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close this bookCountry Report Bosnia - Herzegovina - ICRC Worldwide Consultation on the Rules of War (International Committee of the Red Cross , 1999, 56 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAbout the People on War Project
View the documentCountry context
View the documentCountry methodology
View the documentExecutive summary
View the documentThe war experience
View the documentThe meaning of norms
Open this folder and view contentsAttacking non-combatants
Open this folder and view contentsExplaining the war on civilians
Open this folder and view contentsInternationalization of the war
View the documentAnnex 1: General methodology
View the documentAnnex 2: Questionnaire *

The war experience

The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina involved the whole of society and left its mark on nearly everyone who lives there. There was little opportunity to escape the conflict or view it from a distance. Over 60 per cent of the population, according to the survey, lived in areas where the war took place, nearly half of whom (46 per cent) were forced to move during the war. Just a third (35 per cent) say they lived outside the war zone.

The conflict mobilized society in support of the war effort. According to the ICRC survey, three-quarters of the population supported a side in the war. 4 Fully 29 per cent participated as soldiers, carrying a gun. Participation carried across all classes and ages. Those with a college education were as likely to support a side and serve as soldiers as those who had completed primary school. An overwhelming proportion of the younger men (71 per cent under the age of 40) were combatants, but a near majority of older men (44 per cent) also carried weapons.

4 This may be an underestimation, as 86 per cent told interviewers in the parallel study that they had supported a side. Since the Red Cross is perceived to be neutral, respondents may have understated their commitment to a side in the war.

The violence took a serious toll: 53 per cent lost contact with family members; 45 per cent experienced serious damage to their property; 44 per cent were forced to leave their homes and live elsewhere; 37 per cent report having their houses looted; a majority (54 per cent) say they felt “humiliated”. A sizeable portion of the population experienced the war in its most direct forms: 14 per cent came under enemy control (3 per cent were imprisoned and 11 per cent lived in areas under enemy control); 12 per cent of the total population were wounded in the fighting; 5 per cent were tortured; 3 per cent report that someone they knew well was raped by combatants. 5 (See Figure 1.) Nearly a third of the soldiers (29 per cent) report being wounded in the conflict and almost one in ten (9 per cent) were imprisoned.

5 This is the one area of war experience where the ICRC results are lower than those of the parallel research (3 per cent compared with 6 per cent). It is possible that participants are being either more honest or more reluctant with the Red Cross.


FIGURE 1. The war experience (per cent of total population responding) 6

6 Respondents were asked a wide range of questions about their war experience. Each horizontal bar represents a result for a particular question. For example, 61 per cent responded that the war took place where they lived.

For the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the dominant words used to describe the war experience are “horrible” (72 per cent) and “hateful” (44 per cent). As will be shown, the combination of hatred and revenge greatly contributed to the civilian toll. Just 1 per cent describe the war in positive terms. Even among soldiers, just 1 per cent portray it as “exciting” and 1 per cent as “challenging”. (See Figure 2.)


FIGURE 2. Personal description of the war (per cent of total population responding) 7

7 The percentages add up to more than 100 per cent because individuals were asked to provide two responses to the question.

The Bosniac community experienced the highest level of injuries related directly to the war: 18 per cent of the total Bosniac population were wounded in the fighting, 10 per cent were imprisoned, 7 per cent tortured and 5 per cent know somebody who was raped. In each instance the percentage is two or three times that for the other communities.

The war enveloped all of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s communities. The Serbs were the most fully mobilized: 87 per cent supported a side, and a very large portion - 38 per cent - served as soldiers. All communities joined the war, however. Nearly as many Croats (70 per cent) and Bosniacs (72 per cent) supported a side, and large portions of the population - 30 per cent of Croats and 26 per cent of Bosniacs - took up arms. The conflict divided almost the whole of the population along national/ethnic lines, a factor that contributed greatly to the extent of the upheaval and, as will be seen later, to the scope of infringements of international humanitarian law.

The description of the war as “horrible” and “hateful” was evident across all the communities. The Bosniacs, more than the others, lost contact with relatives (58 per cent) and very large numbers were forced from their homes (42 per cent). A third of both Serbs and Bosniacs (31 per cent and 30 per cent, respectively) report a close family member killed. The Serbs report the highest incidence of being forced to leave their homes (54 per cent). 8 Almost half report losing contact with close relatives (47 per cent), suffering serious property damage (48 per cent), and having their houses looted (46 per cent) - the last figure higher than for any other community.

8 Although this question was asked in the context of the “war in Bosnia”, it is likely that the percentages given also reflect respondents’ experiences resulting from the armed conflicts in other republics of the former Yugoslavia and the impact of the Dayton Agreement.

The Croats experienced the war marginally less intensively. A near majority (45 per cent) lost contact with a close relative. More than a third report serious property damage (38 per cent) and being forced to leave home (36 per cent). A third (31 per cent) had their houses looted and 18 per cent report the death of a close family member.

In general, however, the war respected few boundaries of community or geography. The minority living outside the conflict area are as likely to describe the war as “horrible” as are those in the line of fire. They were much less likely to be forced to leave home or have their property damaged or looted. Nonetheless, 36 per cent of people who lived outside the conflict area lost contact with a close relative and 24 per cent report a close family member killed.

Non-combatants in general and women in particular suffered badly in this war, even though they did not join the battle in the literal sense, by carrying a weapon. Non-combatants are much less likely to have experienced “battlefield” injuries - 6 per cent of non-combatants were wounded (compared with 29 per cent of combatants), 5 per cent were imprisoned (compared with 9 per cent of combatants) and 4 per cent were tortured (compared with 7 per cent of combatants); 4 per cent know somebody who was raped. The figures, though mostly lower than for combatants, suggest that non-combatants suffered a great many major war-related injuries. In other respects - serious damage to property (including looting), loss of family members and being forced to leave home - non-combatants experienced the war at least as intensely as combatants did.

For the most part, men became soldiers and women did not: 71 per cent of men under 40 took up arms, as opposed to 5 per cent of women. Both, however, lived the war. Men and women were equally likely to feel humiliated, to be forced to leave their homes or to lose a home or a family member.

In the in-depth interviews and focus-group discussions, most people thought both men and women suffered in their own way. The women trembled to think what their men faced at the front; the men, even with their experiences at the front, seem to recognize that their women carried special burdens - lack of information, caring alone for children, having to search for basic necessities, and the dislocations caused by the war. Neither the men nor the women expressed fear of or experience of sexual assault or rape, even though the quantitative data suggest these were a significant reality in this war.

Both men and women spoke of the uncertainty and absence of information, which generated a unique kind of wartime suffering for women. Men too lacked information, but they had comrades. Women were more isolated and, as more than one soldier put it, more “sensitive”. (IDI, soldier, East Mostar) Often alone and without news of their husbands and sons, they had to shoulder immense responsibilities. One mother captured the feeling:

Almost all of us here are wives of fighters. Some of them [our husbands] even died in the war, and we have suffered for them too. We have also suffered because our children have no fathers, because we cannot afford things we would like to provide for our children... We kept thinking about them, how they were there, if they were cold, if anything would happen to them, whether they would come for the next weekend at all... Still, I think that women suffer more... They suffer both for their husbands and for their children. (FG, mothers, Banja Luka)

Most of those consulted feel that women had the special burden of somehow getting their family through the war.