The Haunting Spectre of Genocide still looms over the Balkans

Besar Zasella Balkans

DSC02315July 11th marks the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica, where over 8,000 men and boys were slaughtered by Bosnian Serbs. This was one of the final heinous acts of the three and a half year Bosnian War which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. This war, along with the other Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s, has fundamentally shaped the world’s view of the Balkans as an ethnic and sectarian bloodbath since time began. Not only that, but the problem is so complicated and irreversible that such a tragedy like Srebrenica was bound to happen eventually.

This view is incredibly dangerous, if only for the sole reason that this narrow, stereotypical view will never allow us to completely explore such a peculiar but also tragic chapter in Balkan history. It seems impossible to even comprehend that a fully functioning society with a well-developed economy in the 1960s and 1970s would collapse in the space of just over a decade after the death of Josip Broz Tito. Yet we must explore these symptoms in order to understand how a group of people can turn to such depravity and evil. At the same time, I will attempt to remove the emotion out of a topic which has affected a great number of people – including myself – in order to fully unpack the psychology behind the most perverse and evil human condition.

The break-up of Yugoslavia has largely been attributed, rather lazily in Western historiography of the Balkans, to simply aggressive ethnic nationalism. This stereotype has conveniently absolved Western powers and institutions of any blame. After Tito’s death in 1980, the Reagan administration wanted to stamp the West’s authority on Yugoslavia by destroying Communism and establishing market-based economies in Eastern Europe.[1] As a result, Western institutions were directly involved in the economic destruction of the region. According to a Stratfor document published by Wikileaks, “the IMF austerity measures imposed on Yugoslavia were in part to blame for the start of the war there”.[2] Under the IMF’s structural adjustments, Yugoslavia’s largely manufacturing-based economy was hit the hardest, and by September 1990, 1.3m Yugoslavs had lost their jobs due to externally enforced liquidations.[3]

Tito was a unifying force for Yugoslavians but his death, coupled with crippling economic sanctions, led to a significant rise in nationalism that was significantly tied to economic development; Slovenia and Croatia’s nationalism was intimately tied to the belief that their southern counterparts were “milking them” of their wealth.[4] The weakening of Serbian central government was abhorrent to Serb nationalists, and the rise of Slobodan Milošević as an ultra-nationalist leader was a result of, and not a cause of, Serbian reaction to cries of economic and political autonomy. This factor cannot be ignored in analysing how these gruesome events unfolded.Srebrenica Janazah 3

Bosnia, like Slovenia and Croatia, became increasingly uneasy of the ethnic nationalism being pushed by Serbia, and voted almost unanimously to secede in March 1992. The nationalist Bosnian Serb party (SDS) immediately refused the outcome and its leader Radovan Karadžić threatened the imminent extinction of Bosnian Muslims; a culturally rich and progressive state like Bosnia was always counter-intuitive to ethnic nationalist goals.[5] Bosnian Muslims were vilified and scapegoated by nationalist forces and media alike, frequently referring to them as Turks, alluding to past injustices against the Serbian nation. This fuelled what one academic calls traumatic nationalism:

‘When a nation both recalls its past as rife with suffering, catastrophe, and cataclysm, and views the world as threatening, the result is traumatic nationalism. In the years since 1986, Serbian nationalism has assumed a specifically traumatic cast, drawing its energy, by habit and by nature, from a reinterpretation of Serbia’s history in terms of suffering, exploitation, pain, and injustice. Serbian nationalism has not always been traumatic in character; it has become so only as a result of successful elite manipulation.’ (pg. 103) [6]

This traumatic nationalism is embodied by the First Battle of Kosovo in 1389, where a decisive Ottoman victory established a Muslim presence in the Balkans ever since. Serbian nationalists, in an effort to dehumanise all Muslims in the region, portrayed them as perpetual invaders in a land that was historically Serbian and Orthodox Christian, which consequently allowed themselves to become victims in a war that was sold to Bosnian Serbs as one of ‘self-defence’.

DSC02578But dehumanisation is not enough to truly cultivate genocide. One can refer to a much-maligned group of African immigrants as cockroaches, even in the UK (!), but it does not necessarily create a genocidal atmosphere. Humans are not genetically or mentally predisposed to genocide, and large-scale collective violence such as war and genocide “entails two vital ingredients: a complex, structural, organisational capacity and a potent, legitimising ideology”.[7] For the Serbs, both these factors were provided in copious amounts by three institutions: the government, the military and the Serbian Orthodox Church.

The government and military role is fairly obvious and self-explanatory – whilst the government provided the ideological rhetoric to brainwash its people into believing that genocide was good for all concerned, the Yugoslavian National Army (JNA) was the military arm for the massacres, especially after the non-Serb elements of the army defected to create their own national forces; this essentially made the JNA the Serb national army, with all the military capacity that came from being it Europe’s 4th largest army. But the most deplorable involvement comes from the Serbian Orthodox Church. Already a powerful social force in Serbian society, it provided a religious element to the ideology and callously legitimised the murder of Balkan Muslims as “a religious experience… highlighting the threat of Islam [to Serbia] and… delegitimising Islam’s very presence as valid”.[8] Radmila Radić, a Serbian sociologist of religion, goes further and asserts that:

‘From the onset of the war in the territory of the former Yugoslavia, the church granted substantial moral and material support to the Serbian population in the territories where the war was being waged… The church leadership maintained that the Serbian people were not the aggressors but the victims of the conflict, and that they, for the second time in their history, were confronting genocide[9]. The church defended the war, characterising it as defensive. It viewed the unification of the entire Serbian people as the only and final solution of the national question…’ (pg. 272) [10]DSC02225

It was a poisonous combination of these factors which cultivated a culture of genocide amongst Serbs during the 1990s, nowhere more infamous than at Srebrenica. The Trnovo executions, recorded by Serbian military police (this particular unit was called Škorpion) directly show the dehumanisation and the scapegoating of Bosnian Muslims during the war. The first video is a shortened, translated (and in my view, mildly sanitised) video of the event, but still shocking and still very important in analysing the culture of scapegoating amongst the armed Serb forces:

At the beginning of the video, you can see the prisoners being kicked repeatedly in the end, displaying total callousness towards the Bosnian Muslims and how sub-human they are in the eyes of the soldiers. Their casual chitchat scattered throughout the video implies a high level of normalisation of these incidents. Crucially, their anti-Islamic rhetoric can be heard during the video:

  • 56 – Do your prayers like this, m************! Faster, faster. Bend over.
  • 2:53 – Let’s move. Yalla, Yalla! (Arabic for “quickly”)

Furthermore, quotes like the ones below emphasise the feeling of victimhood amongst the Serb soldiers as part of the scapegoating ritual:

  • 1:04 – When you were killing Serbs you didn’t wait, m************!
  • 1:49 – Did you give Serbs water when…

Again, in this separate video, you can see the Serbian Orthodox Church blessing the soldiers of the Škorpion unit before the massacre was committed, something that was commonplace throughout the war.[11]

Norman Cigar comments thus:

‘The Serbian Orthodox Church has not only failed to condemn Serbian war crimes, but it has provided chaplains to the Bosnian Serb Army and offered encouragement for operations against the Muslims. Thus, Bosnian Serb recruits recite their induction oaths before Orthodox chaplains, while Orthodox clergyman have blessed Serbian forces, such as the elite Panthers commando unit, which has been accused of committing numerous atrocities, before they set off on operations’ [12]DSC02151

