Internal Displacement

By Maud S. Beelman 

From a distance, the line of cars and buses that snaked along the rural stretch of northwest Bosnian roadway looked like a traffic jam on that languid August afternoon, as girls in summer white bicycled past fields of cornflower blue. Up close, the terror in the eyes of the people of Sanski Most, the belongings stuffed into satchels and plastic bags, and the police riding shotgun told the real story.

More than fifteen hundred Slavic Muslims were being forced from their homes that day in mid-August 1992 by ethnic Serbs trying to purge northern Bosnia of their neighbor-turned-enemy. The Serbs had even provided city buses to transport those without cars, though the generosity was soon to degrade into a terrifying all-night trek over blood, body parts, and across the front lines. Four months into the war, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees had begun to realize that the mass movement of civilians in Bosnia was not the chaotic happenstance of war, but rather a calculated, orchestrated transfer of populations aimed at creating ethnically pure areas.

Europe had not seen this kind of mass expulsion of civilians since World War II. Hitler’s atrocities across the continent had given rise to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which include specific protections for civilians. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention declares that “individual or mass forcible transfers . . . are prohibited, regardless of their motive.”

Those in the Sanski Most convoy, by virtue of being moved to another location in the same country, are regarded under international humanitarian law as internally displaced persons (IDPs). If sent across an international border, it would be a deportation and they would be treated as refugees.

Additional Protocol II of 1977, which applies in internal conflicts, provides that forced civilian displacement may be undertaken legally only when civilians’ very safety or “imperative military reasons” require it. In addition, Article 17 says that civilians cannot be forced from their “whole territory” for reasons connected with the conflict. The article does not say unambiguously what is meant by “territory.” The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Commentary to the Additional Protocols states that the intent here is to minimize civilian displacement that is politically motivated.

The standard is the same for international or internal conflicts: if civilians have to be moved for either of those two reasons—safety or military imperatives—their evacuations are to be under protected, hygienic, and humane conditions, and as short-lived as possible. None of that applied in the case of Sanski Most, which fell under Bosnian Serb control in the earliest days of the war and saw no fighting for three years until autumn 1995.

International law, therefore, was unambiguous. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits the mass transfer of Bosnia’s civilians and Article 17 of Additional Protocol II prohibits the expulsions.

Despite IHL, here they were. The daylong journey had descended into the heart of darkness as the convoy turned from the main road onto isolated country paths and made its way through an increasingly hostile gauntlet of Serb soldiers and civilians shouting, “Butcher them, butcher them!” As the sun set, the worst was yet to come. With guns stuck in their faces, the people of Sanski Most were ordered from the buses and their cars, most of which were seized. With what belongings they could carry, they were sent on foot into the darkness through a no-man’s land separating two armies. I went with them.

Old and young, fit and feeble, we trekked along a mountain road that was cratered by mortar impacts, mined on one side, and covered by snipers. In places, the blood was so thick our shoes stuck momentarily to the road, and we stumbled onto chunks of human flesh and other remnants—teddy bears, backpacks, slippers—of those who had gone before. At the front line—a high wall of boulders dynamited from the mountainside—a crippled man was carried over, his wheelchair passed after him. Babies were handed to their mothers. Old men and women, stooped with age, struggled over the rocks to the government-controlled side. The foot journey lasted six hours and covered twelve miles.

By December 1995, just after the Dayton peace accord, at least 1.2 million Bosnians had been internally displaced. Three years later, only a fraction had returned home. “Civilians, not soldiers, were the principal and often intentional victims in the Bosnian conflict. Forced displacement was not just a by-product but an objective of military action and persecution,” Sadako Ogata, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said at the time.

But three years later, it happened again in the Serbian province of Kosovo, where Serb troops spent much of 1998 crushing an uprising by the 90 percent ethnic Albanian population. As many as 350,000 people had been displaced by September 1998. The majority were women and children.

Not all internal displacements are ethnic cleansing. In Colombia, both sides in the government-rebel conflict have forcibly relocated civilian populations to gain political or economic advantage. Worldwide, there were an estimated 20 to 25 million IDPs in 1998, compared to about 13 million refugees, that is, those forced across international borders.

Legal and humanitarian experts concede existing law is insufficient and weakened by a lack of political will. Interpretations of “imperative military reasons” vary widely, and governments also worry about getting involved in what may be considered the internal affairs of another State. According to Francis Deng, the UN’s top representative on IDPs, “Lack of political will is ultimately the issue. Even if you had fine principles, fine laws, but you don’t have the will to enforce them, then it’s as good as a dead letter.”

Related posts:

  1. Deportation
  2. Concentration Camps
  3. Ethnic Cleansing