Can an entire culture be erased?

photo of an abandoned classroom with dozens of bullet holes in the wall

Photo courtesy of Ralph & Chris Dull

The society in Bosnia-Hecegovina that was hundreds of years old, was based on mutual acceptance of many different cultures and religious traditions — Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Orthodox Christian.

When Croatia declared itself independent in 1991 based on the nationalism of Croat people, and Serbia claimed the right to inherit the rest of Yugoslavia to unite all ethnic Serb people, both those countries could not easily explain why Bosnia next-door to them had an more open and tolerant society. Bosnia’s culture was a contradiction to nationalism, and therefore a threat. So it had to be not only stopped, but crushed. To do this, step one was “ethnic cleansing.”

We think of war as soldiers fighting soldiers, but ethnic cleansing is an act of war aimed at people just living their everyday lives. Heavy artillery was fired not just on military positions, but directly on the homes where people were living.

If you were a man or a teenage boy, you risked being sent to a prison camp, and even killed. Whenever these men were murdered by the guards, they were dumped into pits and bulldozed with dirt so their families would never find them. Back in the cities, snipers would shoot at people who were attending funerals — just to disrupt this most basic act of reverence that people do in a society!

photo of women and children refugees waiting in front of armored UN vehicles

Bosnian Muslim women and children refugees arrive in Tuzla, March 1993. © IWM (BOS 80)

For a woman or a teenage girl, the biggest danger wasn't being murdered. It was being sexually abused and humiliated. They were forced to take off their clothes and be brutalized by soldiers. Can you imagine how scary this would be, and how it could make a person feel worthless? That was the whole point for the soldiers: through the shame and embarrassment, it could ruin a woman's relationship to her family. If the soldiers could break apart the bonds of love inside a family, it would break Bosnia’s strength and purpose.

All these violent acts were designed to achieve one end: a war to crush Bosnia’s society. Then, when it was so weak that it almost no longer existed, the land could be divided up by Croats and Serbs with little objection from the rest of the world. Despite so much death, this tactic did NOT succeed.