Untangling the Truth: The War in Bosnia
Sumantra Bose

Introduction There are many misconceptions about the war in Bosnia in the 1990s. For the duration and the aftermath of the conflict, the western media focused almost exclusively on Serb atrocities and aggression. In fact, Croat and Muslim forces were also responsible for brutalities: both sides operated their own concentration camps and partook of ethnic cleansing, albeit on a lesser scale. In this interview Sumantra Bose untangles the truth from the skewed perceptions that overwhelmingly characterise western media coverage of this bitter conflict.

In August 1992, journalists and television crews reached Serbian-run detention camps in Bosnia where a number of Muslims were held, and learned of various atrocities. What was behind these atrocities, who perpetrated them and why weren't they discovered beforehand?

Sumantra Bose: A lot of us remember those harrowing pictures of detained men with protruding rib cages, languishing behind barbed wire fences. It was a very powerful image that was flashed around the world, and led to a dramatic surge in the world public's interest in the Bosnian war.

Those particular camps were in northwestern Bosnia and I have visited some of these sites. There was a concentration of such camps near a town called Prijedor, which was the site of very fierce Serb "ethnic cleansing" of the local Muslims. In the summer of 1992, the leadership of the Bosnian Serbs, in connivance with elements of the Serbian regime in Belgrade, had clearly decided that they wanted to create factson the ground. They wanted to carve out large areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina that would be populated solely or predominantly by Serbs. As a result, they opened a number of camps in different parts of Serb-controlled Bosnia-Herzegovina, but particularly in this area around Prijedor where there was a large Bosnian Muslim concentration that had to be expelled.

It is important to remember that all three sides in the Bosnian conflict operated detention camps of this nature. The Bosnian-Serb detention camps got the most publicity, but in the summer of 1992 there were also detention camps being run by Muslims in which Bosnian-Serb civilians were being incarcerated, tortured and killed. I have been to Tarcin and Celebici in Muslim-held Bosnia, where the Muslims ran some pretty odious detention camps. The Croats got into the act as well, and the Croat-run detention camps where both Serbs and Muslims were detained and tortured also became a by-word for brutality. There was one just south of the town of Mostar, called Dretelj, for example, which became especially infamous.

Just as no one side had a monopoly on suffering in the Bosnian war, no one side had a monopoly on running these odious detention centres either. The Bosnian Serbs may have done it more than other groups, they may have done it more systematically than the others, but no side in the Bosnian war was entirely blameless from the very beginning.

Is it a misconception that ethnic cleansing was a by-product of the war, as opposed to an actual cause of it?

Bose: I think there is something to be said for looking at ethnic cleansing as a cause rather than just an effect or a by-product. Once ethnic cleansing began and gathered momentum, it left an unbelievable legacy of bitterness and hatred on all sides. The summer of 1992, when most of the expulsions took place, was probably when the Bosnian conflict went beyond the point of no return. People who had been forced from their homes, villages and towns at gunpoint, often under brutal circumstances, were too embittered to contemplate coexistence in a common framework.

Bosnia has a mixed tradition of tolerance. I would say that the current distrust between the three communities is largely, if not entirely, a product of wartime experience. All sides regard it as a massive betrayal of trust, that people who had lived together as colleagues, as friends and neighbours suddenly turned on each other in this way. That kind of breach of confidence and trust is very difficult to heal, precisely because members of these groups are in other ways so identical and actually lived in relative harmony for a fairly long time. Once that trust is broken it is very difficult to renew positive linkages in the real sense of the term. I would say that there is a lot of hatred as well among members of the three groups, but this is largely generated by the wartime experience, and in particular by the experience of so-called "ethnic cleansing".

The Bosnian war dragged on for three and a half years and it has left behind a very divided country in its wake. I would say that ethnic cleansing was instrumental in driving the conflict to an acute point of no return.

What was the role of the Serb paramilitaries and federal forces in the 1992 conflict? Was there a carefully planned invasion of Bosnia launched from Serbian soil?

Bose: One of the most important federal institutions in Titoist Yugoslavia was the JNA, the Yugoslav Peoples Army. This was a multi-national force, deeply imbued with the Yugoslav ethos of tolerance and co-existence based on equality between the national groups and on republican autonomy. The JNA was put in a very difficult position when Yugoslavia started unravelling and when war broke out, first in Croatia in 1991 and then in Bosnia a year later.

