Ethnic Cleansing

By Roger Cohen 

The life of Hiba Mehmedovic, a Bosnian Muslim, came apart on May 31, 1992, soon after the war in Bosnia began. Three Serbs armed with automatic weapons broke into her home and took away her two sons, Kemal and Nedzad, whom she never saw again. A few weeks later, she herself was forced at gunpoint onto a bus, driven to the front line west of her home town of Vlasenica, and abandoned.

She trudged into government-held territory. When I found her, sprawled on the floor of a kindergarten in the town of Kladanj, she was a broken figure emblematic of the war: tearful and terrified, part of a dark tide of Muslims driven from their homes, human flotsam scattered across the floors of empty buildings. Her unseeing eyes spoke of an existence emptied. There were 18,699 Muslims in Vlasenica before the war, about 60 percent of the population; there are none today.

Ethnic cleansing—the use of force or intimidation to remove people of a certain ethnic or religious group from an area—was the central fact of the wars of Yugoslavia’s destruction. The practice has a method: terror. It has a smell: the fetid misery of refugees. It has an appearance: the ruins of ravaged homes. Its purpose is to ensure—through killing, destruction, threat, and humiliation—that no return is possible.

Yugoslavia, and its Bosnian heart, were bridges. But over four years of war, places of mingling became places of bleak ethnic homogeneity as more than 1.5 million people were shifted in the name of racist ideologies. The single most devastating burst of violence, between April and August 1992, saw Serbs driving more than 700,000 Muslims from an area covering 70 percent of Bosnia.

Such mass deportation was not new in this century of ethnic engineering. Greeks out of Turkey; Turks out of Greece; Serbs out of the Fascist Croatia of 1941–1945; Jews out of Hitler’s Europe; ethnic Germans out of postwar Czechoslovakia; Palestinians from occupied territories. The waves of forced evictions of ethnic and religious groups have been repetitive, often combining physical removal with devastating violence, or, as in the case of the Jews, genocide.

Ethnic cleansing is a blanket term, and no specific crime goes by that name, but the practice covers a host of criminal offenses. The United Nations Commission of Experts, in a January 1993 report to the Security Council, defined “ethnic cleansing” as “rendering an area ethnically homogenous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area.” It said ethnic cleansing was carried out in the former Yugoslavia by means of murder, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, extrajudicial executions, rape and sexual assault, confinement of the civilian population, deliberate military attacks or threats of attacks on civilians and civilian areas, and wanton destruction of property. The Commission’s final report in May 1994 added these crimes: mass murder, mistreatment of civilian prisoners and prisoners or war, use of civilians as human shields, destruction of cultural property, robbery of personal property, and attacks on hospitals, medical personnel, and locations with the Red Cross/Red Crescent emblem.

Perpetrators of such crimes are subject to individual criminal responsibility, and military and political leaders who participated in making and implementing the policy “are also susceptible to charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, in addition to grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and other violations of international humanitarian law,” the 1994 report said.

International law took up the question of the systematic expulsion of civilians, and the barbaric practices associated with it, after World War II. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 forbids “individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country.” The actions are grave breaches of the Fourth Convention—war crimes of particular seriousness.

Only the security of the civilian population or “imperative military reasons” may justify evacuation of civilians in occupied territory, according to the Fourth Geneva Convention. Additional Protocol II of 1977 extends this rule to civilians in internal armed conflicts. In Bosnia, where the Serbs initially enjoyed overwhelming military superiority, there is no evidence that the forced movement of Muslim men, women, and children was driven by such a consideration. As Pero Popovic, a Serb guard at the Susica concentration camp in Vlasenica once told me, “Our aim was simply to get rid of the Muslims.”

Article 49 applies to international conflict. I traveled with enough Serb forces crossing Serbia’s border with Bosnia to have no doubt that this was a war organized, financed, and directed from Belgrade. But even if the Bosnian War is viewed as a civil war between Serbs, Muslims, and Croats of the country, the forced expulsions contravene Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions, which applies to “conflict not of an international character.”

This article states that “people taking no active part in the hostilities” shall always “be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, color, religion or faith, birth or wealth.” It prohibits “humiliating and degrading treatment” and “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment, and torture.”

There is also the Nuremberg Charter to consider. Article 6 defined “crimes against humanity” as including “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during a war.” And Nuremberg made it clear that population transfer is a war crime.

Mrs. Mehmedovic’s most precious possession was two photographs of her sons, aged twenty-seven and twenty-five when they were dragged from her house. I took the photographs to Popovic, the Serb guard in Vlasenica, who had recanted. His look of recognition was unmistakable. He told me the two boys had been executed at the Susica camp.

Related posts:

  1. Cultural Property and Historical Monuments
  2. Concentration Camps
  3. Deportation