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Bosnia in Conflict

Read more about the historical events that shaped the lives of Zlata Filipovic, Peter Caddick-Adams and Denis Abdic.
In 1992 Bosnia declared independence from Yugoslavia. War soon followed claiming over 97,000 lives. Around 8,000 were killed at Srebrenica during the single biggest massacre in Europe since the Second World War.
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Yugoslavia did not exist until after the First World War when it was created from territories previously held by the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires.

Bosnia-Herzegovina, along with five other semi-autonomous republics of Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia, and the provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina, formed the federal state of Yugoslavia. It was one of the most ethnically diverse states in Europe.

During the Second World War Yugoslavia was divided and occupied by the Axis powers. By 1942 the Yugoslav people were also involved in a complex and brutal civil war. Over 6 percent of the population was killed during this period.

The collapse of Yugoslavia
After the war Yugoslavia became a communist state under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito. He tried to suppress nationalism by encouraging the population to think of themselves as Yugoslavs, rather than Serbs, Muslims or Croats. Tito’s death in 1980 created a power vacuum and by the mid 1980s, tensions were rising between the republics within Yugoslavia. This was made worse by serious economic problems and high unemployment.

Tensions between the republics were exploited by Franjo Tudjman and Slobodan Milosevic the leaders of Croatia and Serbia, Milosevic found that the idea of ‘greater Serbia’ had strong popular appeal, especially among Serb minorities living in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.  

Resenting Serb dominance, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence in 1991 and they were attacked by the Yugoslav’s People Army (JNA) which was loyal to Serbia. The attack on Slovenia was unsuccessful, but by the end of August 1991, Serb forces had captured one third of Croatia. The war ended in early 1992 with a UN ceasefire. But just as hostilities died down in Croatia, a much bigger conflict was brewing in Bosnia.

The war in Bosnia
Bosnia was the most ethically diverse republic in Yugoslavia. It had no national or religious majority. 44% of the population were Muslims, 31% Serbs and 17% Croats. There was also a small Jewish community.

In March 1992, Bosnia did not want to remain in a shrunken Yugoslavia dominated by Serbia and declared independence under the Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic. In April 1992, bitter fighting broke out between Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Serbs, supported by Serbia.

‘It is estimated that over 97,000 people were killed during the war and around 2 million displaced from their homes’

Numerous atrocities were committed during the war, including rape. Bosnian Serbs implemented a campaign of ‘ethnic cleansing’ forcing Bosnian Muslims out of Serb areas. Bosnia’s cosmopolitan capital Sarajevo was attacked and besieged by the Bosnian Serb Army.

By the end of June 1992, Serbs controlled more than two thirds of Bosnia. In August, Western journalists discovered Serb-run concentration camps mostly holding Bosnian Muslims.

In central Bosnia, Bosnian Muslims were fighting Bosnian Croats who wanted to be part of Croatia. Fighting was particularly intense around Mostar, causing the destruction of the famous sixteenth century Old Bridge in November 1993.

In 1994, under pressure from America, a ceasefire was agreed between Bosnian Muslims and Croats. A Bosnian-Croat Federation was established to fight the Serbs.

A Bosnian Muslim refugee walks down a devastated street in East Mostar after Serb forces had been expelled from the town by a joint Bosnian-Croat attack, June 1992 Photograph by Kevin Weaver IWM Ref: HU_75059

Read their stories

  • Denis Abdic
    Denis was born in Croatia and grew up in Bosnia. He was a teenager when war broke out in 1992. After being forced into the army and then out of his home, Denis was eventually evacuated to Britain by the Red Cross. Read Denis’s story
  • Peter Caddick-Adams
    Peter has been with the Territorial Army since 1985. In 1996 he was part of the NATO-led Implementation Force (IFOR) which was in Bosnia to uphold the peace agreement and to help Bosnia to recover from three and a half years of conflict. Read Peter’s story
  • Zlata Filipović
    Zlata was born in Sarajevo in 1980 and was evacuated from the war-torn city in 1993. She has since lived in France, Britain and Ireland, but her Bosnian identity remains an essential part of who she is. Read Zlata’s story
A badly damaged house in Stup, Sarajevo. It was in front of this house that the photographer Kevin Weaver was wounded by a Serbian sniper's bullet, 1994. Photograph by Kevin Weaver IWM Ref: HU_75042


Srebrenica massacre
Unwilling to intervene militarily, international response to the war in Bosnia was mostly limited to providing humanitarian aid and introducing economic sanctions against Serbia. Repeated attempts at arranging ceasefires met with little lasting success. In May 1993, the UN designated ‘safe areas’ for Muslim refugees but with a limited mandate and manpower, the areas were rarely safe. In July 1995, Serb forces killed around 8,000 boys and men in the ‘safe area’ of Srebrenica. It was the biggest single massacre in Europe since the Second World War.

Steps towards peace
At a conference in London in 1995 agreement was reached to deploy NATO air strikes against Bosnian Serb forces to try to bring the war to an end. In September 1995 US-backed Croatian and Bosnian forces, made the first serious military gains against Serb forces. American diplomatic pressure and NATO air strikes increased the pressure on Serbia.

In November 1995 a peace conference was convened in Dayton, Ohio and a treaty was formally signed in December. In the same month a multinational force called IFOR (Implementation Force) led by NATO was sent to Bosnia to uphold the Dayton Agreement, which had created two self-governing entities within Bosnia, the Bosnian Serb Republic and the Muslim-Croat Federation. IFOR was replaced by SFOR (Stabilisation Force) in December 1996. SFOR officially ceased operations in December 2005.

Recent research suggests that just over 97,000 people were killed during the war. Over 2 million people were displaced from their homes by the war. Around 8,000 people sought refuge in Britain and it is estimated that over a million citizens of Bosnia currently live abroad.

In February 2007 the International Criminal Court cleared the Serbian state of direct involvement in genocide. But it ruled that it breached international law by failing to prevent individuals from carrying out the Srebrenica massacre, and for not handing over individuals accused of committing genocide. Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic was not caught until July 2008 and army chief Ratko Mladic remains at large.