Yugoslav Wars

This article is about the military conflicts related to the dissolution of Yugoslavia. For an account of the events entailing the destruction of the Yugoslav state, see Breakup of Yugoslavia.
Yugoslav Wars

Clockwise from the top-left: Slovenian police escort captured JNA soldiers back to their unit during the 1991 Slovenian war of independence; A destroyed tank during the Battle of Vukovar; Anti-tank missile installations in the siege of Dubrovnik; Reburial of victims from the 1995 Srebrenica massacre on 11 July 2010; UN vehicle driving on the streets of Sarajevo during the siege.
Date31 March 1991 – 12 November 2001
(10 years, 7 months, 1 week and 5 days)
Result Dissolution of SFR Yugoslavia and formation of independent successor states
Total deaths: c. 140,000
Displaced: c. 4,000,000[1]

The Yugoslav Wars were a series of ethnically-based wars and insurgencies fought from 1991 to 2001 inside the territory of the former Yugoslavia. These wars accompanied and/or facilitated the breakup of the Yugoslav state, when its constituent republics declared independence, but the issues of ethnic minorities in the new countries (chiefly Serbs, Croats and Albanians) were still unresolved at the time the republics were recognized internationally. The wars are generally considered to be a series of separate but related military conflicts which occurred in, and affected, most of the former Yugoslav republics.[2][3][4]

The wars (with some exceptions) ended through peace accords, involving full international recognition of new states, but with massive economic damage to the region. Initially the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) sought to preserve the unity of the whole of Yugoslavia by crushing the secessionist governments but it increasingly came under the influence of the Serbian government of Slobodan Milošević that evoked Serbian nationalist rhetoric and was willing to support the Yugoslav state insofar as using it to preserve the unity of Serbs in one state. As a result, the JNA began to lose Slovenes, Croats, Kosovar Albanians, Bosniaks, and ethnic Macedonians, and effectively became a Serb army.[5] According to the 1994 United Nations report, the Serb side did not aim to restore Yugoslavia, but to create a "Greater Serbia" from parts of Croatia and Bosnia.[6] Other irredentist movements have also been brought into connection with the wars, such as "Greater Albania"[7][8][9][10][11] and "Greater Croatia".[12][13][14][15][16]

Often described as Europe's deadliest conflict since World War II, the conflicts have become infamous for the war crimes involved, including ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and rape. These were the first European conflicts since World War II to be formally judged genocidal in character and many key individual participants were subsequently charged with war crimes.[17] The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was established by the UN to prosecute these crimes.[18]

According to the International Center for Transitional Justice, the Yugoslav Wars resulted in the deaths of 140,000 people.[19] The Humanitarian Law Center estimates that in the conflicts in former Yugoslav republics at least 130,000 people lost their lives.[20]


The war(s) have alternatively been called:


Map of the six Yugoslav republics and autonomous provinces of the time.[26]

The nation of Yugoslavia was created in the aftermath of World War I, and was composed mostly of South Slavic Christians, but the nation also had a substantial Muslim minority. This nation lasted from 1918 to 1941, when it was invaded by Axis powers during World War II, which provided support to the Ustaše (founded 1929), which conducted a genocidal campaign against Serbs, Jews and Roma inside its territory and the Chetniks who supported reinstating the Serbian royals. In 1943, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) was established under Josip Broz Tito, who maintained a strongly authoritarian leadership that was non-aligned with either the United States or the Soviet Union during the Cold War.[27]

In the 1980s, relations among the six republics of the SFRY deteriorated. Slovenia and Croatia desired greater autonomy within the Yugoslav confederation, while Serbia sought to strengthen federal authority. As it became clearer that there was no solution agreeable to all parties, Slovenia and Croatia moved toward secession. Although tensions in Yugoslavia had been mounting since the early 1980s, it was 1990 that proved decisive. In the midst of economic hardship, Yugoslavia was facing rising nationalism among its various ethnic groups. By the early 1990s, there was no effective authority at the federal level. The Federal Presidency consisted of the representatives of the six republics, two provinces, and the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA). The communist leadership was divided along national lines.

The representatives of Vojvodina, Kosovo and Montenegro were replaced with loyalists of the President of Serbia, Slobodan Milošević. Serbia secured four out of eight federal presidency votes[28] and was able to heavily influence decision-making at the federal level, since all the other Yugoslav republics only had one vote. While Slovenia and Croatia wanted to allow a multi-party system, Serbia, led by Milošević, demanded an even more centralized federation and Serbia's dominant role in it.[29] At the 14th Extraordinary Congress of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia in January 1990, the Serbian-dominated assembly agreed to abolish the single-party system; however, Slobodan Milošević, the head of the Serbian Party branch (League of Communists of Serbia) used his influence to block and vote-down all other proposals from the Croatian and Slovene party delegates. This prompted the Croatian and Slovene delegations to walk out and thus the break-up of the party,[30] a symbolic event representing the end of "brotherhood and unity".

