Ethnic cleansing and war crimes, 1991-1995 – part thirteen

TransConflict is pleased to present part thirteen of a chapter of “Confronting the Yugoslav controversies – a scholars’ initiative”, entitled “Ethnic cleansing and war crimes, 1991-1995”, which “aims at describing causes, features, and consequences of ethnic cleansing as a policy in Bosnia-Hercegovina during the war.”

Suggested Reading

Conflict Background


By Marie-Janine Calic

Destruction of Identity

As stated above, ethnic cleansing is directed against a population that can be identified by ethnic, national, or religious characteristics. The wider aim of such a policy, besides the physical removal from a territory, is to offend the collective identity of the targeted population, including its language, history, culture, and family relations. Towns, sacred sites, and city centers were continuously shelled and razed to the ground in order to cut off local communication lines, thus making impossible the normal functioning of social life among the target community.

Cultural vandalism reveals the inherent aim of ethnic cleansing to destroy buildings and monuments as the most prominent symbols of the political power, historical identity, and national consciousness of the unwanted group. The systematic destruction of religious and cultural symbols suggests that the intention is to eliminate any vestige of the opponent’s presence in the respective areas. Throughout Bosnia-Hercegovina, as well as in parts of Croatia (and, later, Kosovo), sacred sites and other symbols of cultural heritage were systematically damaged, for the most part, in the absence of military activity. Aside from mosques and churches, other religious and cultural objects such as cemeteries and monasteries were targeted.[84]

The destruction of cultural heritage was most comprehensive in areas under Serb control. In Croatia, the religious monuments, parochial archives, and other cultural objects of the non-Serb communities (Croat Roman Catholic churches, but also Protestant congregations of Slavonia’s Hungarian minority) suffered systematic and widespread destruction. Virtually no Catholic churches were left intact within the confines of the Republika Srpska Krajina.[85] In Bosnia-Hercegovina virtually every Muslim house of worship (some 1,000 mosques, as well as
dervish lodges, saints’ shrines, and other sacred sites), as well as 75 percent of all Catholic churches were destroyed or severely damaged in areas that came under Serb control. Those located in town centers were not only burned or blown up, but the buildings were razed and the rubble carted away to remove all traces.[86] In addition, even the names of towns were changed to minimize the earlier presence of non-Serb populations.

Serbian Orthodox heritage also suffered, primarily at the hands of Croatian forces. Within Croatia, Croat forces perpetrated attacks against Orthodox churches and other sacred sites both in the early phases of the war and during the final offensives in 1995. But whereas many Orthodox churches and sacred sites were damaged, the majority of Serbian Orthodox churches in Croatia survived the war intact.[87] In Hercegovina, following the April–June 1992 JNA siege of Mostar, Croat extremists blew up the Serbian Orthodox cathedral and the Serbian
Orthodox monastery at Žitomislić just south of the city. There were also attacks on Orthodox churches in Hercegovina, as well as in the Posavina region in northeastern Bosnia, which was the scene of bitter fighting between Serb and Croat militias. During the “war within a war” between Bosnian-Croat forces and the mainly Muslim Bosnian army, Croat forces destroyed some 80 mosques and damaged about 120 more. Muslim militias and civilians in turn destroyed 8 Catholic churches and damaged about 70 more. For the most part, however, both Roman Catholic and Serbian Orthodox churches in towns that remained or came under the control of the Sarajevo government survived intact.[88]

‘Ethnic cleansing and war crimes, 1991-1995′ is a component of the larger Scholars’ Initiative ‘Confronting Yugoslav Controversies’ (Second Edition), extracts of which will be published on every Friday.

Previous parts of the chapter ‘Ethnic cleansing and war crimes, 1991-1995’ are available through the following links:


84) ICTY, Case No. IT-95-5-R61/IT-95-18-R61.

85) For damage to Catholic churches, see Ilija Živković, ed., The Wounded Church in Croatia: The Destruction of the Sacral Heritage of Croatia, 1991–1995 (Zagreb: The Croatian Conference of Bishops, 1996).

86) András Riedlmayer, Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Bosnia-Hercegovina, 1992–1996: A Post-War Survey of Selected Municipalities, expert report commissioned by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (The Hague: ICTY, 2002) and expert testimony before the International Court of Justice in the case Bosnia-Hercegovina v. Serbia-Montenegro, 17 March 2006.

87) Slobodan Mileusnić, Duhovni genocid: pregled porušenih, oštećenih i obesvećenih crkava, manastira i drugih crkvenih objekata u ratu 1991–1995 (Spiritual Genocide: A Survey of Destroyed, Damaged, and Desecrated Churches, Monasteries, and Other Church Buildings during the War, 1991–1995), 3rd ed. (Belgrade: Muzej Srpske Pravoslavne Crkve, 1997).

88) On the destruction of Catholic churches in Bosnia, see Ilija Živković, ed., Raspeta crkava u Bosni i Hercegovini: uništavanje katoličkih sakralnih objekata u Bosni i Hercegovini (1991–1996) (Banja Luka, Mostar, Sarajevo: Hrvatski Informativni Centar, 1997). On the cultural destruction in Bosnia in general, see András Riedlmayer, “From the Ashes: The Past and Future of Bosnia’s Cultural Heritage,” in Islam and Bosnia: Conflict Resolution and Foreign Policy in Multi-Ethnic States, ed. Maya Shatzmiller (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002), 98–135; Riedlmayer, “Convivencia under Fire: Genocide and Book-Burning in Bosnia,” in The Holocaust and the Book: Destruction and Preservation, ed. Jonathan Rose (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), 266–91.

If you are interested in writing for TransConflict, please do not hesitate to contact us with your ideas and suggestions!

What are the principles of conflict transformation?



9 Responses

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons