Bosnia has been a cultural cocktail from the beginning. People from all over the world – including Italy, Spain, Africa, Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt and Palestine – have at various times populated the areas of Dalmatia and Bosnia and Hercegovina. The region’s ancient inhabitants were Illyrians, followed by the Romans who settled around the mineral springs at Ilidža near Sarajevo in AD 9. When the Roman Empire was divided in AD 395, the Drina River, today the border with Serbia, became the line dividing the Western Roman Empire from Byzantium.
The Slavs arrived in the late 6th and early 7th centuries. In 960 the region became independent of Serbia, only to pass through the hands of other conquerors: Croatia, Byzantium, Duklja (modern-day Montenegro) and Hungary. Bosnia’s medieval history is a much-debated subject, mainly because different groups have tried to claim authenticity and territorial rights on the basis of their interpretation of the country’s religious make-up before the arrival of the Turks. During this period (1180–1463) Bosnia and Hercegovina became one of the most powerful states in the Western Balkans. The most significant event was the expansion of the Bosnian state under Stephen Kotromanić who conquered large parts of the Dalmatian coast and in 1326 annexed the southern province of Hercegovina. The country thus became Bosnia and Hercegovina for the first time.
The first Turkish raids came in 1383 and by 1463 Bosnia was a Turkish province with Sarajevo as its capital. Hercegovina is named after Herceg (Duke) Stjepan Vukčić, who ruled the southern part of the present republic from his mountain-top castle at Blagaj, near Mostar, until the Turkish conquest in 1482.
Bosnia and Hercegovina was assimilated into the Ottoman Empire during the 400 years of Turkish rule. Islamicisation largely took place during the initial 150 years of Turkish rule and it’s generally held that people converted voluntarily. Orthodox and Catholic Christians continued to practise their religions although under certain constraints.
As the Ottoman Empire declined elsewhere in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Turks strengthened their hold on Bosnia and Hercegovina as a bulwark against attack. Sparked by the newly born idea of nationhood, the South Slavs rose against their Turkish occupiers in 1875–6.
In 1878 Russia inflicted a crushing defeat on Turkey in a war over Bulgaria and at the subsequent Congress of Berlin it was determined that Austria-Hungary would occupy Bosnia and Hercegovina despite the population’s wish for autonomy.
The Austria-Hungarians pushed Bosnia and Hercegovina into the modern age with industrialisation, the development of coal mining and the building of railways and infrastructure. Ivo Andrić’s Bridge over the Drina succinctly describes these changes in the town of Višegrad.
But political unrest was on the rise. Previously, Bosnian Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox Christians had only differentiated themselves from each other in terms of religion. But with the rise of nationalism in the mid-19th century, Bosnia’s Catholic and Orthodox population started to identify themselves with neighbouring Croatia or Serbia respectively. At the same time, resentment against foreign occupation intensified and young people across the sectarian divide started cooperating with each other and working against the Austria-Hungarians, thus giving birth to the idea of ‘Yugoslavism’ (land of the southern Slavs).
Resentment against occupation intensified in 1908 when Austria annexed Bosnia and Hercegovina outright. The assassination of the Habsburg heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip, in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 led Austria to declare war on Serbia. Russia and France supported Serbia, and Germany backed Austria, and soon the world was at war. These alliances still resonate today, with the Russians and French being seen as pro-Serb, and Austrians and Germans as pro-Croat.
Following WWI Bosnia and Hercegovina was absorbed into the Serb-dominated Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which was renamed Yugoslavia in 1929.
After Yugoslavia’s capitulation to Germany in 1941, Bosnia and Hercegovina was annexed by the newly created fascist Croatian state. The Croatian Ustaše (fascists), who ruled for the Nazis, mimicked their masters in persecuting and murdering Croatia’s and Bosnia’s Jewish population, and persecuting the Serbs.
The Serbs responded with two resistance movements: the Četniks led by the royalist Dražva Mihajlovič and the communist ‘Partisans’ headed by Josip Broz Tito. The two groups managed to put up quite an effective resistance to the Germans, but long-term cooperation was impossible due to conflicting ideologies.
After WWII Bosnia and Hercegovina was granted republic status within Tito’s Yugoslavia. After Tito fell out with the USSR in 1954 and the country cofounded the ‘nonaligned movement’, constraints on religious practices were eased but the problem of nationality remained. Bosnia’s Muslims had to declare themselves as either Serbs or Croats until 1971, when ‘Muslim’ was declared to be a distinct nationality.
In the republic’s first free elections in November 1990, the communists were easily defeated by nationalist Serb and Croat parties and a predominantly Muslim party favouring a multiethnic country. The Croat and Muslim parties joined forces against Serb nationalists, and independence from Yugoslavia was declared on 15 October 1991. The Serb parliamentarians withdrew and set up their own government at Pale, 20km east of Sarajevo. Bosnia and Hercegovina was recognised internationally and admitted to the UN, but talks between the parties broke down.
War commenced in April 1992. Bosnian Serbs began seizing territory aided by their inheri-tance of most of the Yugoslav National Army’s weapons, and Sarajevo came under siege by Serb irregulars on 5 April 1992. BosnianSerbian forces then began a campaign of brutal ‘ethnic cleansing’, expelling Muslims from northern and eastern Bosnia and Hercegovina to create a 300km corridor joining Serb ethnic areas in the west with Serbia.
The West’s reaction to the increasingly bloody war in Bosnia was confused and erra-tic. The pictures of victims found in concentration camps in northern Bosnia in August 1992 finally brought home the extent to which Bosnian Muslims in particular were being mistreated.
In June 1992 the UN authorised the use of force to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid; 7500 UN troops were sent but this UN Protection Force (Unprofor) proved notoriously impotent.
Ethnic partition seemed increasingly probable. The Croats wanted their own share and in early 1993 fighting erupted between the Muslims and Croats; the latter instigated a deadly siege of the Muslim quarter of Mostar, culminating in the destruction of Mostar’s historic bridge in 1993.
Even as fighting between Muslims and Croats intensified, NATO finally began to take action against the Bosnian Serbs. A Serbian mortar attack on a Sarajevo market in February 1994 left 68 dead, and US fighters belatedly began enforcing a no-fly zone over Bosnia and Hercegovina by shooting down four Serb aircraft.
Meanwhile the USA pressured the Bosnian government to join the Bosnian Croats in a federation. Soon after, Croatia joined the offensive against the Serbs, overrunning Croatian Serb positions and towns in Croatia in 1995. With Croatia now heavily involved, a pan-Balkan war seemed closer than ever.
Again, Bosnian Serb tanks and artillery attacked Sarajevo. When NATO air strikes to protect Bosnian ‘safe areas’ were finally authorised, the Serbs captured 300 Unprofor peacekeepers and chained them to potential targets to keep the planes away.
In July 1995 Unprofor’s impotence was highlighted when Bosnian Serbs attacked the safe area of Srebrenica, slaughtering an estimated 7500 Muslim men as they fled through the forest. This horrendous massacre was only publicly acknowledged by Bosnian Serbs in 2004.
The end of Bosnian Serb military dominance was near as European leaders loudly called for action. Croatia renewed its own internal offensive, expelling at least 150, 000 Serbs from the Krajina region of Croatia.
The Dayton Agreement stipulated that the country would retain its pre-war external boundaries, but be composed of two parts. The Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina (the Muslim and Croat portion) would administer 51% of the country, which included Sarajevo, while the Serb Republic, Republika Srpska (RS), would administer the other 49%.
The agreement emphasised the rights of refugees (1.2 million in other countries, and one million displaced within Bosnia and Hercegovina itself) to return to their pre-war homes. A NATO-led peace implementation force became the Stabilisation Force (SFOR), which was replaced by Eufor (an EU force) in 2005.
Threatened sanctions forced Radovan Karadžić to step down from the RS presidency in July 1996 and Biljana Plavsić, his successor, split from his hardline policy and moved the capital to Banja Luka in January 1998.
A relatively liberal Bosnian Serb prime minister Milorad Dodik pushed several Dayton-compliant measures through the RS parliament, including common passports, car licence plates and a new currency called the convertible mark (KM). Dodik lasted until November 2000, when he failed to be re-elected to power.
Recent EU and American policy has been to centralise government, which is a development away from the separate powers concept of the Dayton Agreement. A result is that Bosnia and Hercegovina now has a unified army; meanwhile in the RS the Serb socialist party has taken power and booted out the nationalist politicians.
The Dayton Agreement also emphasised the powers of the Hague-based International Court of Justice and authorised the arrest of indicted war criminals. Minor players have been arrested but the two most-wanted – Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić and his military henchman Ratko Mladić – remain at large. Several hunts for them have ended in embarrassing failure, allegedly because of tip-offs.
Bosnia and Hercegovina still remains divided along ethnic lines, but tensions have ebbed. More people are now crossing between the RS and the Federation and more refugees are returning home.