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I grew up in Bosnia in the 1990s during the war with Serbia, and the Serbian genocide. Now, I am very grateful to live in the United States, where the rule of law protects people of all religions and ethnicities. The genocide in Bosnia is one reason I believe that Americans should vigilantly defend the right to keep and bear arms.

In July 1995, in Srebrenica — an area that had been officially declared a United Nations safe zone — the Serbian army perpetrated genocide against the Bosnians who had taken refuge there. The United Nations did nothing to stop the genocide. Those weeks — bloody, devastating and heartbreaking — were a high-speed version of what was happening in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 1992-95 war.

The scale of the tragedy of Srebrenica is not really understood and processed by the world.

The Serbian Army, led by extreme Serbian nationalists, was aiming to create “Great Serbia” — an old idea from the late 19th century. So from the beginning of the war in 1992, the Serbian dictatorship set out to occupy as much of Bosnian territory as possible.

At the beginning of the war there was no Bosnian Army. Instead, the Bosnian people defended themselves via the JNA: the Yugoslavian National Army. Formed during and after World War II, it was financed and supported by all six states of Yugoslavia, with Bosnia-Herzegovina being one of the states.

After the death of Yugoslavia’s communist dictator Tito, the country began to disintegrate. Serbian expansionists started working to integrate “Great Serbia” supporters into the former Yugoslavia’s political system, especially into the key structures of JNA. By 1990 the highest level of authority within JNA was held by Serbian generals. That is how Serbia took over control over the JNA and directed its power against the other republics with the intent of occupying them and creating a Great Serbia.

One republic, Montenegro, was a Serbian ally at the time. The other four republics were left to care for and  defend themselves but were not given much time. JNA and its Serbian followers were taking over city after city, torturing and killing civilians, raping women, robbing, and burning houses. Ethnic cleansing was on its way.

Those who were attacked, mostly Muslims of Bosnia and other non-Serbs, did not have weapons to defend themselves as the gun control laws in communist Yugoslavia had been very strict. The procedure to obtain a license for firearms was so lengthy and so severe that most applicants were refused. Many of the individuals who successfully acquired a license were only given permission to own hunting guns, which were not particularly helpful in war-like circumstances.

As a result, citizens were generally unarmed against the Serbian Army attackers.  Civilians of Bosnia were forced to defend themselves with weapons they stole from local police stations that were already very limited in their resources. Bosnians started to organize “territorial defense” forces, which later grew into the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina. People in urban areas were more likely to come across some sort of weapon since they were in proximity of police stations and similar institutions where they could obtain firearms. Most of the genocide and brutal mass killings happened in the small cities and rural areas that did not have similar resources available and were easily cut off from the rest of the country. Srebrenica is one tragic example of such territory.

During the first half of 1992, the JNA took over most of the Bosnian territory along the Drina River, the natural border between Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The JNA occupied almost all the small towns in that area. Taken by surprise, the small towns did not have resources to defend themselves.

Trying to escape mass executions and genocide, the survivors sought refuge in one of the three geographically defensible districts. Approximately one third of the surviving Muslim population from the occupied territory — roughly one hundred thousand refugees — found themselves in one of three districts: Srebrenica, Zepa, and Gorazde.

While these territories were somewhat successful in organizing their defense forces, life under the siege was terrible. Lack of food, water, hygiene, medical supplies, ammunition, and weapons was wearing out the population and weakening their defenses day after day. At the beginning of 1993, JNA and the Army of Republika Srpska (the pro-Serbian Bosnians) made more advances into the “free territory” of Srebrenica. The JNA decreased the area of the free territory from 347 square miles to 58 square miles and the population of Srebrenica grew to 60,000 people.

The Yugoslav laws where few civilians were allowed to have weapons had a great goal in mind – civilized society without accessible tools for mass violence.

In losing most of the rural areas, the city lost almost all of its ability to produce food to feed its population. Compounding that lack of food, the inflow of any other resources into the city was cut off by the enemy.

In April 1993, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 819, which  declared Srebrenica a “safe area” under protection of the United Nations and ordered a ceasefire on both sides. This was the first case of a civilian “safe area” declared by United Nations and it failed miserably.

Because United Nations forces were now supposed to control the area, they requested that JNA and army of Republika Srpska back out of the safe area, and that the city of Srebrenica perform complete demilitarization. That request meant that the defense army had to give up its firearms. Serbian leaders said Srebrenica disarmament was needed to prove that the defense army of Srebrenica was taking the Resolution 819 seriously and would not try to recover lost territories.

Hoping to create better living conditions, and obeying the commands received from the highest officials of the Bosnian government in Sarajevo, the Srebrenica local government made their soldiers turn in most of their firearms.

Between April 1993 and July 1995 living conditions in Srebrenica did not change much. Some inflow of food was allowed and the armed attacks by the JNA and Republica Srpska continued but were more isolated. United Nations troops in charge of keeping the peace and protecting the safe area were very passive. They were confused by orders from United Nations headquarters, which was trying to figure out how to act without risking the lives of UN soldiers. Unfortunately, they did not figure it out in time and “out of sight, out of mind” seemed to the UN headquarters policy.

In July 1995, the Serbian Army and army of Republika Srpska started to tighten their grip and increase attacks on the safe area. The defense army of Srebrenica asked UN troops to give them their firearms back to defend themselves. They pointed out that the UN troops in the area had authorization from the UN to provide military protection to the citizens of Srebrenica. The UN refused to return the Bosnians’ firearms. The UN military commanders in the area said that the UN troops were responsible for the defense for the safe area and the Bosnian army of Srebrenica was not. Actually, the UN troops were still waiting for the further orders from their headquarters.  

On July 9, 1995, the Serbian Army and army of Republika Srpska advanced another four kilometers into the safe territory. Years later, the Miroslav Deronjic, the Serbian army’s “civil affairs commissioner” for Srebrenica, testified to the International Criminal Court that he had received an order from Serbian dictator Karadzic to “kill everyone. Everyone you catch.”

The UN Commander, Lt. Col. Karemans, sent urgent requests to UN headquarters asking for air force support from NATO in order to prevent Serbs from any advancing into Srebrenica. NATO did not act. On July 11, the Army of Republika Srpska occupied Srebrenica. Refugees, between 20,000 and 25,000 of them, were moving towards Potocari, where the UN base was located. On July 12, General Ratko Mladic and the Serbian Army entered Potocari.

During July 12 and 13, many civilians, mostly men and boys, were killed on the spot by the Serbian Army. On July 13, some refugees who were still trying to escape Srebrenica came across piles of bodies of the citizens who had been slaughtered and decapitated.

When the Serbians captured groups of Bosnian refugees, men and male teenagers were separated from the women and children. The women and children were sent to prison camps, where rapes, tortures and killings were constant. Children, even newborns, were slaughtered in front of their mothers for crying too much.

As for the men and teenagers, those who were not killed in Srebrenica prison camps were a few days later put on buses and moved to cities and villages away from Srebrenica. Then they were systematically killed and buried in mass graves. The plan of the Serbian Army to spread out the mass killings, hiding the genocide.

The scale of the tragedy of Srebrenica is not really understood and processed by the world.

Europe prides itself for democracy, civilization, human rights, and laws that protect citizens. Before the war Bosnia and Herzegovina had all of these institutions of a civilized country. That was not enough to prevent four years of genocide.

Countries need to provide citizens with options to survive in extreme circumstances, including natural disasters or wars. The Yugoslav laws where few civilians were allowed to have weapons had a great goal in mind – civilized society without accessible tools for mass violence. It backfired in Bosnia. Who could have predicted the scenario that played out?

After the war in Bosnia was officially over, civilians were ordered to return their firearms to the closest army bases and UN troops. Significant amounts of weapons were given up at the collection centers. But many weapons were not surrendered. The notion among the population, especially in rural areas, was “if it happens again, they will be ready.” So even today, there may be many firearms hidden and held by citizens in Bosnia without licenses, illegally.

Jasmin Dolamic wrote this article for the Independence Institute, a think tank in Denver.