Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History

The Markale explosion: What happened, why it matters

The single paragraph in Lecture 25 on the events of 5 February 1994 has been the occasion of more criticism from readers than all the rest of these lectures combined, because it concerns extremely recent events, because complete evidence about what happened is still not available, because the incident had a significant effect on events, and because blame for the explosion is highly controversial.

In general, I have confined corrections on these Web pages to typographical errors and errors in dates. It is easy to modify Web texts after the fact, but there are valid reasons for caution in doing so. For an extended comment on this issue, see the section of the Preface dated 22 November 1999.

As written in the fall of 1995, the original paragraph read:

"There were also substantial changes in the role of the Great Powers and the UN, although the first stages were marked by inconsistency and disunity. In February 1994, one of the most prominent attacks on civilians during the war enraged Western observers, when a Serb mortar shell killed 68 people in a Sarajevo market place. The US, the European Union and NATO demanded that the Serbs remove artillery from around Sarajevo, or face retaliatory air strikes. The Serbs largely complied, but shelling of other 'safe areas' continued and was not punished."

The italics (added here) are at the root of the controversy.

As the revised paragraph notes, conditions in Sarajevo made it impossible to assign blame conclusively for the mortar attack. Both sides had access to weapons of the kind used, and both sides had access to positions from which the attack could have been launched. I hope that the revised paragraph will indicate to readers the significance of the incident, while this explanatory page reminds them to be critical of what they read (on the Web and in print).

History should rarely be written in the absence of a wide range of sources: because Lecture 25 was written at a time when most sources on the Bosnian war were news media accounts, it is far more likely to contain reports and conclusions that will not hold up over time. Rather than revise Lecture 25 extensively, I urge readers to consult newer studies.

Readers interested in knowing more about the "Markale Massacre" can consult the following publications.

In early news reports, the division of opinion is already established:

David Binder, a leading critic of NATO policy, has addressed this issue several times:

Without directly analyzing the Markale incident, the following exchange in Foreign Affairs discusses issues of truth and responsibility in Bosnia:

Readers looking for more sources should keep in mind that several "Markale Massacres" have taken place involving explosions in Sarajevo's Markale marketplace.  On 27 May 1992, more than twenty people were killed there by a mortar shell. In the 5 February 1994 incident noted in Lecture 25, an explosion killed 68 people. More than thirty people were killed by another shell on 28 August 1995, an episode sometimes referred to as "Markale II." During the Kosovo crisis of 1999, there was speculation in Serbia that NATO might engineer an atrocity as an excuse for intervention, a hypothetical event referred to as "Markale III."

A further update: An RFE/RL report of 29 September 2016 notes that ...

"Based on evidence compiled by United Nations monitors, the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) ruled in 2003 during the trial of Bosnian Serb commander Stanislav Galic that his forces were responsible for both [the 1994 and 1995] attacks on Markale market.

"Galic was sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity over his role in the siege and shelling of Sarajevo.

"Although the first international investigators to arrive at Markale market after the February [1994] shelling told RFE/RL that the projectile clearly came from Bosnian Serb-controlled territory, later reports by international investigators did not lead to unambiguous conclusions."

This page is a portion of a larger Web site, Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism); click here to return to the Table of Contents page.

Steven W. Sowards
Michigan State University Libraries
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Text updated 8 May 2002; last modified 29 September 2016.

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