Modern World History

Continuing conflict: Bosnia and Rwanda

The disappearance of the USSR left the USA as the world's only super-power. However, the experience of Vietnam meant that few American presidents could pursue a foreign policy that was likely to see American troops engaged in prolonged conflict. George Bush Snr's quick and easy victory over America's erstwhile ally Saddam Hussein in 1990 was no exception. It was assured by the overwhelming possession of air power, creating the illusion that all future wars could be won by 'shock and awe'. There would be no need for brutal and messy fighting of the kind seen in Vietnam between 1963 and 1975 where America's attempt to prevent the spread of communism in Indo- China had led to the deployment of nearly half a million US troops. For most of the 1990's therefore the US played a surprisingly indecisive role in international politics, happy to wage war from the air but never committing itself to an engagement on land, even when swift military action might have brought an end to several of the decade's nastier episodes.

Until a few years ago it was only GCSE history candidates who had heard of the Jugoslav province of Bosnia, whose annexation from Turkey in 1908 by the Austro-Hungarian Empire had led to the start of the First World War. In 1919 it became part of Jugoslavia, a kingdom whose dominant ethnicity was Orthodox Serb, provinces like Bosnia and Kosovo had large Muslim populations whilst Croatia was mainly Roman Catholic.

The Croatians were the first to break away in 1991 following the emergence of the Serb nationalist Slobodan Milosovic as Jugoslav president in succession to the Communist dictatorship of the wartime partisan leader General Tito. The Muslims majority in Bosnia attempted to follow suit and were recognised by a number of European countries but the Serb minority called in the Jugoslav army and laid siege to the provincial capital Sarajevo. It was Milosovic who coined the ghastly phrase 'ethnic cleansing' to describe the forcible separation of Serb and Muslim communities which culminated in the massacre of 4000 Muslim men in what was supposed to be a UN-protected safe area around the town of Sebrenica (April 1994).

Events like Sebrenica horrified a Europe that had known nothing like them since the Second World War and believed itself progressing towards an era of permanent peace on the basis of economic and monetary union. However they were small in scale compared with the genocide that took place in the small central African state of Rwanda almost at the same time. In Rwanda the majority of the population were Hutu but it was the minority Tutsis who controlled most of the country's wealth. When the popular Hutu president was killed in a plane crash his supporters went on an orgy of revenge, killing Tutsis wherever they could find them, in churches, schools and hospitals: men, women and children were cut down indiscriminately. In his memoirs US President Bill Clinton admits that just a few thousand troops flown in to the airport at Kigali could have stopped the massacre but Rwanda had neither oil nor strategic value and the attention of the world's media was focussed on what was happening in the Balkans.