Bosnia-Herzegovina is a former province of the Turkish and Austrian Empires. After the First World War in 1918 it became part of the new Kingdom of Yugoslavia which united Serbia and Montenegro with former parts of the Austrian Empire such as Croatia.
In 1941, Yugoslavia was conquered by Nazi Germany. Some of its people resisted, supporting the communist partisans of Tito. Some Croats supported a puppet government set up by the Nazis.
In 1945, Tito defeated the Nazis and, supported by the Soviet Union, set up a communist government claiming to unite all Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, Macedonians, Montenegrins and Slovenians in the country under communism. Western governments were happy to use Yugoslavia as a ‘buffer zone’ against Russia, particularly after Yugoslavia’s expulsion from the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform) in 1948. But under the surface, centuries of old tensions between the different peoples remained. Tito died in 1988. As communism collapsed across Eastern Europe it began to look as if the same thing might happen in Yugoslavia.
1990 - Yugoslavia began to break up. Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence. Bosnia was 43% Muslim Bosniak, 31% Orthodox Christian Serb and 17% Catholic Christian Croat. In November, its politicians agreed to stay within Yugoslavia and share power with a Bosniak president, a Serb president of the parliament and a Croat prime minister.
1991 - In March 1991, President Tuđman of Croatia and President Milosovic of Serbia (still part of Yugoslavia) agreed to partition Bosnia between them at some future date. This would have meant that Bosniaks would have had no say in the government of their own land. The 1990 agreement looked increasingly fragile. In October 1991, Serb M.P`s set up a separate assembly while in November 1991, the Croats in Bosnia declared their independence. Meanwhile, the Bosnian government planned a referendum on independence from Yugoslavia.
1992 - The Serb assembly declared an independent Serb republic in Bosnia in January 1992. The planned referendum for Bosnian independence from Yugoslavia was boycotted by Serb voters. However Bosniaks and Croats voted 99.7% in favour of independence which was declared on March 5th. In a last bid to avoid war, European negotiators sponsored the Lisbon Agreement which set up an independent Bosnia but with power divided among Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. At the last minute, on March 18th, the Bosnian president withdrew his signature. Bosnian Serb forces (with the support of Serbia) swiftly overran much of Bosnia and surrounded the capital city of Sarajevo which they besieged for four years.
Throughout the war, Serb forces held more weapons because they had access to the equipment of the former Yugoslav army. Bosniaks had some minor weapons-making facilities in the besieged city of Sarajevo but they could not import arms because of an international arms embargo imposed to prevent Russia from arming the Serbs and joining the conflict. The United Nations Security Council, of which Britain is one of five permanent members, set up a force called UNPROFOR. Its soldiers, from many from different countries, were only allowed to escort humanitarian convoys of aid and enforce specially designated UN zones called safe havens where civilians could seek shelter without fear of attack from any side. Although they carried weapons the UN soldiers could only return fire if fired upon. This meant they would have to stand by and not interfere in any fighting or violence between particular sides, even if it involved civilians.
The first British troops sent to Bosnia were the Cheshire regiment who served in UNPROFOR with blue UN helmets from October 1992. It was hard for UNPROFOR soldiers to serve because of what they saw but were not allowed to prevent. The Bosnian Serbs started “ethnic cleansing” of Bosniaks and Croat areas they conquered. This meant turning Bosniaks and Croat families out of their homes which were ransacked or burned and forcing them from their communities. Men and boys might be arrested and or shot while women were frequently raped. These atrocities deeply shocked many outsiders because it reminded people of what happened during the Second World War and the Holocaust. Refugees poured into the safe havens which UNPROFOR found difficult to protect. The UN was criticised for not doing enough to stop what was going on.
1993 - Responding to pressure, the UN asked the countries of the American led alliance NATO, which includes Britain, to monitor and ban flights by any side over Bosnia and lead air strikes against any targets threatening safe havens.
From 12th April 1993, the Royal Navy stationed an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean with other NATO ships and send out planes over Bosnia in support of Operation Deny Flight. This operation restricted the number of air strikes local forces could make against each other or civilians. On the ground, the war became even more complicated when fighting broke out between Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats. The Croats “ethnically cleansed” the Lasva valley and laid siege to the town of Mostar. Foreign volunteers also entered Bosnia to support particular sides they sympathised with. Some Greeks and Russians fought for the Serbs while Muslims fought for the Bosniaks.
1994 - In February, the Croats and the Bosnian government agreed to form a Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a result of talks in Washington. This newly combined state could now turn against its common enemy the Bosnian Serbs. Through 1994 the Bosnian Serb forces carried out several massacres. The most notorious was at Sebrenica on July 11th. This town was supposed to be a UN safe haven but the Serbs swept aside Dutch UN troops who did nothing to stop them. Up to 8, 000 Muslim Bosniaks men and boys were murdered and buried in mass graves. It was the worst atrocity in Europe since 1945. In August the UN abandoned another of its safe havens to the Serbs and on August 28th their forces around Sarajevo renewed their mortar bombing of the city. It seemed that UN policy had failed. NATO decided to take more direct action against the Serbs by launching Operation Deliberate Force. Between 30th August and 10th September, NATO aircraft, including British ones, dropped over 1,000 heavy bombs and missiles on Bosnian Serb targets around Sarajevo. On 14th September, Bosnian Serb forces agreed to halt their bombing of Sarajevo.
A final peace agreement which stopped the fighting was signed at Dayton in the U. S. on November 21st 1995. Bosnian Serbs were left in control of about 49% of the country, Bosniaks 30% and Bosnian Croats 21%.
On November 30th, NATO troops took over responsibility for security and peacekeeping in Bosnia from the UN. British troops continued to serve there for another 15 years.
During the Bosnian war eleven British soldiers were killed and an additional fourteen died of gunshot wounds or as a result of vehicle accidents. It has been claimed that 100, 000 people were killed during the conflict, 80% of whom were Bosniak civilians.