Upon Croatia and Slovenia declaring independence in 1991, the Yugoslav federal government attempted to forcibly halt the impending breakup of the country, with Yugoslav Prime Minister Ante Marković declaring the secessions of Slovenia and Croatia to be illegal and contrary to the constitution of Yugoslavia, and declared support for the Yugoslav People's Army to secure the integral unity of Yugoslavia.[31]

The wars

Ten-Day War (1991)

Main article: Ten-Day War

The first of these conflicts, known as the Ten-Day War, was initiated by the JNA (Yugoslav People's Army) on 26 June 1991 after the secession of Slovenia from the federation on 25 June 1991.[32][33]

Initially, the federal government ordered the Yugoslav People's Army to secure border crossings in Slovenia. Slovenian police and Slovenian Territorial Defence blockaded barracks and roads, leading to stand-offs and limited skirmishes around the republic. After several dozen casualties, the limited conflict was stopped through negotiation at Brioni on 7 July 1991, when Slovenia and Croatia agreed to a three-month moratorium on secession. The Federal army completely withdrew from Slovenia by 26 October 1991.

Croatian War of Independence (1991–95)

Damage after the bombing of Dubrovnik
Destroyed Serbian house in Sunja, Croatia. Most Serbs fled during Operation Storm in 1995.

Fighting in this region had begun weeks prior to the Ten-Day War in Slovenia. The Croatian War of Independence began when Serbs in Croatia, who were opposed to Croatian independence, announced their secession from Croatia following Croatia's declaration of independence.

After the 1990 parliamentary elections, Franjo Tuđman came to power and became the first President of Croatia. He promoted nationalist policies and had a primary goal of the establishment of an independent Croatia. The new government proposed constitutional changes, removed Communist symbols and renamed many streets and squares.[34] In an attempt to counter changes made to the constitution, local Serb politicians organized a referendum on "Serb sovereignty and autonomy" in August 1990. Their boycott escalated into an insurrection in areas populated by ethnic Serbs, mostly around Knin, known as the Log Revolution.[35] Local police in Knin sided with the growing Serbian insurgency, while many government employees, mostly in police where commanding positions were mainly held by Serbs and Communists, lost their jobs.[36] The new Croatian constitution was ratified in December 1990, when the Serb National Council proclaimed the SAO Krajina.[37]

Ethnic tensions rose, fueled by propaganda in both Croatia and Serbia. On 2 May 1991 one of the first armed clashes between Serb paramilitaries and Croatian police occurred in the Battle of Borovo Selo.[38] On 19 May an independence referendum was held, which was largely boycotted by Croatian Serbs, and the majority voted in favour of the independence of Croatia.[39][37] Croatia declared independence and dissolved its association with Yugoslavia on 25 June 1991. Due to the Brioni Agreement, a three-month moratorium was placed on the implementation of the decision that ended on 8 October.[40]

The armed incidents of early 1991 escalated into an all-out war over the summer, with fronts formed around the areas of the breakaway SAO Krajina. The JNA had disarmed the Territorial Units of Slovenia and Croatia prior to the declaration of independence, at the behest of Serbian President Slobodan Milošević.[41][42] This was aggravated further by an arms embargo, imposed by the UN on Yugoslavia. The JNA was ostensibly ideologically unitarian, but its officer corps was predominantly staffed by Serbs or Montenegrins (70 percent).[43] As a result, the JNA opposed Croatian independence and sided with the Croatian Serb rebels. The Croatian Serb rebels were unaffected by the embargo as they had the support of and access to supplies of the JNA. By mid-July 1991, the JNA moved an estimated 70,000 troops to Croatia. The fighting rapidly escalated, eventually spanning hundreds of square kilometers from western Slavonia through Banija to Dalmatia.[44]

A JNA M-84 tank disabled by a mine laid by Croat soldiers in Vukovar in November 1991.

Border regions faced direct attacks from forces within Serbia and Montenegro. In August 1991, the Battle of Vukovar began, where fierce fighting took place with around 1,800 Croat fighters blocking JNA's advance into Slavonia. By the end of October, the town was almost completely devastated from land shelling and air bombardment.[45] The Siege of Dubrovnik started in October with the shelling of UNESCO world heritage site Dubrovnik, where the international press was criticised for focusing on the city's architectural heritage, instead of reporting the destruction of Vukovar in which many civilians were killed.[46] In 18 November 1991 the battle of Vukovar ended after the city ran out of ammunition. The Ovčara massacre occurred shortly after Vukovar's capture by the JNA.[47] Meanwhile, control over central Croatia was seized by Croatian Serb forces in conjunction with the JNA Corps from Bosnia and Herzegovina, under the leadership of Ratko Mladić.[48]

In January 1992, the Vance Plan proclaimed UN controlled (UNPA) zones for Serbs in territory claimed by Serbian rebels as the Republic of Serbian Krajina (RSK) and brought an end to major military operations, though sporadic artillery attacks on Croatian cities and occasional intrusions of Croatian forces into UNPA zones continued until 1995. The fighting in Croatia ended in mid-1995, after Operation Flash and Operation Storm. At the end of these operations, Croatia had reclaimed all of its territory except the UNPA Sector East portion of Slavonia, bordering Serbia. Most of the Serb population in the reclaimed areas became refugees, and these operations led to war crimes trials by the ICTY against elements of the Croatian military leadership, all of whom were ultimately acquitted.[49] The areas of "Sector East", unaffected by the Croatian military operations, came under UN administration (UNTAES), and were reintegrated to Croatia in 1998 under the terms of the Erdut Agreement.[50]

In 2007, Milan Martić, former president of RSK, was sentenced to 35 years imprisonment as part of a joint criminal enterprise against the non-Serb population of Croatia.[51] Milan Babić, the first President of RSK, pleaded guilty and was sentenced by the ICTY to 13 years in prison.[52]

Bosnian War (1992–95)

Main article: Bosnian War
A Serb woman mourns at a grave at the Lion's cemetery in Sarajevo, 1992
Radovan Karadžić (left), former president of Republika Srpska, and Ratko Mladić (right), former Chief of Staff of the Army of the Republika Srpska; both charged with war crimes, including genocide, by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
People waiting in line to gather water during the Siege of Sarajevo, 1992

In 1992, conflict engulfed Bosnia and Herzegovina. The war was predominantly a territorial conflict between the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina chiefly supported by Bosniaks, the self-proclaimed Bosnian Serb entity Republika Srpska, and the self-proclaimed Herzeg-Bosnia, who were led and supplied by Serbia and Croatia respectively, reportedly with a goal of the partition of Bosnia.

The Yugoslav armed forces had disintegrated into a largely Serb-dominated military force. Opposed to the Bosnian-majority led government's agenda for independence, and along with other armed nationalist Serb militant forces, the JNA attempted to prevent Bosnian citizens from voting in the 1992 referendum on independence.[53] This did not succeed in persuading people not to vote and instead the intimidating atmosphere combined with a Serb boycott of the vote resulted in a resounding 99% vote in support for independence.[53]

On 19 June 1992, the war in Bosnia broke out, though the Siege of Sarajevo had already begun in April after Bosnia and Herzegovina had declared independence. The conflict, typified by the years-long Sarajevo siege and Srebrenica, was by far the bloodiest and most widely covered of the Yugoslav wars. Bosnia's Serb faction led by ultra-nationalist Radovan Karadžić promised independence for all Serb areas of Bosnia from the majority-Bosniak government of Bosnia. To link the disjointed parts of territories populated by Serbs and areas claimed by Serbs, Karadžić pursued an agenda of systematic ethnic cleansing primarily against Bosnians through massacre and forced removal of Bosniak populations.[54]

At the end of 1992, tensions between Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks rose and their collaboration fell apart. In January 1993, the two former allies engaged in open conflict, resulting in the Croat–Bosniak War.[55] In 1994 the US brokered peace between Croatian forces and the Bosnian Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina with the Washington Agreement. After the successful Flash and Storm operations, the Croatian Army and the combined Bosnian and Croat forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, conducted an operation codenamed Operation Mistral to push back Bosnian Serb military gains.[56]

Together with NATO air strikes on the Bosnian Serbs, the successes on the ground put pressure on the Serbs to come to the negotiating table. Pressure was put on all sides to stick to the cease-fire and negotiate an end to the war in Bosnia. The war ended with the signing of the Dayton Agreement on 14 December 1995, with the formation of Republika Srpska as an entity within Bosnia and Herzegovina being the resolution for Bosnian Serb demands.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the United States reported in April 1995 that 90 percent of all the atrocities in the Yugoslav wars up to that point had been committed by Serb militants.[57] Most of these atrocities occurred in Bosnia. In 2004, the ICTY ruled that the Srebrenica massacre constituted genocide.[58] In May 2013, in a first-instance verdict, the ICTY convicted six Herzeg-Bosnia Officials for their participation in a joint criminal enterprise against Muslim population in Bosnia and Herzegovina.[59] Radovan Karadžić, former president of Republika Srpska, and Ratko Mladić, former Chief of Staff of the Army of the Republika Srpska, are as of 2015 at trial by the ICTY.

Kosovo War (1998–99)

Main article: Kosovo War
A Tomahawk cruise missile launches from the aft missile deck of the USS Gonzalez on March 31, 1999
Post-strike bomb damage assessment photograph of the Kragujevac Armor and Motor Vehicle Plant Crvena Zastava, Serbia
Smoke in Novi Sad, Serbia after NATO bombardment in 1999

After its autonomy was quashed, Kosovo was faced with state organized oppression: from the early 1990s, Albanian language radio and television were restricted and newspapers shut down. Kosovar Albanians were fired in large numbers from public enterprises and institutions, including banks, hospitals, the post office and schools.[60] In June 1991 the University of Priština assembly and several faculty councils were dissolved and replaced by Serbs. Kosovar Albanian teachers were prevented from entering school premises for the new school year beginning in September 1991, forcing students to study at home.[60]

Later, Kosovar Albanians started an insurgency against Belgrade when the Kosovo Liberation Army was founded in 1996. Armed clashes between two sides broke out in early 1998. A NATO-facilitated ceasefire was signed on 15 October, but both sides broke it two months later and fighting resumed. When the killing of 45 Kosovar Albanians in the Račak massacre was reported in January 1999, NATO decided that the conflict could only be settled by introducing a military peacekeeping force to forcibly restrain the two sides. After the Rambouillet Accords broke down on 23 March with Yugoslav rejection of an external peacekeeping force, NATO prepared to install the peacekeepers by force. The NATO bombing of Yugoslavia followed, an intervention against Serbian forces with a mainly bombing campaign, under the command of General Wesley Clark. Hostilities ended 2½ months later with the Kumanovo Agreement. Kosovo was placed under the governmental control of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo and the military protection of Kosovo Force (KFOR). The 15-month war had left thousands of civilians killed on both sides and over a million displaced.[61]

Insurgency in the Preševo Valley (1999–2001)

The Insurgency in the Preševo Valley was an armed conflict between the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the ethnic-Albanian insurgents[62][63][64] of the Liberation Army of Preševo, Medveđa and Bujanovac (UÇPMB).[65] There were instances during the conflict in which the Yugoslav government requested KFOR support in suppressing UÇPMB attacks since they could only use lightly armed military forces as part of the Kumanovo Treaty that ended the Kosovo War, which created a buffer zone so that the bulk of Yugoslav armed forces could not enter.[66]

Yugoslav president Vojislav Koštunica warned that fresh fighting would erupt if KFOR units did not act to prevent the attacks coming from the UÇPMB.[67]

Insurgency in the Republic of Macedonia (2001)

The insurgency in the Republic of Macedonia was an armed conflict in Tetovo which began when the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA) militant group began attacking the security forces of the Republic of Macedonia at the beginning of February 2001, and ended with the Ohrid Agreement. The goal of the NLA was to give greater rights and autonomy to the country's Albanian minority, who make up 25.2% (54.7% of the population in Tetovo) of the population of Macedonia.[68][69] There were also claims that the group ultimately wished to see Albanian-majority areas secede from the country,[70] although high-ranking NLA members have denied this.[68]

Arms embargo

The United Nations Security Council had imposed an arms embargo in September 1991.[71] Nevertheless, various states had been engaged in, or facilitated, arms sales to the warring factions: Bulgaria, North Korea, Poland, Ukraine, Romania and Russia were all export countries for weapons to the conflict; the headquarters for a huge logistics operation was in Vienna; financial transactions were executed by a Hungarian bank; arms smugglers used companies registered in the off-shore haven of Panama; and the United Kingdom sent military equipment and provided loans for arms purchases, as did Germany.[72] In 2012, Chile convicted nine people, including two retired generals, for their part in arms sales.[73]


After the fighting ended, millions of weapons were left with civilians who held on to them in case violence should resurface. These weapons later turned up on the black arms market of Europe.[74]

War crimes

Detainees at the Trnopolje Camp, near Prijedor (photograph provided courtesy of the ICTY)

War rape

War rape occurred as a matter of official orders as part of ethnic cleansing, to displace the targeted ethnic group.[75] According to the Tresnjevka Women's Group, more than 35,000 women and children were held in such Serb-run "rape camps".[76][77][78] Dragoljub Kunarac, Radomir Kovač, and Zoran Vuković were convicted of crimes against humanity for rape, torture, and enslavement committed during the Foča massacres.[79]

The evidence of the magnitude of rape in Bosnia and Herzegovina prompted the ICTY to deal openly with these abuses.[80] Reports of sexual violence during the Bosnian War (1992–1995) and Kosovo War (1998–1999) perpetrated by the Serbian regular and irregular forces have been described as "especially alarming".[76] The NATO-led Kosovo Force documented rapes of Albanian, Roma and Serbian women by both Serbs and members of the Kosovo Liberation Army.[81]

Others have estimated that during the Bosnian War between 20,000 and 50,000 women, mainly Muslim, were raped.[82][83] There are few reports of rape and sexual assault between members of the same ethnic group.[84]

War rape in the Yugoslav Wars has often been characterized as genocide. Rape perpetrated by Serb forces served to destroy cultural and social ties of the victims and their communities.[85] Serbian policies allegedly urged soldiers to rape Bosnian women until they became pregnant as an attempt towards ethnic cleansing. Serbian soldiers hoped to force Bosnian women to carry Serbian children through repeated rape.[86] Often Bosnian women were held in captivity for an extended period of time and only released slightly before the birth of a child conceived of rape. The systematic rape of Bosnian women may have carried further-reaching repercussions than the initial displacement of rape victims. Stress, caused by the trauma of rape, coupled with the lack of access to reproductive health care often experienced by displaced peoples, lead to serious health risks for victimized women.[87]

During the Kosovo War thousands of Kosovo Albanian women and girls became victims of sexual violence. War rape was used as a weapon of war and an instrument of systematic ethnic cleansing; rape was used to terrorize the civilian population, extort money from families, and force people to flee their homes. According to a report by the Human Rights Watch group in 2000, rape in the Kosovo War can generally be subdivided into three categories: rapes in women's homes, rapes during fighting, and rapes in detention.[88][89] The majority of the perpetrators were Serbian paramilitaries, but also included Serbian special police or Yugoslav army soldiers. Virtually all of the sexual assaults Human Rights Watch documented were gang rapes involving at least two perpetrators.[88][89] Since the end of the war, rapes of Serbian, Albanian, and Roma women by ethnic Albanians — sometimes by members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) – have been documented.[88][89] Rapes occurred frequently in the presence, and with the acquiescence, of military officers. Soldiers, police, and paramilitaries often raped their victims in the full view of numerous witnesses.[75]


The War Crimes Tribunal accused Slobodan Milošević of "attempting to create a Greater Serbia"', a Serbian state encompassing the Serb-populated areas of Croatia and Bosnia, and achieved by forcibly removing non-Serbs from large geographical areas through the commission of criminal activity.[90]

According to Stephen A. Hart, author of Partisans: War in the Balkans 1941–1945, the ethnically mixed region of Dalmatia held close and amicable relations between the Croats and Serbs who lived there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many early proponents of a united Yugoslavia came from this region, such Ante Trumbić, a Croat from Dalmatia. However, by the time of the outbreak of the Yugoslav Wars, any hospitable relations between Croats and Serbs in Dalmatia had broken down, with Dalmatian Serbs fighting on the side of the Republic of Serbian Krajina. Clear ethnic conflict between the Yugoslav peoples only became prominent in the 20th century, beginning with tensions over the constitution of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes in the early 1920s and escalating into violence between Serbs and Croats in the late 1920s after the assassination of Croatian politician Stjepan Radić. During World War II the Croatian Ustaše committed genocide against Serbs, Jews and Roma, leading to later reprisals against Croats and Bosniaks. The Yugoslav Partisan movement was able to appeal to all groups, including Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks.[2][91] In Serbia and Serb-dominated territories, violent confrontations occurred particularly between nationalists towards non-nationalists who had criticized the Serbian government and the Serb political entities in Bosnia and Croatia.[92] Serbs who publicly opposed the nationalist political climate during the Yugoslav wars were reportedly harassed, threatened, or killed.[92]

Timeline of the Yugoslav Wars

A shelled Croatian hotel resort of the Dalmatian coastline in Kupari near Dubrovnik (1991)




Sarajevo. Besieged residents collect firewood in the bitter winter of 1992.
Two Croatian Defense Council (HVO) T-55 Main Battle Tanks pull into firing position during a three-day exercise held at the Barbara Range in Glamoč, Bosnia and Herzegovina.




A boy at a grave during the 2006 funeral of Srebrenica victims



Yugoslav Ministry of Defence building in Belgrade destroyed during the 1999 NATO bombing.



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