The Bosnia Crisis: Serbs, Croats and Muslims: who hates who and why: Tony Barber in Zagreb traces the ancient roots of a culture clash that has shattered what was Yugoslavia into warring pieces

ESTIMATES vary of the death toll in 13 months of civil war in what was Yugoslavia, but it certainly runs into many thousands, making the conflict the most violent in Europe since the Second World War. The immediate origins of the war lie in the collapse of the post-1945 Communist order and subsequent clashes between a variety of militant nationalisms. But the deeper roots lie far back in history.

The main rivals are the Serbs and Croats, two Slavic peoples with similar languages - though Serbian is written in Cyrillic and Croatian in Latin script - but whose histories are very different.

The Serbs are Orthodox Christians whose religion was crucial in keeping alive their national identity during almost four centuries of Ottoman Turkish occupation. Of the nations that formed Yugoslavia in 1918, the Serbs were alone in having liberated themselves from foreign rule and set up an independent state in the 19th century.

The Croats spent centuries under the Austro-Hungarian empire and their Catholicism and Central European outlook were equally important in shaping their identity. They resented the fact that the first Yugoslav state, which lasted from 1918-1941, was to a great extent Serbia writ large, with a Serbian king and army and a Serb- dominated political system.

When the Nazis dismembered Yugoslavia in 1941, they created a fascist puppet state of Croatia, which incorporated most of Bosnia. This state slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Serbs and Jews. From 1941-1945 more than a million Yugoslavs died, more than half at the hands of each other.

Tito rebuilt Yugoslavia as a Communist federation of six equal republics, but ethnic antagonisms were never far below the surface. The Serbs disliked Tito's recognition of the Macedonians and the Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina as distinct nationalities.

The effect of recognition of the Muslims - Slavs converted to Islam under Turkish rule - and growth in the Muslim population was to turn Bosnian Serbs into a minority in a republic where they had been the largest ethnic group.

The collapse of Communism in 1990-91 led to the election of governments in Slovenia and Croatia committed to independence. Although the Serb-led Yugoslav army tried briefly to prevent Slovenian independence, the Serbs' main concern was Croatia. Croatia had a 600,000-strong Serbian minority, descendants of Serbs who had fled Turkish rule centuries earlier. With the memory of Second World War atrocities behind them, the Serbs were unwilling to live in an independent Croatia again. For their part, the Croats viewed the Serbian minority as a group that had enjoyed special privileges under Communism.

Supported by the army and Serbia itself, the Serbs rose in armed rebellion. They now control about a quarter of Croatia and have set up two autonomous regions that are under the protection of United Nations forces sent in to keep a fragile peace. Croatia has vowed to recapture these regions, by force if necessary.

In Bosnia, three nationalities lived before the latest conflict in inextricably mixed communities: the Muslims with 44 per cent of the population, the Serbs with 32 per cent and the Croats with 17 per cent. The communities lived in relative harmony. After the European Community demanded a referendum on independence in Bosnia in February, the vote split on ethnic lines. Muslims and Croats supported independence but the Serbs boycotted the vote and, again with the army's support, began a fight for territory.

The feature of the Croatian and Bosnian wars that has caught the world's attention has been the Serbian expulsion of Croats, Muslims and smaller nationalities from their native areas in an effort to make the regions purely Serbian. This policy of 'ethnic cleansing' is responsible for the huge wave of Muslim refugees flooding into many European countries. The detention camps where Serbs are holding large numbers of Muslim prisoners are not, however, places of extermination in the Nazi sense. The primary Serbian goal is to remove Muslims from an area comprising about two-thirds of Bosnia so that this territory can be merged into one lump with the two autonomous Serbian regions of Croatia and Serbia proper. This will be 'Greater Serbia'.

At the same time, the Croatian army has helped Croats in Bosnia to take over much of the west of the republic that lies near Croatia's Adriatic coast. Just as the Serbs have declared an 'Independent Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina', so the Croats have proclaimed an autonomous region of Herzeg-Bosnia with Mostar as its capital. De facto, Croatia has colluded with Serbia in carving up Bosnia, although it has escaped with much less international censure.

The real losers, then, are the Muslims, who have been left with almost no land. Both Serbs and Croats have claimed that Muslims are not a genuine nationality but are 'really' Serbs or Croats beneath their religion. Both have also claimed Bosnia-Herzegovina as part of their own historic territory. The Muslims might once have preferred to stay in a united Yugoslavia where their ethnic and religious rights were protected, but now they are locked in a struggle for their very survival.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £20,000 - £60,000

£20000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Team Leader

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Engineer - Linux, Windows, Cloud - Central London

£40000 - £48000 per annum + 10% bonus & benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Engin...

Recruitment Genius: Quality Inspector

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence