Serbian Myth of Land 'Ownership' of Bosnia and Herzegovina
Peace Proposal Provides Serbs Disproportionate Share of Bosnia
By Amira Dzirlo
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
January/February 1995, Page 16.
The “contact group” draft settlement for Bosnia proposes that the Serbs return to the Bosniaks and Croats about one-third of the Bosnian territory they have occupied. This means that the Serbs would be allowed to keep 49 percent of the territory of Bosnia. These terms have been accepted, reluctantly, by representatives of Bosnia’s Muslims and Croats, but not by the Bosnian Serbs. The unreasonableness of the Serb rejection of the settlement becomes even clearer with a brief review of the history of the Serb land-grab in Bosnia that began during and after World War I.
Among many false Serbian claims in connection with settlement negotiations was the statement that “according to the registry, Serbs own 64 percent of the land of Bosnia-Herzegovina, but they are prepared to return 15 percent of its territory to the Bosniaks out of the total 70 percent which they have captured.”
A Significant Fabrication
This is certainly not their only fabrication, but it is nonetheless a very significant one. It can be clearly and quickly disproven by checking any geography textbook from before World War II. This will show that 51 percent of the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina was classified as forested, whereas 49 percent was either tillable or used for raising livestock. Of the forested area, 95 percent was owned by the state, meaning it was the communal property of all its citizens, while only 31 percent of the land classified as agricultural was privately owned, by Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs. Thus, only about 15 percent of the land of Bosnia-Herzegovina was in private hands, which cannot bring the Serbs the total that they claim, except through mythology and imaginary history.
The “1910 Census of Population and Property Ownership,” the last census accomplished by the very careful and accurate Austro-Hungarian administration, records that of the privately owned land in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Orthodox Serbs owned 6 percent, Catholic Croats owned 2.6 percent, Muslim Bosnians owned 91.1 percent and others had 0.3 percent.
However, after the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by the Allied powers, who supported the Serbs, the newly formed and Serb-dominated Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes initiated the “first agrarian reform” in 1918 and 1919. It took away a total of 2.66 million acres (1,076,675 hectares) of land from the Muslim Bosnians. As a consequence, a huge number of Muslims were left without property and sought economic asylum, going primarily to Turkey.
In a similar manner, the Croats and the Catholic Church were deprived of their property and thus of their livelihood. Dr. Stjepan Radic, a Croat (Catholic) leader, was killed in the Assembly by a Serbian agent of the palace, Punisa Racic, for stating that the Bosnians had been robbed of their rightful inheritance.
All of the current false claims can and must be disproven.
Finally, in 1936-37, due chiefly to the writings of Radic and some Muslim members of the Croatian party, the government acknowledged that the Bosniaks should be compensated for their losses in the “mishandling” of the 1918 agrarian reforms. It was decided that they would be given certificates for the value of the land taken from them, which would be paid off in 36 government payments, with the first payment made retroactively to 1935. However, only a total of four payments were made.
As a consequence, the land which was taken from the Bosniaks in 1918-1919 cannot be regarded as “belonging to” the Serbs, nor can it be legally transferred to their descendants. We might also add that the value of the land which was taken away was calculated at 60 percent less than its actual value at the time. It is clear that this was a case of “highway robbery” of the Muslims and of the Catholic Bosnians, although the Catholics in Bosnia owned a much smaller proportion of the land.
As an example of how this affects present realities, on the agricultural plain of Lijcvce, near Banja Luka, the most fertile land of all is Bosanska Krajina. Until 1918, not one Serb lived in that area. It was completely inhabited by Bosniaks and Croats.
After 1918, Bosanska Krajina began to be settled by Serbs from Serbia and from Lika, primarily “Solunasi” (Serbs originally from Salonika, the northeastern extension of Greece) and their offspring. Bosanska Krajina now has become a “Serbian region,” from which they have driven out all non-Serbs.
In the second agrarian reform of 1945-1946, again those who were given the worst deal were the non-Serb landowners in Bosnia, Vojvodina, and Slavonia. No compensation was paid for the land taken from them, which usually was all of their land since they were declared “enemies of the people” or “the wartime wealthy.”
All of the land which the government of Josef Broz Tito decided to confiscate was taken “according to the decisions of the people’s assemblies” and by powerful individuals, almost exclusively Serbs. This was accomplished without any official registries or valid judicial decisions.
The 1991 Census: Muslims, Croats And “Yugoslavs”
Therefore all of the current false claims can and must be disproven. According to the latest census of 1991, the Muslims [Bosniaks] and the Croats made up a total of 61 percent of the population of Bosnia-Herzegovina. If one takes into account the fact that there also was a reasonably large number of Muslims and Croats who called themselves “Yugoslav” (reflecting either their status as participants in or offspring of mixed marriages or their objection to the breakup of the former Yugoslavia into separate republics), the Bosniak and Croat total in the population is probably closer to 66 percent.
On the other hand, out of the 31.3 percent of the population in Bosnia-Herzegovina who declared themselves Serbs in the 1991 census, about 10 percent were army officers and their families who came mostly from Serbia and Montenegro. Since the outbreak of the war, they have returned for the most part to Serbia and Montenegro.
The real percentage of Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina is therefore approximately 28 percent, or significantly less than one-third of the 1991 population.
Thus the contact group proposal awarding them 49 percent of the land gives them a far greater percentage of the territory than is warranted by their percentage of the population of Bosnia.
Amira Dzirlo, an architectural engineer and historian, is a Muslim resident of Sarajevo. She has been living since April 1994 in Washington, DC.