The thing I just can’t wrap my head around is meeting all these nice Montenegrins, Croatians, and Bosnians, and picturing them all trying to kill each other less than two decades ago.

Yugoslavia was created as a kingdom after World War I, then again under the rule of Marshall Tito after World War II, and therein lies the problem: the country was a creation. Yugoslavia means “land of the south Slavs” and most of the people in the country did at least have their Slavic origins in common and most spoke a common language, Serbo-Croatian, but they had different ethnicities.

It gets complicated quickly. There were six republics in Yugoslavia: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia. But Tito and Yugoslavia also officially recognized nations, such as the Croatian nation and the Serbian nation. The republics had borders that could be drawn on a map, but the nations represented an ethnic identity. Most Slovenes live in Slovenia, most Croatians live in Croatia, etc., but there were Serbs in Croatia, or Croatians living in Bosnia, and so on. There was no Bosnian ethnicity or nation, but the Republic of Bosnia was home to Croats, Serbs, and Muslims (who were officially given the status of being a nation by Yugoslavia in the ‘60’s).

There were more people who identified themselves as Serbian than any other nationality in Yugoslavia, so Tito came up with a system of checks and balances to keep everyone under federal control, or at least keep them from killing each other. Most of the republics were given a fair amount of autonomy, but not Serbia, since it was potentially so powerful. To ensure the Serbs didn’t get their noses out of joint, he then gave most of the administrative jobs in the other republics to ethnic Serbs.

Communism collapsed in the late 1980s, and people in former communist states in Europe began to feel a strong sense of nationalism. This new sense of nationalism resulted in republics like Slovenia and Croatia declareing themselves independent from Yugoslavia. After a short 10 day war, Slovenia was allowed to leave Yugoslavia, but not Croatia. The difference was there were quite a few Serbs living in Croatia, many clustered in Serbian-majority towns and regions, and the Republic of Serbia wouldn’t let them go.
Almost everyone in Slovenia was ethnically Slovenian.

Once Slovenia and Croatia declared independence, Serbia, led by the completely amoral and opportunistic Slobodan Milosovic, helped ensure the Yugoslavian army would be used to attempt to keep Croatia as part of a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia. Once Slovenia was allowed to leave, however, it became clear it was really at heart a war between Croats and Serbians, with everyone else caught in the middle.

Bosnia was in the worst situation. Physically located between Croatia and Serbia, with a mixed population of Croatians, Serbians and Muslims, it had three choices, none of which were good: declare their own independence (which Serbia would reject since they wanted to keep all Serbs together and have as large of a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia as possible); stay in a rump Yugoslavia ruled by an unfettered Serbia (which the Croats and Muslims in Bosnia were loathe to accept); or allow itself to be split in two and annexed into Croatia and Serbia (which was intolerable to the Muslims or those still hoping for a Yugoslav state).

Throw in tensions from ethnic Albanians living in the Socialist Autonomous Province of Kosovo, memories of fighting between Croats and Serbs during World War II, and countless other factors, and war was almost inevitable once the strong hand of the communist rulers was removed. The resulting war (or wars, depending on how you see it) devastated cities and regions. Atrocities were committed on all sides, although there have been far more war crimes indictments against Serbs.

Again, the people we met were all so friendly but it must be difficult to live with the daily reminders of the war. In Mostar and Sarajevo, for example, some buildings still show the pockmarks from bullets, and some are just burned out shells. In cemeteries, there are many headstones showing men who died in 1991 to 1993 at around age 20, and I realized that I was born the same year as many of these men. Seeing all this made us realize we didn’t know as much about the war as we should and we’ve been reading Misha Glenny’s The Fall of Yugoslavia. It’s not always an easy read but it is informative.