Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Bosniaks are mostly Muslims, and the term is often used interchangeably with ‘Bosnian Muslim’. The term Bosniak dates back to Ottoman times when it described Bosnians of all faiths, but was more broadly embraced during the war of the 1990s by Muslims and others who felt bound to historical Bosnia and Hercegovina and its culture. In the 1991 census, 44 per cent of Bosnians identified themselves as adherents of (mostly Sunni) Islam.
Muslims of Bosnia and Hercegovina are descended from Christian (mainly Orthodox) Slavs who converted to Islam during the period of Ottoman rule. Historically, Muslims formed a large proportion of the urban administrative and merchant class. Until the communist period, most Muslims did not regard themselves as constituting a specific ethnic group. In 1961, however, Muslims were granted the right to declare themselves as such on censuses, and in 1971, Muslims were advanced to the status of one of Yugoslavia’s ‘constituent nations’. The dissolution of the SFRY and outbreak of war in 1992 led many more Muslims and others tied to cultural Bosnia and Hercegovina to adopt ‘Bosniak’ as their preferred form of self-identification. During the war, Bosniaks were driven en masse from today’s RS, especially from eastern Bosnia and Hercegovina, and also came under attack from Croatian-backed Bosnian Croat forces in the West. Notably, over 7,000 unarmed men and boys were executed by Bosnian Serb forces around the so-called ‘UN Safe Area’ of Srebrenica in July 1995. In areas under their control, Bosnian Serb forces systematically targeted mosques for destruction, even in towns such as Banja Luka that did not experience fighting. Likewise, Bosnian Croat forces consciously targeted Bosniak cultural heritage, including the stunning, Ottoman-era bridge in Mostar.
Bosniaks returning to RS and majority Croat cantons of the Federation since the war have faced widespread intimidation. Hundreds of suspected participants in the Srebrenica and other massacres remain in the ranks of the RS police force. Returnees face rampant discrimination in employment, and to the extent that Bosniak families with children are returning to their pre-war homes, the children are often placed in segregated schools. Textbooks in majority Croat and majority Serb areas stress loyalties to Croatia and Serbia, respectively.
In February 2007, the International Court of Justice in The Hague determined that RS forces in Bosnia had committed genocide against Bosniaks, although the justices ruled that they did not have enough evidence to find Serbia guilty of genocide for its supporting role. The ruling echoed previous findings from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), notably in the Krstic case relating to Srebrenica. Until 2005, the RS had only prosecuted two criminal cases against Serbs suspected of committing atrocities during the war. At the end of 2005 the pace increased, parallel to war crimes proceedings at the State Court in Sarajevo, which is responsible for more sensitive cases. Meanwhile, as of September 2007, the most wanted Bosnian Serb fugitives from the ICTY, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, remained at large.
Radovan Karadzic was arrested in Belgrade, Serbia in July 2008 and transferred to the custody of the ICTY in The Hague. Impromptu celebrations erupted in Sarajevo as news of the arrest spread. Karadzic made his initial court appearance shortly after his arrival, refusing to enter a plea and stating that he would defend himself. The trial is unlikely to begin until sometime in 2009. As of August 2008, Ratko Mladic was still at large – the last Bosnian fugitive from justice at the ICTY.
Also in July 2008, former High Representative Paddy Ashdown penned an op-ed in British Sunday national newspaper the Observer, warning that the situation in Bosnia and Hercegovina was rapidly deteriorating despite Karadzic’s arrest. He wrote that without greater engagement from the European Union, Bosnia and Hercegovina could well slide towards partition, which would have dire consequences for minority communities throughout the country.
Updated June 2015