNA.
The border regions faced direct attacks from forces within Serbia and Montenegro, and saw the shelling of UNESCO world heritage site Dubrovnik, where the international press was criticised for focusing on the city's architectural heritage, instead of reporting the destruction of Vukovar, a pivotal battle involving many civilian deaths.
In March 1991 the Karađorđevo agreement took place between Franjo Tuđman and Slobodan Milošević. The two presidents tried to reach an agreement on the disintegration process of Yugoslavia, but their main concern was Bosnia, or more precisely its partition.
These attacks were marked by the killings of captured soldiers and heavy civilian casualties (Ovčara; Škabrnja), and were the subject of war crimes indictments by the ICTY for elements of the Serb political and military leadership.
In January 1992, the Vance-Owen peace plan proclaimed UN controlled (UNPA) zones for Serbs in territory claimed by Serbian rebels as the Republic of Serbian Krajina and brought an end to major military operations, though sporadic artillery attacks on Croatian cities and occasional intrusions of Croatian forces into UNPA zones continued until 1995.
In 1992, conflict engulfed Bosnia and Herzegovina. The war was predominantly a territorial conflict between local Bosniaks and Croats backed by Zagreb, and Serbs backed by the Yugoslav People's Army and Serbia.
The Yugoslav armed forces had disintegrated into a largely Serb-dominated military force. Opposed to the Bosnian-majority led government's agenda for independence, and along with other armed nationalist Serb militant forces, the JNA attempted to prevent Bosnian citizens from voting in the 1992 referendum on independence. This did not succeed in persuading people not to vote and instead the intimidating atmosphere combined with a Serb boycott of the vote resulted in a resounding 99% vote in support for independence.
On 19 June 1992, the war in Bosnia broke out, though the siege of Sarajevo had already begun in April after Bosnia and Herzegovina had declared independence. The conflict, typified by the years-long Sarajevo siege and Srebrenica, was by far the bloodiest and most widely covered of the Yugoslav wars. Bosnia's Serb faction led by ultra-nationalist Radovan Karadžić promised independence for all Serb areas of Bosnia from the majority-Bosniak government of Bosnia.
To link the disjointed parts of territories populated by Serbs and areas claimed by Serbs, Karadzic pursued an agenda of systematic ethnic cleansing primarily against Bosnians through genocide and forced removal of Bosniak populations.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the United States reported in April 1995 that 90 percent of all the atrocities in the Yugoslav wars up to that point had been committed by Serb militants. Most of these atrocities occurred in Bosnia.
In 1994 the US brokered peace between Croatian forces and the Bosnian Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. After the successful Flash and Storm operations, the Croatian Army and the combined Bosnian and Croat forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, conducted an operation codenamed Operation Maestral to push back Bosnian Serb military gains.
Together with NATO air strikes on the Bosnian Serbs, the successes on the ground put pressure on the Serbs to come to the negotiating table. The fighting in Croatia ended in mid-1995, after Operation Flash and Operation Storm. At the end of these operations, Croatia had managed to reclaim all of its territory except the UNPA Sector East bordering Serbia, however most of the Serbian population in these areas had become refugees, and these operations have led to war crimes indictments by the ICTY against elements of the Croat military leadership. The areas uncaptured by the Croatian forces in "Sector East" came under UN administration (UNTAES), and were reintegrated to Croatia in 1998.
Pressure was put on all sides to stick to the cease-fire and finally negotiate an end to the war in Bosnia.
The war ended with the signing of the Dayton Agreement on the 14 December 1995, with the formation of Republika Srpska as an entity within Bosnia and Herzegovina being the resolution for Bosnian Serb demands.
The Kosovo War became a full-scale war in 1999. It ended with the 1999 NATO bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a NATO intervention against Serbian forces in 1999, with a mainly bombing but partly ground-based campaign under the command of Gen. Wesley Clark. Kosovo was placed under the governmental control of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo and the military protection of KFOR.
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The UNSC had imposed an arms embargo. Nevertheless, various states had been engaged in, or facilitated, arms sales to the warring factions: Bulgaria, Poland, Ukraine, Romania and Russia were all export countries for weapons to the conflict; the headquarters for a huge logistics operation was in Vienna; financial transactions were executed by a Hungarian bank; arms smugglers used companies registered in the off-shore haven of Panama; and the United Kingdom sent military equipment and provided loans for arms purchases, as did Germany. In 2012, Chile convicted nine people, including two retired generals, for their part in arms sales.
During the Bosnian War, so-called "rape camps", aimed at the birth of a new generation of Serb children, were reportedly used. The purpose of these camps was to impregnate the Bosnian and Croatian women. Because of the patrilineal make-up of their society, in which children inherit their father's ethnicity, this was used as a method of ethnic cleansing. In the camps, women were kept in confinement until the late stages of their pregnancies.
According to the Tresnjevka Women's Group, more than 35,000 women and children were held in such Serb-run "rape camps". Dragoljub Kunarac, Radomir Kovač, and Zoran Vuković were convicted of crimes against humanity for rape, torture, and enslavement committed during the Foča massacres.
The evidence of the magnitude of rape in Bosnia and Herzegovina prompted the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to deal openly with these abuses. Reports of sexual violence during the Bosnian War (1992–1995) and Kosovo War (1996–1999) perpetrated by the Serbian regular and irregular forces have been described as "especially alarming". The NATO-led Kosovo Force documented rapes of Albanian, Roma and Serbian women by Serbs and members of the Kosovo Liberation Army.
Others have estimated that during the Bosnian War between 20,000 and 50,000 women, mainly Muslim, were raped. A Commission of Experts appointed in October 1992 by the United Nations concluded that:
Rape has been reported to have been committed by all sides to the conflict. However, the largest number of reported victims have been Bosnian Muslims, and the largest number of alleged perpetrators have been Bosnian Serbs. There are few reports of rape and sexual assault between members of the same ethnic group.
Although men also became victim of sexual violence, war rape was disproportionately directed against women who were (gang) raped in the streets, in their homes and/or in front of family members.
War rape in the Yugoslav Wars has often been characterized as genocide. Rape perpetrated by Serb forces served to destroy cultural and social ties of the victims and their communities. Serbian policies urged soldiers to rape Bosnian women until they became pregnant as an attempt towards ethnic cleansing. Serbian soldiers hoped to force Bosnian women to carry Serbian children through repeated rape. Often Bosnian women were held in captivity for an extended period of time and only released slightly before the birth of a child conceived of rape.
The systematic rape of Bosnian women may have carried farther-reaching repercussions than the initial displacement of rape victims. Stress, caused by the trauma of rape, coupled with the lack of access to reproductive health care often experienced by displaced peoples, lead to serious health risks for victimized women.
During the Kosovo War thousands of Kosovo Albanian women and girls became victims of sexual violence. War rape was used as a weapon of war and an instrument of systematic ethnic cleansing; rape was used to terrorize the civilian population, extort money from families, and force people to flee their homes. According to a report by the Human Rights Watch group in 2000, rape in the Kosovo can generally be subdivided into three categories: rapes in woman's homes, rapes during fighting, and rapes in detention. The majority of the perpetrators were Serbian paramilitaries, but they also included Serbian special police or Yugoslav army soldiers. Virtually all of the sexual assaults Human Rights Watch documented were gang rapes involving at least two perpetrators. Since the end of the war, rapes of Serbian, Albanian, and Roma women by ethnic Albanians -- sometimes by members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) -- have also been documented. Rapes occurred frequently in the presence, and with the acquiescence, of military officers. Soldiers, police, and paramilitaries often raped their victims in the full view of numerous witnesses.
One of the common misconceptions about the Yugoslav Wars is that they were the result of centuries of ethnic conflict. In fact, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the ethnically mixed region of Dalmatia held close and amicable relations between the Croats and Serbs who lived there, and many early proponents of a united Yugoslavia came from this region, such as Dalmatian Croat Ante Trumbić. However by the time of the outbreak of the Yugoslav Wars the historical hospitable relations between Croats and Serbs in Dalmatia had broken down, with Dalmatian Serbs fighting on the side of the Republic of Serbian Krajina. Clear ethnic conflict between the Yugoslav peoples only became prominent in the 20th century, beginning with tensions over the constitution of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes in the early 1920s and escalating into violence between Serbs and Croats in the late 1920s after the assassination of Croatian nationalist Stjepan Radić. Severe ethnic conflict occurred during World War II during which the Croatian Ustase movement committed genocide against Serbs, while the Serbian Chetnik movement responded with reprisals against Croats as well as murdering Bosniaks. However the Yugoslav Partisan movement was able to mobilize large numbers of Yugoslavs from the multiple Yugoslav ethnicities, to fight against the Axis Powers, the Ustase, and the Chetniks.
In Serbia and Serb territories, violent confrontations occurred particularly between nationalist Serbs towards non-nationalist Serbs who had criticized the Serbian government and the Serb political entities in Bosnia and Croatia. Serbs who publicly opposed the nationalist political climate during the Yugoslav wars were reported to have been harassed, threatened, or killed.
|Timeline of Yugoslav statehood|
|Timeline||Prior to 1918||Creation
|World War II
|Breakup & Yugoslav Wars
|Slovenia||territories controlled by Austria-Hungary
Included Bay of Kotor
Kingdom of Croatia-Slavonia
Kingdom of Dalmatia
Condominium of BIH
|Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes
↓ renamed ↓
Kingdom of Yugoslavia
State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs
Republic of Prekmurje
Banat, Bačka and Baranja (1918–1919)
Free State of Fiume
|annexed by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany
(1941 – 1943/1945)
Prekmurje annexed by Hungary
|Democratic Federal Yugoslavia
↓ renamed ↓
Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia
↓ renamed ↓
Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
Constituent federal subjects to the right
|Republic of Slovenia
(since 1991; see Ten-Day War)
|Dalmatia||Independent State of Croatia
puppet of Nazi Germany, parts annexed by Fascist Italy
Međimurje and Baranja annexed by Hungary
|Republic of Croatia
(since 1991; see Croatian War of Independence)
SAO Kninska Krajina (1990) → SAO Krajina (1990–1991)
SAO Western Slavonia (1990–1991)
Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Syrmia (1990–1991)
↳ Republic of Serbian Krajina ↲ (1990–1995) → UNTAES (1996–1998)
|Bosnia||SR Bosnia and Herzegovina
|Bosnia and Herzegovina
(since 1992; see Bosnian War); Consists of:
Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (since 1995)
Republika Srpska (since 1995)
Brčko District (since 2000)
See also: Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia
SAOs Bosanska Krajina, North-Eastern Bosnia, Romanija, & Herzegovina (1991–1992)
↳ Serbian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina ↲ (1992–1995)
|Vojvodina||Autonomous Banat (part of the Territory of the Military Commander in Serbia)
Bačka annexed by Hungary (1941–1944)
Syrmia annexed by Independent State of Croatia (1941–1944)
SAP Vojvodina &
|Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
↓ renamed ↓
State Union of Serbia and Montenegro
Consisted of until 2006:
Republic of Serbia (1990)
Republic of Montenegro (1992)
Republic of Kosova
|Republic of Serbia
Kosovo and Metohija
(under UN administration)
|Republic of Serbia
Includes AP Vojvodina
|Serbia||Kingdom of Serbia
|Territory of the Military Commander in Serbia
See also: Republic of Užice
|Kosovo||Kingdom of Serbia
|mostly annexed by Albania
along with western Macedonia and south-eastern Montenegro
|Republic of Kosovo
Declared unilateral independence, which is since then only partially recognised
|Metohija||Kingdom of Montenegro
Metohija controlled by Austria-Hungary
|Montenegro||Protectorate annexed by Fascist Italy (1941–1943) and Nazi Germany
Smaller part annexed by Independent State of Croatia (1941–1944)
|Macedonia||Kingdom of Serbia
|annexed by Kingdom of Bulgaria
|Republic of Macedonia