Public Lecture - 28 May 2015 - Sarajevo BiH - Gallery 11/07/95

Prelude to genocide

Dr Robert Donia



In July 1994, Radovan Karadzic, president of the so-called Republika Srpska and of the Serb Democratic Party in Bosnia and Herzegovina, reiterated what he considered the top priority of the “Serb People” in Bosnia, in whose name he claimed to speak: 

„Our primary strategic aim,“ he said, „is the rid the house of our enemies, the Croats and Muslims, and not to be in the same state with them any more.“

His meaning could not have been clearer:  The very first task of his party and state was to remove all Croats and Muslims from the Republika Srpska, by whatever means necessary.  His utterance of 1994 was but one of several plans and policies that culminated in the genocide in and around Srebrenica a year later. 

As we renew our memory and mourning for those who died in those terrible days in Srebrenica some 20 years ago, it is appropriate to recall the policies and plans that made up the prelude to the Bosnian genocide. My purpose today is to draw attention to the three key documents that attested to the evolving Serb nationalist plans and policies.  But note that I said “Bosnian genocide;” the Srebrenica killings of July 1995, by themselves, did indeed constitute the “Srebrenica genocide,” but I believe it is important to view what happened in and around Srebrenica as the local climax of a genocide that was Bosnia-wide in scope, and a product of a series of plans and policies that originated with the republic-level leadership of the Bosnian Serb nationalists.  The project as a whole, from its origins to its end, and across the entire republic, was indeed the Bosnian genocide.

When they founded the Serb Democratic Party in July 1990, the Bosnian Serb nationalists made clear that they would insist on keeping Bosnia and Herzegovina within the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.  That remained their primary political objective until October 15, 1991, when SDS delegates in the Bosnian Assembly recognized that they could no longer prevent Bosnia from moving toward independence.  At that point, indeed on that very day of October 15, SDS leaders intensified their plotting to establish a separate state, and they abandoned their efforts to keep all of Bosnia within Yugoslavia. 

A few weeks later, on December 19, 1991, Party President Radovan Karadžić distributed a document called the „Instructions for the Organization and Activity of Organs of the Serb People in Bosnia and Herzegovina under Extraordinary Circumstances.“   With this document, the party's Main Board directed that SDS leaders in many of Bosnia's 109 municipalities prepare for an armed takeover of their municipalities.  Local SDS leaders were to implement these plans when told to do so by a secret signal from Karadzic himself. 

The document served as a blueprint for the Serb takeover of about 70% of Bosnia between April and July 1992, one municipality at a time.

Even as that takeover was proceeding, and hundreds of thousands of Bosniaks and Croats were being either killed, tortured, imprisoned, or driven from their homes at the point of a gun, KARADZIC on May 12, 1992, outlined for the Bosnian Serb Assembly the  Six Strategic Goals, or priorities, of the Serb People in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  This new policy, which had been weeks in the making and had guided many Serb nationalist actions since war began in early April 1992, moved Serb nationalist planning from local and regional takeovers of individual municipalities, to a broad strategic plan to secure Serb control over large swaths of territory in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The first goal, „separation from the other two national communities – a separation of states,“ was a euphemism for the elimination of Croats and Bosniaks within the boundaries of the Serb state.

One other goal signalled the immense significance of the Drina River valley, where Srebrenica was located, to the Bosnian Serbs.  It read, „The third strategic goal is to establish a corridor in the Drina Valley, that is, elimination of the Drina as a border between Serb states.“

The expansionist Serb strategic goals announced on May 12, 1992, guided Bosnian Serb military operations throughout the duration of the war.  Many thousands of Bosniaks and Croats were killed during and after successful military operations in campaigns to eliminate them from areas conquered by Serb forces.  Hundreds of thousands of others were beseiged in enclaves created by partially-completed Bosnian Serb conquests, including those in the capital city of Sarajevo and in the Eastern Bosnian enclaves of Srebrenica, Zepa, and Gorazda in the Drina Valley.  In addition, the Army of Republika Srpska sought to deny non-Serbs the use of corridors linking the enclaves, assuring that non-Serb Bosnians would be vulnerable to future campaigns to expel, starve, or kill them.

The final phase of the Bosnian genocide began on March 8, 1995, the day that Karadzic, as Supreme Commander of the Bosnian Serb Army, issued Directive No. 7.  After two years of largely successful operations, the Bosnian Serb Army had begun to experience losses in Western Bosnia to Croat forces and the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  The losses alarmed all Bosnian Serb nationalist leaders, who demanded aggressive action to retake key strategic centers.  Karadzic's Directive No. 7 suggests urgency and reveals desperation, as though the last chance to achieve the strategic goals was at hand.  The Directive demands that Serb forces fight back everywhere while eliminating non-Serbs from the Drina Valley.  The key sentence is found in orders directed to the army's Drina Corps:

“By planned and well-thought out combat operations, to create an unbearable situation of total insecurity with no hope of further survival or life, for the inhabitants of Srebrenica and Žepa.”

The language in this widely-distributed military order is shocking in its own right, but it is also remarkable for its similarity to words used in the Genocide Convention of 1948 to identify the third of five acts that constitutes genocide, namely:
“Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”
Although it took four months to be implemented, Directive No. 7 doomed the Bosniaks trapped in Srebrenica.  Karadzic himself ordered the initial assault on Srebrenica in July 1995; he and General Ratko Mladic worked together to make sure that the Serb conquest of Srebrenica in July 1995 was followed immediately by the mass murder of many of its male inhabitants and horrible torture of many of its women and children.  The conquest itself served the tactical objective of eliminating the troublesome enclaves, so that part of the Drina Corp could move to Western Bosnia to aid in the increasingly desperate struggle against Croat and Bosnian Army forces there.  But more importantly, the genocide itself -- mass killings, imprisonment, torture, and other related atrocities, constituted the final, climactic act in eliminating all non-Serb civilians from the enclave so that the Drina Valley was purely Serb land in political control and habitation. 

“prvi strateški cilj... je da sa ratosiljamo neprijatelja iz kuće, Hrvata i Muslimana, da ne budemo više zajedno u državi.“

„Uputstvo o organizovanju i djelovanju organa Srpskog Naroda u Bosni i Hercegovini u vanrednim okolnostima.“

„Prvi strateški cilj je razdvajanje od druge dvije nacionalne zajednice, državno razdvajanje...”

Uspostavljanje koridora u dolini reke Drine, odnosno eliminisanje Drine kao granice između srpskih država“

“Svakodnevnim planskim i osmišljenim borbenim aktivnostima, stvoriti uslove totalne nesigurnosti, nepodnošljivosti i besperspektivnosti daljnjeg opstanka i života mještana u Srebrenici i Žepi.”

Robert Donia, USA
Robert Donia is an American historian specializing in the lands of the former Yugoslavia, in particular Bosnia and Herzegovina. As an historical expert witness, he has testified in fifteen trials at the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. He has written or edited eight books on the region, including most recently, From the Republika Srpska Assembly, 1991-1996: Excerpts from Delegates’ Speeches as Evidence at the International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague (University Press, Sarajevo, 2012)and Radovan Karadzic: Architect of the Bosnian Genocide (Cambridge, 2015). He has most recently been a Visiting Professor of History at the University of Michigan.