Why Bosnia?

By Ali, Rabia; Lifschultz, Lawrence | Monthly Review, March 1994 | Go to article overview

Why Bosnia?


Ali, Rabia, Lifschultz, Lawrence, Monthly Review


At stake in Bosnia were two visions of society and democracy. Those who came under assault in the newly formed Bosnian state made clear that they stood for a society of equal citizens where the rights of all would be secured and protected under law as a matter of constitutional right. This was a vision of a multi-ethnic society in the tradition of the European Enlightenment. The embodiment of "rights" inherent in the status of citizenship was one of the more significant advances which the French Revolution had spread and integrated into the constitutional orders of European states over a period of two centuries. Yet, in the final decade of the twentieth century, it was to be a standard which Europe, led in this instance by France and Britain, would cynically abandon.

The opposing vision was the one promoted by the nationalist leaders of Serbia and Croatia. Insular, parochial, ethnocentric, this was a vision of a purified nation-state in which there was no room for the "Other." The in-gathering of a people into the bosom of the "mother country" meant in this instance the acquisition of the territory on which they lived. Serbia's nationalist ideology was unequivocal on this issue: the destiny of all Serbs was to live in one state, and since all land on which Serbs lived was by definition Serb land, it rightfully belonged to "Greater Serbia." They alone would unilaterally define its boundaries and remove any community which by their account did not "belong."

For their part, Croation nationalists--depending on the fervor of their nationalism and, accordingly, the degree of irredentist manipulation of history--claimed large swaths of Bosnian territory as their own. According to this view, BosniaHercegovina had no legitimacy as a separate nation, civilization, or state. Those who had lived in the land for generations and were not Serb (or Croat) were foreigners who had to be removed from it by all means necessary.

The shock troops in Bosnia for this brand of nationalism were Radovan Karadzic, General Ratko Mladic, and their confreres in the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS). Tihomir Loza explains the logic underlying the strategy and the tactics adopted by the Serbian nationalists in Bosnia.

What actually is the crime in Bosnia, the practice known in the West as "ethnic cleansing?" Undoubtedly it has been anything but a coincidence: the key component of a grand greater state project, and conducted through all political, psychological, and military means. The aim is not only to expel the ethnically "unclean" population from the desired territory but also to destroy all possibilities for their return--completely to dismantle the spiritual and material structure of the civilization of the unwanted population... [T]he expelled populations will stay away because they have no homes, mosques, schools, etc.--literally nothing to go back to. The problem is that since no one can destroy everything perfectly, not even [the] Serb armed forces, there is always the danger of the expelled population returning to the burnt remains of their existence. So the real guarantee is fear: the knowledge that their neighbors remain in wait, should they try to go back. According to numerous testimonies, special military expeditions from Serbia and Montenegro have sought not only to slaughter and expel but also to inspire or force the indigenous Serbs to do the same. The formula for territorial occupation that the expelled are compelled to accept is "either them or us." At the present score, the reality of course is "them."

It had been a long time since Europe had heard anything like the phrase Judenfrei. It returned again to Europe but it had a fresh ring: "ethnic cleansing." Entire villages were wiped out. Specific forms of assault were developed to inspire terror. Concentration camps were set up again on European soil reviving an earlier continental innovation. It all was part of the war that the Serbian and Croatian nationalists waged against the unwanted inhabitants of Bosnia and Hercegovina to remove them from the landscape. …

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