Last year, Alex Cruikshanks came on the show to talk about Belgrade, a really detailed and wide-ranging episode. And we had such a great time, he’s back again to talk about more recent history in Yugoslavia, specifically the brutal massacre at Srebrenica. Yugoslavia, as anyone who was alive in the 1990s knows, was falling apart in the early part of the decade. The Bosnian War was raging, and in 1995, some 8,000 Bosniaks, mostly men and boys, were lost. What led up to this genocide, how could something like this happen in our recent history, and what has been the fallout since? Alex is the perfect person to about this, not just because of his podcast, but he just made a trip to participate in a peace march in the region.
How the massacre began
As Alex told me this episode, in the late 1980s, a sort of coalition-by-default formed as Yugoslavia held elections, as the parties that represented the various ethnic factions of the country won a majority. But they soon realized that all that was holding them together was an anti-Communist stance, so the coalition immediately began dissolving. In a referendum in 1992, Bosnians voted for independence, and in the Spring and Summer of 1992, Serbian nationalists begin staging coups throughout the country, placing Serbs in power, and begin massacring non-Serb populations.
But while all of this was going on, there were pockets where Bosniaks were able to hold off the Serbian nationalists from taking over. One such stronghold was the small town of Srebrenica, which was able to maintain its autonomy for three years. As Alex says, it only had about 6,000 people before the war, but because so many have been lost or expelled throughout the region, it swells to an unsustainable population of 40,000. In 1993 a militia forms in Srebrenica to try to fight back, and the Serbian army takes notice, planning an invasion. But just as that was heating up, UN peacekeepers visited the town, and ended up putting a small force there, keeping the violence at bay for two years.
How the UN peacekeepers couldn’t keep the peace
But in 1995, Slobodan Milosevic decides it’s time to try to shut down the enclaves, and he issues what becomes known as Directive 7, which orders the separation of Srebrenica from the other enclaves and “by planned and well-thought-out combat operations, create an unbearable situation of total insecurity with no hope of further survival or life for the inhabitants of Srebrenica.” That’s about as grim and awful as it gets, but as Alex says, it’s likely Milosevic was not thinking of massacre, but rather starving the residents until they give up. The Serb national army then takes UN peacekeepers as hostages to ward off UN airstrikes, and in July they begin their combat operations in earnest. Unfortunately, the Bosnian militia were not well-trained fighters, and they ended up falling back.
How the massacre happened, and what happened after
As the Serbian army advanced, many hoped the UN would step in and be able to save the Bosniaks. But many men and boys had a feeling that if they stayed, they would not survive. So they fled, but unfortunately, the Serbs were able to ambush them. It’s a truly horrific story of ethnic cleansing that happened not that long ago. But as Alex and I discuss in this week’s episode, the Bosnian people are actually some of the most liberal and optimistic people we’ve met. It’s an incredible story, and it’s important that we never forget it.
Outline of This Episode
- [1:30] The beginnings of war
- [7:17] Bosniaks able to hold off Serbs
- [12:45] The difference between Croats and Serbs
- [21:09] How the massacre happened
- [35:00] Conditions during the war
- [40:45] How the conflict resolves
- [43:33] The war crimes tribunal
- [51:40] Alex’s trip to Bosnia
- The History of Yugoslavia Podcast
- Belgrade: The Rise of the White City
- Sofia Adventures – Stephanie’s Balkan Travel Website
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Featuring the song “Places Unseen” by Lee Rosevere.