Twenty-two years after the Bosnian war began, there is still no consensus in the country about its causes, and because of continuing ethnic divisions, there may never be any agreement.
A civil war or an act of aggression, a clash of religions or a tragic conflict – these are just some of the many different descriptions of the 1992-95 conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, during which around 100,000 people lost their lives.
Twenty-two years after the start of the fighting, this is still a highly-disputed issue in the country, and is often used by politicians to stir up ethnic instability. Because of this, historians suggest, a common definition of the character of the war is unlikely in Bosnia any time soon.
Representatives of Croat, Serb and Bosniak victims’ associations have entirely different views of the conflict. But they all believe the war was a defensive one, which began after they were attacked by others.
These clashing perceptions, according to sociologist Miodrag Zivanovic, demonstrate that there are now five different ‘truths’ about the war – the Bosniak, Serb and Croat versions, the view of those displaced during the war, and the one preferred by the international community.
“These truths are placed in an area between two poles – the thesis about aggression and the thesis about a civil war. This is why it is difficult to form a uniform definition of the character of the war,” said Zivanovic.
Self-defence or aggression?
Nedeljko Mitrovic, the president of the Union of Bosnian Serb Civilian Victims and Missing Persons, said that defining what kind of war the Bosnian conflict was is a “political issue”.
“In this war, there is no common definition of its causes or character – except that it was a tragic conflict. I believe that the war was about whether the former Yugoslav state would remain or dissolve and the decision to outvote Serbs [in the 1992 referendum for independence from Yugoslavia, which Bosnian Serbs opposed],” Mitrovic said.
“Others will have other descriptions, but we need experts, historians and researchers to prove with facts what happened,” he said – although he also suggested that it was possibly still too early to find a commonly-agreed definition.
Representatives of Bosniak and Croat victims’ associations strongly disagree, however.
“The conflict can be characterised as an act of aggression, with some characteristics of a civil war,” said president of the Association of Genocide Survivors and Witnesses, Murat Tahirovic.
“I believe there will never be a consensus, because the Dayton peace accords [which ended the war in 1995] divided the country along ethnic lines,” he said.
Andjelko Kvesic, a Bosnian Croat former detention camp prisoner, also blamed others’ aggression for sparking the conflict.
“The war, from my position, was a defensive war. I had my home and my [defensive] line and I defended my home. I went nowhere. Those who attacked me, if they did as I did, then we would not have had this war,” Kvesic said.
Sociologist Miodrag Zivanovic said that such differing interpretations are natural, considering the vast divide between Bosnia’s ethnic groups as a result of the ethnic cleansing campaigns during the war.
“This was a war where ethnic cleansing was a basic goal, on all sides. Some sides did it more brutally and some less brutally. Ethnic cleansing was not an instrument of war, but the goal of the war,” Zivanovic explained.
An international conflict?
Verdicts in war crimes trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague and at the Bosnian state court have defined the war however as an ‘international conflict’, reflecting the involvement of Croatian and Serbian forces.
Serbian lawyer Djordje Dozet said however, that according to his experience in war crimes cases, any definition of the war has no bearing on the judicial process.
“Not because the judges do not care, but because in the courtroom we discuss the consequences and that is always something negative. Our courts, in principle, do not divide suspects into ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’,” Dozet said.
In the small number of cases where the indictment is based on the wider context of the war, courts have been forced to “wiggle out of a situation by focusing the case on a specific event”, he added.
“Generally speaking, if we were able to create a common definition of the conflict, the conflict would never have happened. States will never agree on this issue and there will always be politicians dragging up this issue when dealing with each other,” Dozet explained.
According to British-based expert Marco Atilla Hoare, the conflict was both an act of aggression and a civil war.
“I believe it is important for agreement to be reached that both aspects of the war – aggression and civil war – be recognised, as this would indicate that we have gone beyond a propagandistic insistence that the war was either one or the other,” said Hoare.
“During the war, there was a division, if you were on the side of Bosniaks you labelled it an aggression, but if you wanted to equal the blame, you called it a civil war. It should no longer be political, it was a complex war, it should go beyond the political divisions,” he said.
Harvard University professor Andras Riedlmayer said meanwhile that it would be wrong to try to define the war in one easy phrase.
“This was a complex and layered war, which had different elements – aggression from Serbia and Croatia, civil conflict between different ideologies, and even a religious conflict,” he said.
A question of facts
Only through education will it be possible to free younger generations from the ideological baggage, Riedlmayer suggested.
“We must accept that the war is remembered differently on different sides and understand why this is the case. This is why the idea that all sides agree on a common definition is too much to expect,” he explained.
But children in Bosnia and Herzegovina learn very little about the war at school. Since the end of the conflict there have been several attempts to create a fact-finding mechanism about the war, by both the state and NGOs. However, these attempts have been uncoordinated and unsuccessful.
The latest attempt to do this was the draft text for Bosnia’s Transitional Justice Strategy, which was completed last year but has not yet been officially adopted. This document foresees the creation of a single non-judicial body which would find facts about the war and “strengthen trust among citizens”.
Aleksandra Letic, a member of the working group which created the strategy, claims the problem is that the wartime past is so present in the Bosnian everyday life, but manipulated by politics.
“I am convinced that we must determine everything that happened in the war and the start should be a definition of the conflict. However, it must be a truly common definition, without assumptions, and it has to be humane, and free of all national [ethnic] interests,” Letic said.
No trust, no reconciliation
Christian Nielsen, a historian who has testified in war crimes trials at the Hague Tribunal, said that the conflict can best be defined as a “war of secession from Yugoslavia”.
“Terms such as aggression are problematic from a reconciliation point of view. We see in European history that such definitions are avoided, although sometimes true. The best examples are France and Germany. Even though Germany committed aggression against France three times in the last 100 years, we see that when their leaders meet today, this is never mentioned,” said Nielsen.
He said that he was pessimistic about the potential for finding a common definition, considering that historians in the former Yugoslav region cannot even agree on the facts of the First and Second World Wars.
But Bosnian legal expert Vehid Sehic said that if Bosnia is to move forward, some kind of definition of what happened in the early 1990s must be found.
“Only through a common definition can we get political stability and the building of trust,” Sehic said.
Because Bosnian politicians spend so much time and energy disputing the issue, he said, “they are not talking about things that could actually help us, because we haven’t created an environment in which to face the past”.