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Bosnian, Croatian, and Macedonian parents protest conscription of sons and civil war in Yugoslavia, 1991
In the early 1990s the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) was a confederation made up of six constituent republics: Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. However, the ethnic groups from each of these regions were spread throughout the SFRY, which blurred the borders between the constituent republics and made politics in each region much more complicated. For instance, Bosnia-Herzegovina was 44% Bosnian Muslims, 31% Serbs, and 17% Croats. In order to provide federal representation to each constituent republic, the leadership of the SFRY presidency, which was a collective office, would rotate between the representatives of each of the six constituent republics. Additionally, the SFRY military (Yugoslav People’s Army) drew conscripts from each region, but each region maintained it’s own national guard.
By June 1991 the Yugoslav republic was beginning to collapse. In October 1990, Croatia and Slovenia had called for greater independence and a decentralized Yugoslav confederation. However, the SFRY presidency, located in Belgrade, Serbia, wanted the Yugoslav republic to remain intact. In the spring of 1991, the SFRY presidency was supposed to rotate to the control of the Croatian representative, Stjepan Mesic, but the current presidency attempted to block this rotation (unsuccessfully) for fear that Mesic would support the secession of Croatia and Slovenia from the SFRY. Nonetheless, on June 25, 1991, Croatia and Slovenia declared independence, setting off a war between Slovenian and Croatian forces and Serbian forces in particular. The fighting in Slovenia soon slowed, but the conflict continued between Croatia and Serbia, with the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) often supporting the Serbian troops.
As the conflict in Yugoslavia increased and threatened to spread to Bosnia-Herzegovina, several groups called for a peaceful resolution, including peace organizations and trade unions. Although the SFRY presidency insisted that the JNA was attempting to prevent inter-ethnic fighting, it really appeared that the JNA forces favored Serbia in the conflict. In late August, President Izetbegovic of Bosnia-Herzegovina addressed the issue of the JNA, saying that conscripts from Bosnia-Herzegovina would not serve under other generals in the federal army.
The parents of JNA conscripts from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Macedonia took a similar stand. While some who participated in the parents’ campaign against the conscription of their sons were focused on removing their sons from the JNA, but not the war altogether, others had the goal of lessening the violence altogether. If soldiers from Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia were to remain in the JNA during the war, this would essentially mean they would be fighting against their own brothers who were in one of the constituent republics’ national guards.
On August 27, in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, JNA soldiers’ parents disrupted a National Assembly meeting in Sarajevo and demanded that the assembly recall all Bosnian soldiers to Bosnia-Herzegovina if they were stationed in other republics or had completed their term of service in the JNA. The assembly endorsed these demands, although the Serbian ethnic group representatives did not participate. As many as 10,000 parents had attended the meeting and several hundred spent the night in the assembly building. The next day they blocked traffic in front of the assembly building and asked the government for buses to take them to Belgrade to continue their protests before the Yugoslav Secretary of Defense.
On August 28, the Bosnian Vice President announced that the Bosnian majority party (the Party for Democratic Action) supported the parents’ demands against the JNA. However, in the same news conference the Serbian political leader in Bosnia condemned the mothers’ protests. Nonetheless, the Bosnian government also postponed sending further new conscripts to the JNA. On August 29 the Bosnian government provided ten buses to bring parents to Belgrade to continue their demands for the return of their conscripted children. Parents, mostly mothers, from Croatia and Macedonia also boarded buses to join each other for the protests in the Yugoslav capital.
As the buses moved towards Belgrade, Serbian authorities stopped several of them. Once in Belgrade, several thousand parents, mostly mothers, spent the night in a barracks and continued to protest at the JNA headquarters, shouting for their sons to be returned even as the Deputy Secretary of Defense tried to address them. The parents demanded to see the Secretary of Defense and the army Chief of Staff, but neither came. These women also chanted and wore badges demanding the return of their sons. The Center for Anti-War Actions in Belgrade had also called on citizens to join the mothers’ protest, but it is unclear how many other citizens joined in. Finally, the parents were turned away from the army building in Belgrade because of their protests condemned the JNA.
Over those two days (August 29-30) thousands of mothers in cities throughout Yugoslavia protested in front of federal army buildings demanding that their sons be released from the JNA. 10,000 women in Osijek, Croatia, chanted “Serb army get out!” Some of these mothers carried the Croatian flag and banners as they marched through Osijek’s downtown towards the JNA building. There, they shouted and taunted soldiers and generals and lit candles. Still others held similar rallies in many cities and towns throughout Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Serbia.
By this point all republics except Serbia and Montenegro had stopped sending new conscripts to the JNA, although it is unclear when this took place. In Macedonia the government even destroyed the mobilization papers sent from the federal army.
Meanwhile other groups began to hold rallies in several cities throughout Yugoslavia in support of the JNA and condemning these parents.
Despite such protests against actions of the anti-JNA parents and the failure of the demonstrations in Belgrade, the parents (mostly mothers) continued their campaign to bring back their sons from conscription in the JNA. In early September, 1,000 mothers left Zagreb, Croatia, for Brussels to hold a protest before the European Community in order to gain international support for their cause. These women, organized by a Zagreb-based group called Shield of Love, held a candlelight vigil before the European Parliament in Brussels and waved European Community (EC) flags with the symbol of a peace dove on them as they presented the human rights representative for the EC their list of demands for the release of conscripts in the JNA.
These women also intended to lead a protest in Germany, but it is unclear whether they ever did. Meanwhile, the acting head of the Yugoslavian Presidency, Stipe Mesic (a Croat), had lost control of the JNA, which was now mainly Serbian.
In Macedonia, parents continued their protests for the return of the children from the JNA through mid-September, especially after many Macedonian troops in the JNA were transferred to an unknown location. After this it is unclear how many protests by parents continued or when the troops were returned home. With the support of the governments of each republic, however, further recruits were prevented from joining the JNA from Croatia, Macedonia, and the Muslim and Croatian segments of the Bosnian population. Later in that year Bosnia-Herzegovina was also brought into the war between Serbia and Croatia.