Thirty Years After Bosnia, History Repeats Itself in Ukraine
But the international community’s unprecedented unity and support comes in sharp contrast to their response three decades ago.
As I stood in front of a grocery store in Oslo this weekend trying to figure out the parking meter, a tall, blonde woman approached me with a smile and offered help. I thought she was just a kind neighbour helping a newcomer struggling to understand instructions in the Norwegian language.
Then she asked me where I was from, which people often do when they start a conversation with a foreigner.
“From Bosnia and Herzegovina,” I replied. The woman smiled at me. “I am from Ukraine,” she said, “but I came here a long time ago.”
I stared at her for a few seconds, not sure what to say.
“I am very sorry about everything your country is going through right now,” I finally muttered, and she nodded.
“I know you mean it. People from your country, more than anyone else these days, understand how we feel.”
It is true that very few nations in Europe can understand better than Bosnians the shock, pain and horror that people in Ukraine are now enduring, simply because we went through the same experience not so long ago.
This week marks the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the 1992-95 Bosnian war that resulted in the deaths of 100,000 people and the displacement of 2.2 million.
When the war started, we too thought it would end in a few days or weeks at most; we too were stunned by the senseless destruction and the attacks on civilians; we too could hardly fathom that a country at the heart of Europe could suffer such enormous tragedy, while just across our borders people went on with their lives.
The Bosnian capital Sarajevo experienced the longest siege since World War Two, with 11,500 people killed, including 1601 children. Comparisons between the wars in Bosnia and Ukraine were a recurring theme at the many commemorative events in Sarajevo this week.
In both Bosnia and Ukraine, the conflicts were driven by the expansionist dreams of autocratic leaders in neighbouring states – in Bosnia’s case, Serbia’s president Slobodan Milosevic.
In both countries, friends and neighbours of different nationalities were told that their divergencies were too deep and unreconcilable, and that living together in one country was not an option.
In both countries, millions left their homes as cities, towns and villages were demolished, while hospitals, schools and historical buildings became military targets.
And in both countries, horrific war crimes took place. Those in Bosnia were well documented at trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), while the war crimes in Ukraine are ongoing and it will take years and probably decades to prosecute all those responsible.
In Ukraine, just like in Bosnia, the government understood early on the importance of international media coverage of events as they unfolded because truth was their strongest weapon. And many of the veteran journalists from these media who covered the war, including Christiane Amanpour, Alan Little and Ed Vulliamy, now point out the striking similarities between the conflicts in Bosnia and Ukraine.
Earlier this week, during a visit to a town of Bucha northwest of Kyiv, visibly shaken by the dead bodies he saw lying on the streets - many shot at close range, some with hands tied behind their backs - Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelensky dubbed Bucha a new Srebrenica. He referred to the small town in eastern Bosnia in which 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were executed in the summer of 1995, a crime the ICTY described as genocide.
UNITY AND INTERVENTION
While the similarities between the wars in Bosnia and Ukraine are many, there are some significant differences, too. The first and most obvious one is the unanimous moral, political and military support that Ukraine has received from the West right from the start of the Russian invasion.
It took Bosnia three and-a-half-years to reach the point where Western leaders could no longer turn a blind eye to its suffering and launched airstrikes on Bosnian Serb positions around Sarajevo in the summer of 1995, finally ending the war.
Also, the UN arms embargo imposed on Bosnia in 1992 meant that Bosnian government forces – first attacked by Bosnian Serb military backed by Serbia, and later by Bosnian Croat forces backed by Croatia - had to defend themselves only with the weapons they captured from the enemy, while the other two parties had a steady supply from the neighbouring countries.
Many international experts and journalists who covered the Bosnian conflict wonder why it took the West so long to intervene and stop the bloodshed, while they are now showing unprecedented unity and support for Ukraine.
There are no simple answers, but some of them seem quite plausible.
The wars that started in the Western Balkans in the early Nineties after the fall of Yugoslavia were difficult to explain – new countries emerged overnight that very few people ever heard of (Bosnia and Herzegovina being one of them) with leaders equally unknown.
There were many ethnic groups who fought against each other and the roots of their animosity seemed as impenetrable as their goals.
On the other hand, Ukraine has a president who has become a symbol of his country's resistance, recognised around the world. His opponent, President Vladimir Putin, is a well-known villain who needs no introduction.
The situation in Ukraine, unlike that in Bosnia, is easy to understand – a state has been attacked by a neighbouring country which denies its right to sovereignty and everything it entails, including the right to join any union or alliance it wants – be it NATO or the EU.
The third and most important difference is that the countries orchestrating the war in Bosnia, even without officially participating in it - Serbia and Croatia - were not nuclear powers, while Russia is. And nothing unites people more than the fear that they too might be affected by a war, even if it currently rages far from their own borders.
Some analysts claim that the reason why the West was so indifferent to war in Bosnia was the fact that a large percentage of its population were Muslims. However, these claims are largely unfounded. The lack of action was a combination of many factors, and the unsuccessful American military intervention in Somalia in 1993 was a key reason the US government was reluctant to get involved in another conflict, even for humanitarian reasons.
Ironically, the lessons learned in Bosnia spurred NATO into action after the war in Kosovo began in 1998 and the news about atrocities committed by Milosevic’s regime began to spread. NATO airstrikes lasted several months, until Serbia pulled its forces out of Kosovo and the war ended in 1999.
Experts often say that, in addition to East Timor, the only countries in which military interventions carried out by international armed forces successfully stopped the war and secured peace were Bosnia and Kosovo.
However, such a scenario is unlikely in Ukraine because – as it has been repeated over and over again – a direct involvement by Western powers in this conflict risks World War Three.
Therefore, Ukrainians will have to rely on themselves and on the military help that they do receive. One thing they certainly have in their favour is courage and the resolve of their defenders – practically the only thing that Bosnian government forces had 30 years ago. And if Bosnia managed to survive that war and remain whole, so can Ukraine.
Merdijana Sadović is IWPR Western Balkans regional director.
This publication was prepared under the “Ukraine Voices Project" implemented with the financial support of the UK's Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO).