"Ethnic Cleansing" and Atrocities in Bosnia


Evidence drawn from press reports, international relief agencies, refugees, and other sources of information indicate that ethnic Serbs are responsible for the vast majority of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.

Croats and Muslims in Bosnia have also committed atrocities and forced other ethnic groups to flee--the Croat destruction of Mostar is a noteworthy example--but the ethnic cleansing actions of the Bosnian Serbs are unrivaled in scale and intensity. There is no pattern of events, moreover, indicating that Croats or Muslims have planned or carried out systematic, large-scale ethnic cleansing.

Sustained campaigns of ethnic cleansing by Bosnian Serbs since 1992 have resulted in the likely deaths of tens of thousands of non-Serbs, the displacement of hundreds of thousands more, and radical change in Bosnia's demographics. Up to 90 percent of non-Serbs who lived in the 65 percent of Bosnia now under Serb control have been forced to flee, were detained, or were killed. Well over 3,000 settlements--mainly in Serb-controlled areas--have been destroyed and some 1.3 million Bosnians, primarily Muslims, have been displaced within Bosnia, mainly as a result of ethnic cleansing.

The Bosnian Serb Army, paramilitary groups, Bosnian Serb political leaders, and security elements have played pivotal coordinating roles in ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Consistent patterns of political-military collusion and coordination are evident in Serb seizures of Bosnian towns. Many non-Serb refugees from throughout Bosnia have described Serb takeovers in strikingly similar terms.

The bloodiest rounds of ethnic cleansing took place earlier in the Bosnian conflict in 1992 and 1993, but Serb efforts to expel non-Serbs continue. More than 16,000 have been evicted from northern Bosnia since last summer, and thousands more have been forced from the eastern enclaves of Srebrenica and Zepa this month alone.

The apparently systematic, widespread nature of Serb actions strongly suggests that, from the beginning of the conflict, Bosnian Serb political and military leaders have played a central role in the purposeful destruction and dispersal of Bosnia's non-Serb population.


Ethnic cleansing has been carried out in Bosnia since at least early 1992, primarily by Bosnian Serb political and military forces opposed to the Bosnian Government's declaration of independence following a republic-wide referendum in early March 1992. The Bosnian Serbs boycotted the vote. Refugees have indicated that Bosnian Serbs probably were planning takeovers of some towns, such as Brcko, before the referendum and reportedly sought help from the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) and paramilitary groups formed in Serbia to do so.

In many cases, ethnic Serbs did not constitute majorities or significantly greater pluralities in key multiethnic towns that they subjected to ethnic cleansing. Official census data shows, for example, that in early 1992 Muslims constituted a majority of 56 percent in the northeastern city of Brcko. The Muslim population was about equal to that of Serbs in the northwestern town of Prijedor (39 and 40 percent, respectively), as well as in the larger opstina of Prijedor (44 and 43 percent, respectively). Both areas have since been virtually depopulated of non-Serb residents.

Well over a million of those displaced since early 1992, primarily by Serb ethnic cleansing, remain in Bosnia. A majority are Muslims forced into overcrowded enclaves and towns in Bosnian Government-held areas. Ethnic cleansing by Bosnian Serbs continues today, although the most brutal and widespread incidents took place in 1992 and 1993, when some of the most notorious detention camps were forced to close following extensive international publicity. More than 16,000 non-Serbs have been expelled from Serb-controlled areas of northern Bosnia alone since last summer, and thousands more have forced from the eastern enclaves of Srebrenica and Zepa this month.

Croats and Muslims have also committed atrocities during the Bosnian conflict, but their actions have consisted for the most part of discrete--though sometimes fierce--episodes that lack the sustained intensity, orchestration, and scale of the Bosnian Serbs' efforts. (see page 7 text box) The majority of refugee accounts--corroborated by information from the UN, international relief organizations, and other sources of information--indicate that ethnic Serbs are responsible for the overwhelming majority of the destruction, displacement, and loss of life associated with ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.

Key Actors in Ethnic Cleansing by Bosnian Serbs

A substantial body of evidence indicates that political, security, military, and paramilitary elements all played central, coordinated roles in carrying out ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Statements by refugees from affected towns as distant from each other as Prijedor, Brcko, and Foca reveal a strikingly similar pattern. They describe how non-Serbs were disarmed and Serb political, security, and military forces took control of towns, setting up new local government structures with identical names or functions in each case, and systematically rounding up, interrogating, torturing, and imprisoning or expelling members of non-Serb ˇlites--usually Muslims. The almost simultaneous timing of the takeovers of many towns in spring 1992 also suggests collusion among Bosnian Serb authorities. The balance among these political and military elements appears to have shifted over the past two years--the military, for example, has expanded its role in ethnic cleansing through its offensives--but all appear to remain involved.

The Serbian Democratic Party and Internal Security

Local and regional members of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic's Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) appear to have been responsible for many tactical decisions involving the ethnic cleansing of non-Serbs. Numerous refugee accounts name the SDS as having orchestrated Serb takeovers of previously multiethnic towns, where they put in place new rˇgimes, set up interrogation centers, established mock "courts," and moved thousands of non-Serb civilian prisoners to detention camps.

The SDS mayor of Prijedor, who took office following the takeover of the town in April 1992, stated to a US news organization in a fall 1992 interview that the three principal detention sites in the area--Keraterm, Trnopolje, and Omarska, where thousands reportedly were tortured and died--were "formed on decisions of the Prijedor civil authorities." Many ethnic Serbs identified as local SDS activists have also been affiliated with local paramilitary or irregular units reported to have terrorized the non-Serb populace.