For me, the most shocking aspect of genocide is not how these people were killed. It is how the killers could be convinced that such an evil act could be considered good. In the end, the Bosnian War achieved nothing good. Keith Doubt asserts that “what happened in Bosnia was not genocide alone, but “sociocide”, a vicious campaign to replace a complex, progressive and open society with a simple, regressive, and bigoted one”.[13] The policy of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia pursued by Serbs, and to a lesser extent Croatian, forces in Bosnia has led from it being a rich multi-ethnic centre of culture to a land purged of not just its communities, but also many of its cultural institutions (libraries, mosques, churches, bridges, cemeteries, theological schools, etc.) that bore witness to Bosnia’s compelling heritage were destroyed.[14]

In the end, the Dayton Agreement that justified the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian land was, and still is, morally reprehensible. This agreement has proved a persistent barrier to a less volatile peace because of the tensions that have risen from the overtures of the Republika Srpska, and it is difficult to see a solution in Bosnia without the removal of the two artificial political entities within the nation. The haunting spectre of the genocide still looms over the whole of the Balkans, and the image of the Serb soldiers kicking their fellow humans in the back of the head will undoubtedly linger in the memories of Bosnians and Serbs who watched that sorry sight on state television. 20 years on, if we should learn anything from this depraved chapter in human history, it is this: when we dehumanise a group of humans, we ourselves become nothing more than animals.

Besar Zasella is a BA History student at the School of Oriental and Africa Studies (University of London). Besar recently visited Srebrenica as part of the Remembering Srebrenica charity where he met survivors.


[1] Gervasi, Sean. “Germany, the US, and the Yugoslav Crisis” in Covert Action (No. 43, Winter 1992–93, pg. 42) The document in question is the Secret Sensitive 1982 National Security Decision Directive NSDD 54, declassified in 1990.


[3] Chossudovsky, Michel. 2003. The Globalisation of Poverty and the New World Order. London and New York: Zed Books.


[5] Doubt, Keith. “Scapegoating and the Simulation of Mechanical Solidarity in Former Yugoslavia: “Ethnic Cleansing” and the Serbian Orthodox Church.” Pg. 65-82 in Humanity and Society (Vol. 31, No.1, February 2007)

[6] Ramet, Sabrina P. 1995. “The Serbian Church and the Serbian Nation.” Pg. 101-122 in Beyond Yugoslavia: Politics, Economics and Culture in a Shattered Community, edited by S. Ramet and L. Adamovich. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

[7] Malešević, Siniša. 2010. The Sociology of War and Violence, pg. 4. Cambridge University Press.

[8] Cigar, Norman. 1995. Genocide in Bosnia: The Policy of “Ethnic Cleansing”, pg. 30. College Station, TX. Texas A & M University Press.

[9] The first genocide of the Serbs was not imagined, but real – in WWII, the Croatian Ustaša massacred up to a million Serbs in the name of Croatian fascism and nationalism. Naturally, this had a huge negative impact on Serbian attitudes to non-Serbs in the region and crystallised the sense of victimhood.

[10] Radić, Ramila. 1996. “The Church and the ‘Serbian Question’” pg. 247-272 in The Road to War in Serbia, edited by N. Popov. New York: Central European University Press.

[11] Doubt, Keith. “Scapegoating and the Simulation of Mechanical Solidarity in Former Yugoslavia: “Ethnic Cleansing” and the Serbian Orthodox Church.” Pg. 65-82 in Humanity and Society (Vol. 31, No.1, February 2007)

[12] Cigar, Norman. 1995. Genocide in Bosnia: The Policy of “Ethnic Cleansing”, pg. 68. College Station, TX. Texas A & M University Press.

[13] Doubt, Keith. “Scapegoating and the Simulation of Mechanical Solidarity in Former Yugoslavia: “Ethnic Cleansing” and the Serbian Orthodox Church.” Pg. 65-82 in Humanity and Society (Vol. 31, No.1, February 2007)

[14] Riedlmayer, Andras. 1994. Killing Memory: Bosnia’s Cultural Heritage and Its Destruction [Video documentary]. Haverford, PA: Community of Bosnia Foundation.