By 1992 the JNA was largely in the hands of a Serb and Montenegrin officer corps. When Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence and was accorded international recognition in April, the JNA formally withdrew from Bosnian territory. Serb and some Montenegrin officers serving in the JNA and stationed in Bosnia at that time withdrew and went home to Serbia or to Montenegro. However, a lot of Serbs serving as career officers in the JNA were in fact not Serbs from Serbia proper, but from the large Serb communities in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. So their home republic was not Serbia; it was Bosnia-Herzegovina. When the formal withdrawal of JNA units to Serbia took place, a lot of these career Serb officers in the JNA remained in Bosnia. The withdrawing JNA units left immense quantities of weapons--everything from assault rifles to heavy artillery, tanks, helicopters and combat planes--to the Bosnian Serb officers in the JNA who remained to fight in Bosnia.

This was what constituted the nucleus of the Bosnian-Serb army. It was the strongest military force in Bosnia for much of the war. In that sense, the Bosnian Serb army could not have materialised and it could not have acquired the strength it did without heavy backing from the Serb-dominated JNA. Simultaneously it is not entirely true that there was an invasion of Bosnia from Serbia, because the people who were doing the fighting on the side of the Bosnian Serbs were in fact overwhelmingly Bosnian themselves. They were Serbs from Bosnia rather than Serbs from Serbia.

The outsiders in this conflict, on the Serb side but on the other sides as well, were organised groups of paramilitaries who were responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the Bosnian conflict. These were, by and large, people on the margins of society, dropouts, criminals, psychopaths and marginal elements who suddenly saw a chance to profiteer on a massive scale. These paramilitary squads acquired particular notoriety on the Serbian side, but the other sides operated pretty shady paramilitary outfits as well.

How do you see the role of the West and Western politicians in the war? Did they ease or ignite the situation?

Bose: That is a very long story. In the middle of 1991, the major Western powers, including the United States and the major European countries, were largely unprepared for what was a fait accompli, the collapse of Yugoslavia as we knew it. What happened in the years subsequent to that, and especially during the Bosnian war, was a series of fairly improvised ad hoc responses to the crisis as it unfolded, first in Croatia and then in Bosnia. There is a big debate about what the West could, should and might have done. A lot of people blame the West for not acting sooner and more decisively to somehow put an end to this bloodshed.

These people typically blame Western leaders for failing to punish and deter Serbian aggression in good time. Others blame influential Western leaders and powers for not being even-handed enough and realising that the Bosnian Serbs too had a case, that there was no one who was lily-white in this conflict. These people come at the international response from a radically different direction, arguing that the problem was not Serbian aggression and Western failure to deter Serbian aggression in time, but rather the West's failure to be even-handed in its assessment of the Yugoslav crisis as it unfolded in Bosnia. The West was especially accused of painting the Serbs as the sole villains of the peace, when in fact they were only one of several villains responsible for this tragedy.

Do you think that the Serbs have been over-vilified in the conflict by the media?

Bose: That is a controversial question to answer. On balance, I would probably say yes. Mass media or sound-bite media, especially in the United States, is always looking for good guys and bad guys. After the discovery of those camps in and because of the siege of Sarajevo they fixated on the Serbs as the bad guys in this particular drama.

There is absolutely no doubt that systematic and massive atrocities against Muslim and Croat civilians were committed by Serbs during the course of the wars in Bosnia and in Croatia, but from the very beginning the Croats, and to a lesser degree the Muslims, were not blameless either. I do believe that in 1991 the Serb minority in Croatia had something to fear from the resurgence of aggressive anti-Serb Croat nationalism, and Croatia's acquisition of independence under those auspices. Of course, the Serbs exaggerated their fears, but that is not to say that they were totally unfounded. From the very beginning of the Bosnian war all sides ran detention camps. The Serbs were probably doing it on a larger scale and more systematically than others, but as early as 1992 all sides were guilty of fairly serious atrocities against civilians of the other side.

I think the Western media and other influential circles in Western countries can be faulted not so much for exaggerating Serb atrocities, because Serb atrocities against Muslims and Croats were very real, but for glossing over the culpability of the Croats and to a lesser degree the Muslims. I realised as early as 1994 that while Serb atrocities against the other groups had received massive amounts of media attention, atrocities against Serb civilians by Croat and Muslim forces were being under-reported. In its simplistic variant, there was almost a notion that Serbs alone were into this grisly "ethnic-cleansing" business. So the problem was not that Serb atrocities were over-reported but, rather, that atrocities against Serbs were not given the level of attention that they should also have received.


This feature was taken from an interview with Sumantra Bose at the London School of Economics and Political Science on November 16, 2000. Copyright the London School of Economics and Political Science.