It’s been very difficult to calculate the casualties and number of people who were killed, injured, raped, or forced to flee from their homes during the Bosnian War, primarily because the process has been highly politicized and “fused with narratives about victimhood” from nationalistic politicians on each side. Today, more than twenty years later, statistics about ethnic crimes and war casualties are still used to fuel political agendas and stoke ethnic and religious hatreds in the region.
As with other conflicts, the reality and messiness of people’s experiences during the Bosnian War are significantly more complex than any report could relate. As soon as we want to talk about history – and knowing how many victims there were is history – we’re faced with the difficulty of knowing where to begin in framing the story. Mourid Barghouti, a Palestinian poet, writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, “secondly.” If we talk about numbers of victims in the Bosnian War, then, it’s all to easy to think about those who suffered more numerically as the primary victims, and those who suffered less as victims “secondly.”
So first, the numbers – because they are important. But lest these numbers allow us to oversimplify the conflict, creating clear categories of “victim” and “perpetrator,” we invite you to read on to understand each ethnicity’s general perspective on the war and their lived experience behind the numbers.
Estimates of the total number of casualties have ranged from 25,000 to 329,000. The variations are partly the result of using inconsistent definitions of who can be considered a victim of war, as some research calculated only direct casualties of military activity while other research included those who died from starvation, cold, disease, or other war conditions. But regardless of which statistics have been used, all sides have a history of exaggerating the numbers of casualties in order to emphasize or validate their own legitimate experience as victims.
In January 2013, The Research and Documentation Center in Sarajevo (RDC) published its final research on Bosnia-Herzegovina’s war casualties, titled The Bosnian Book of the Dead. This database includes 97,207 confirmed names of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s citizens killed between 1992–1995, with an additional 5,100 unconfirmed names. In addition to the widespread killing and additional injuries, between 20,000 to 50,000 women were raped, in part as campaigns of “genocidal rape” (coordinated mass rape to exterminate another ethnicity). In the end, 2.2 million people were forced to flee their homes, making it the largest displacement of people in Europe since WWII.
Of the 97,207 who were killed during the war and documented by 2013:
- 60% were soldiers, 40% civilians
- 90% were male
- 62% were Bosniaks, 25% Bosnian Serbs, and just over 8% Croats
- Of civilian victims, 81% were Bosniaks, 11% Bosnian Serbs, and 6.5% Bosnian Croats, with a small number of Jews, Roma and others
The percentage of civilian victims would probably have been higher had survivors not reported their loved-ones as “soldiers” to access social services and other post-mortem benefits.
Bosniak, Croat, and Serb Perspectives on the War
The numbers demonstrate that during the Bosnian War, the vast majority of civilians who were killed in efforts to ethnically cleanse the region were Bosniak Muslim. Though it is unhelpful and incorrect to frame Bosniak Muslims only as victims and Serbs only as perpetrators, the Muslim Bosniak experience of atrocities was much more widespread.
The Bosniak Muslim experience of the war is that it was “rooted in a premeditated Serbian attack on Bosnia’s Muslim population.” Entire families and villages were lost to ethnic cleansing, the Serb-run Omarska concentration camp brought back memories of the Holocaust, and few survived the infamous “column” as thousands of unarmed men attempted to flee from Srebrenica prior to the genocide that occurred there. Although Bosniak Muslims suffered intensely, there are many who are now leading the way forward as they work for human rights issues, peace building, and reconciliation to this day.
The Bosnian Croat experience of the Bosnian War began prior to the outbreak of violence in Bosnia in 1992. As Serb and Croat forces fought in the Croatian War of Independence (1991), many Croat civilians were brutally massacred in Croatia (two of the largest being the Vukovar and Baćin massacres). In 1992, further atrocities against Croat civilians in Bosnia created an atmosphere of fear and paranoia among Croats toward their Bosnian Serb and Muslim neighbors.
The Bosnian Serb experience during the breakup of Yugoslavia and in the Bosnian War requires a bit more understanding of the history of the region, going back beyond WWII to the Ottoman Empire’s expansion into Europe. Although Orthodox Serbs are often seen as the “bad guys” by those in the West, their experience is complex and much more understandable when we consult history. Serb identity has been closely related to their self-identity as the defenders of Europe and Christianity against Muslim expansion (particularly as the Ottoman Empire took over the region), and the 14th century Battle of Kosovo is a central part of their historical self-understanding. In much more recent history, the World War II persecution of Serbs at the hands of the fascist Ustaše regime in the Independent State of Croatia resulted in the deaths of almost 350,000 Serbs, while hundreds of thousands were expelled from their homes or forcefully converted to Catholicism. These two historic experiences provide an essential backdrop for the Serb experience during the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Serbians were the largest ethnic and religious group in the former Yugoslavia, and the rapid breakup of their country made the Serbs living in both Croatia and Bosnia feel vulnerable as a minority that may again soon be under threat by their Muslim and Croat neighbors. Although the Serb-controlled Yugoslav military committed atrocities against non-Serbs, there were also significant atrocities committed against Serb civilians in the Croatian War of Independence (e.g. the Jasenovac concentration camp and the Gospić massacre). As Serb refugees fled from Croatia to Bosnia as war was just beginning there, further atrocities were also committed against Bosnian Serbs, including the Sijekovac killings (arguably the first massacre of civilians in the Bosnian War) and the Kravica attacks.
Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs have all suffered deeply in recent years, but there are groups on each side that are responsible for perpetuating the violence. As one Bosniak Muslim peace builder told me, “We must stop depending on generals to memorialize war when they glorify soldiers and martyrs as heroes only to inspire more war. Instead, we should let the horrific and painful stories of all the soldiers and traumatized victims memorialize war. Then there will be fewer wars and profiteering from the killing.”