Local SDS officials have also worked closely with internal security elements. Interior Ministry officials traditionally control the local police, and their authority for dealing with public order gives them access to municipal records. Many refugees have reported that, in town takeovers, prominent local non-Serbs have been quickly rounded up by police using organized lists. Bosnian Serb internal affairs officials also reportedly have commanded interrogation sites and detention camps for civilians, such as Omarska, according to various refugee interviews.

Karadzic has consistently denied that Serbs have engaged in ethnic cleansing or that his rˇgime is responsible for any atrocities, but he and his associates apparently have exercised authority over some Bosnian Serb detention camps. Journalists, for example, have described having to arrange visits to detention camps in 1992 through Karadzic's office, and other Westerners reportedly toured camps accompanied by SDS "escorts." This information and the consistent patterns evident in the takeovers of towns throughout Bosnia strongly suggest that top SDS leaders, including Karadzic, knew about ethnic cleansing plans from the outset--and that they probably initiated them in coordination with internal security organs and the military.

The Bosnian Serb Military

The Bosnian Serb Army (BSA), which was formed from the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) in mid-May 1992, has been a central participant in ethnic cleansing campaigns against Muslims and Croats. BSA units have conducted systematic ethnic cleansing operations, controlled detention camps, and methodically destroyed Muslim villages, in particular, most notably in northern and eastern Bosnia. BSA forces have often operated in conjunction with Serb paramilitary units identified as perpetrators of some of the worst atrocities of the Balkan conflict.

The BSA has operated many of the detention camps that have held primarily Muslim and Croat civilians--rather than bona fide POWs--according to press accounts and statements by refugees. BSA-run camps, notorious for their alleged brutality and death tolls, include facilities at Manjaca and Batkovic. A significant part of the Serb detention camp and prison system in Bosnia was an integrated entity organized within the corps structure of the BSA, according to information from various sources. Some former detainees claim to have been able to discern the military command structure in BSA-run camps and, in some cases, identify former JNA officers then serving in the camps' commands. The BSA's security service reportedly exercised command and control of the camp system using military police as guards.

As the BSA, under the command of General Ratko Mladic, has intensified its military operations, its role in ethnic cleansing has grown. The BSA has incorporated into its campaigns the systematic destruction of villages--primarily Muslim--to ensure that their inhabitants will not return. BSA forces in both the January-April 1993 Srebrenica offensive and the April 1994 Gorazde attack, for example, razed Muslim villages well after Bosnian Serb troops had control of the areas surrounding them.

Paramilitary Forces

Numerous Bosnian refugees have indicated that both Bosnian Serb and Serbian paramilitary units initially operated in conjunction with the JNA and later the BSA, as well as local police forces, to seize control of territory and ethnically cleanse areas in 1992. There is some circumstantial evidence that the JNA/BSA and the Serbian Interior Ministry armed Bosnian Serb and Serbian paramilitaries in 1992.

In many cases, the JNA/BSA secured the area around a town and fired artillery or tank rounds into the area to terrorize the population, according to a variety of reports. Paramilitary units appeared to operate in close coordination with the Army--if not under its command--typically following up on the Army's encirclement of the town by entering it to "ethnically cleanse" it through murder, terror tactics, and expulsions. The BSA appears to have disbanded most paramilitary units or incorporated them into the Army in the past two years for various reasons. Volunteer paramilitary units that have operated since that time appear to have functioned under BSA command or as part of BSA units.

The Toll of Ethnic Cleansing

There is no reliable estimate of how many Bosnians have died as a result of Serb ethnic cleansing, but information from refugees and press reports strongly suggests that they number in the tens of thousands. Information on deaths is mostly anecdotal and not the result of formal investigations or exhumation since most deaths claimed took place in areas under Serb control to which access for outsiders is denied. In many cases, however, refugees who have reported such deaths claim to have witnessed them.

Approximately 2,000,000 people from states of the former Yugoslavia have been displaced but reside elsewhere in their home republic or in another republic of the former Yugoslavia. About 1,300,000 of those displaced persons are in Bosnia, a majority of them Muslims forced to leave Serb-controlled areas. In addition, approximately 1,000,000 more refugees from the former Yugoslavia have fled abroad, according to UN information, most of them to Europe. Although it is difficult to estimate the breakdown of Balkan refugee populations by ethnic group, either within the former Yugoslavia or abroad, a clear but unspecified majority almost certainly is Bosnian Muslim.


Sustained ethnic cleansing campaigns in Bosnia over three years have radically altered the formerly multiethnic state. Restoring its pre-war demographic balance and ethnic distribution now appears virtually impossible. The actions of ethnic Serb political and military forces have created a Bosnian--mainly Muslim--diaspora. At the same time, ethnic Serbs have succeeded in securing their hold over large parts of Bosnian territory and made significant strides toward their apparent objective of establishing, or expanding, an ethnically pure Serb state.

Croat and Muslim Atrocities in Bosnia

The vast majority of deaths and expulsions because of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia have been the work of ethnic Serbs, according to all available sources of information. Bosnian Muslims and Croats, however, have also been responsible for atrocities against each other and ethnic Serbs--though on a significantly lesser scale. Both groups have detained, abused, expelled, and killed civilians, particularly in central Bosnia.

Reports also persist of localized brutality and persecution of minorities.

Despite this record of offenses, there is no information nor pattern of events suggesting that either Bosnian Muslim or Bosnian Croat leaders have encouraged large-scale ethnic cleansing efforts to gain and hold territory.

Maps and Imagery Supplied with Briefing Package

Maps Imagery

[CIA Home Page]