The Physical Environment of Central Bosnia

Central Bosnia's terrain and climate had a definite impact on the planning and conduct of military operations during the Muslim-Croat conflict of 1992-94. Moreover, the region's transportation and industrial infrastructure, both the lines of communication and the factories for military production, were themselves primary objectives for both sides and thus became the principal focal points of the conflict.

Terrain and Climate

Some 70-80 percent of the former Yugoslavia is mountainous, the highest point in the northwest being some twenty-nine hundred meters above sea level.16 In general, there are three landforms: the northern plains, the interior highlands, and the Adriatic coast. The Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina falls almost entirely in the interior highlands region, which extends some 970 kilometers from northwest to southeast and some 550 kilometers from east to west. Central Bosnia's topography is very similar to Korea or West Virginia, with high mountains covered with birch, ash, oak, and a variety of coniferous trees; steep karst hills and ridges; narrow, well-watered valleys; and numerous deep ravines. The major watercourses in the region (the Una, Vrbas, Bosna, and Drina Rivers) drain northward into the Sava River and thence via the Danube to the Black Sea. Their upper courses lie in parallel valleys running from southeast to northwest and dividing central Bosnia into a number of compartments.

In general, the climate of most of the former Yugoslavia is similar to that of the northern continental United States, with warm, rainy summers and cold winters. The winters in central Bosnia are normally quite harsh with significant snowfall and ice. The mean summer temperature at lower elevations is in the low seventies to low nineties Fahrenheit, while the mean winter temperature at lower elevations ranges from the middle teens to the low fifties Fahrenheit. The interior highlands are, of course, cooler in both summer and winter. Relative humidity is highest in autumn and winter and lowest in summer, ranging from 60-95 percent in the mountains. Surface winds are normally light and variable, but the cold winter wind known as the Bora can significantly lower temperatures, and drifting snow and blizzard conditions can occur any time in the mountains during the winter.

Central Bosnia's rugged topography and harsh climate, coupled with a road net largely restricted to the main valleys and passes, make military operations difficult in any season. Cross-country vehicular movement is limited throughout the year, although movement for both wheeled and tracked vehicles is generally easier in the summer and fall than in the winter and early spring—when ice, deep snow, mud, flooding streams, and landslides restrict vehicular traffic even on the few available improved roads. A 1954 U.S. Army historical study of World War II German counter-guerrilla operations in the Balkans noted: "The most important physical

Route Pacman Bosnia

Map 1. Central Bosnia. Map by Bill Nelson.

feature of the Balkans as a scene of military operations is its wild terrain. The brushy mountain country, craggy peaks, and roadless forest areas offer irregular troops numerous places to hide, opportunity to shift forces unseen even from the air, and locations for ambush."17

The Lasva Valley

The focal point of the fighting between the Bosnian Croats and Muslims in central Bosnia in 1992-94 was the Lasva Valley. The valley itself is quite small, ranging from six-tenths to three miles (one to five kilometers) in width, and some eighteen miles (thirty kilometers) in length from Travnik to Kaonik. The Lasva River, from which the valley takes its name, is really only a creek or stream in American terms. It rises in the mountains north and west of Travnik to flow from northwest to southeast, emptying at its eastern end into the Bosna River. The Lasva is joined at Kaonik by the Kozica River, which flows from the southeast and along which are situated the key towns of Busovaca and, at its junction with the Lepenica River, Kiseljak. Within the Lasva Valley—or adjacent to it— are the towns of Travnik, Novi Travnik, and Vitez, as well as a large number of small villages both on the valley floor and on the slopes of the surrounding mountains.

When first viewing the Lasva Valley, the student of military history is immediately struck by the similarity of the Bosnian Croat positions on the valley floor in 1993 and the entrenched French camp at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. In fact, the valley of the Nam Yum is only about half as long as that of the Lasva (ten miles versus eighteen miles) but is generally twice as wide (three and one-half to five miles versus six-tenths to three miles).18 The most striking correspondence, however, is the tactical disadvantage at which some eight thousand Croat combatants on the valley floor dominated by much more numerous Muslim forces holding the surrounding heights found themselves, just as the fifteen thousand French Union troops at Dien Bien Phu were dominated by some fifty thousand Vietminh soldiers on the surrounding hills. The major difference, of course, is that the French Union forces at Dien Bien Phu were not defending their homes and hearths. Everyone knows what happened to the French when they failed to root out the Vietminh in the heights. One can hardly blame the Croat defenders for wanting to avoid the same fate and thus acting aggressively to clear the hills surrounding the Lasva Valley of Muslim forces.


The population of Bosnia-Herzegovina in March, 1991, was some 4,364,000 people—slightly less than the state of Georgia—and its population density was some 85.6 souls per square kilometer.19 The limestone composition of the mountains in central Bosnia makes farming difficult and unable to support a large population. Settlement is sparse outside of towns, and villages tend to be small and relatively isolated.

In 1991, the ethnic distribution of Bosnia-Herzegovina's population was approximately 44 percent Bosniak (Muslim), 33 percent Serb, and 17 percent Croat.20 In general, Bosnian Croat villages and towns occupy the valley floors, whereas Muslim villages are located on the slopes of nearby mountains and hills. Given such conditions, the few major lines of communications passing through the valleys and their populated areas assume great importance—as do passes, bridges, and other choke points.

Key Strategic Features

Like many other conflicts, the civil war in central Bosnia in 1992-94 was a war of logistics. The principal objectives for both sides were logistical in nature: the control of military industrial facilities and of the key lines of communications (LOCs). Both were of overwhelming importance for the HVO and ABiH. Following the arms embargo imposed on the former Yugoslavia by the UN Security Council in September, 1991, the obtaining of necessary arms, ammunition, and other military equipment needed to fend off the Serbian aggression was a main preoccupation of the RBiH government, and it became a major consideration for the HVO as well. The vital LOCs connecting central Bosnia with the Dalmatian coast and the outside world thus assumed critical importance, the more so in that they also linked the principal military production facilities of the former Yugoslavia located in central Bosnia and northern Herzegovina. Thus, the military factories in the region and the LOCs through central Bosnia became the principal prizes over which the Croat and Muslim forces contested.

Military Industrial Facilities The majority of the military production facilities in Bosnia-Herzegovina were in the Lasva Valley or arrayed on its periphery.21 All had been established by the JNA before Yugoslavia disintegrated, and they formed a military industrial chain, most of which was concentrated in central Bosnia. For the most part, these plants for the manufacturing of war matériel fell into the ABiH's hands in 1991 and 1992, but the most important of them remained in the HVO's hands throughout the period.

Arrayed north and south of the Lasva Valley were a number of military factories, all controlled by the ABiH. The Zenica Ironworks manufactured castings for all calibers of shells and charges. The IGM factory in Konjic manufactured ammunition from 7.62-mm to 12.7-mm as well as shells for 20-mm and 40-mm antiaircraft guns. A factory in Bugojno produced antitank and antipersonnel mines, fuses for projectiles and mines, and hand grenades. Among the former JNA manufacturing facilities in or on the edge of the Lasva Valley itself and controlled by the ABiH, the Bratstvo factory in Novi Travnik manufactured artillery pieces ranging from 60-mm to 152-mm, 128-mm rocket launchers, and Oganj and Vatra rocket systems, as well as the improved 152-mm gun-howitzer known as "NORA." The Technical and Maintenance Institute at Travnik manufactured signal equipment and command and control vehicles for use at brigade level. Also in Travnik were a communications repair shop and a factory that produced uniforms, military boots, and other equipment.

The most important of the military production facilities in central Bosnia was the Slobodan Princip Seljo (SPS) factory in Vitez. The SPS factory manufactured military explosives essential for the production of mortar and artillery shells. It was the only such manufacturing facility in the Balkans, and it was the only important military production facility controlled by the HVO forces. The Vitez explosives factory, located just west of the town in a draw flanked by the villages of Donja Veceriska and Gacice and mostly underground, was the key to the entire chain of military production in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Without it, the other arms manufacturing facilities were largely useless. The importance of the SPS explosives factory to the ABiH was signaled during talks in Bonn, Germany, between Pres. Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Pres. Franjo Tudjman of Croatia in January, 1993. In a message to the UN secretary general, negotiator Thorvald Stoltenberg noted: "In the talks he had with Tudjman in our presence, Izetbegovic insisted the Croats must leave Vitez because it had an ammunition plant that the Muslims must have. Tudj-man replied that the Muslims will never have the plant and will never be able to take Vitez militarily. However, if they did, the plant would be blown up."22 Although the SPS explosives plant was the main objective of ABiH offensives in the Lasva Valley throughout 1993, it was never taken and remained in the HVO's hands at the time of the Washington Agreements in February, 1994.

Lines of Communication Both the ABiH and the HVO depended heavily on the lines of communication from the Adriatic coast to and through central Bosnia not only for the importation of war matériel, but for food and other supplies for the civilian population as well. Of vital importance to both the ABiH and the HVO, these LOCs were few in number, vulnerable to interdiction, and often steep and difficult to negotiate. In Roman times the Via Bosnae, the most important Roman route across the Balkans from Ljubljana in the northwest to Thessalonika in the southeast, ran through the Lasva Valley from Travnik to Sarajevo. As shown on Map 1, the Lasva Valley sits astride the principal routes from the coast and Herzegovina to northern and eastern Bosnia. Through it runs the only east-west route through central Bosnia from Travnik via Vitez, Kaonik, Busovaca, and Kiseljak to Sarajevo. Thus, for both the HVO and the ABiH, control of the Lasva Valley was the key to controlling the vital lifelines to the outside world.

Entry into the Lasva Valley from the north can be accomplished by four routes: the main road from Banja Luka via Jajce and Turbe to Travnik (the old Roman Via Bosnae); the road from Poljanice via Han Bila that connects with the main route through the Lasva Valley just to the northeast of Stari Bila; the road from Zenica via Cajdras and Sivrino Selo that joins the Lasva Valley road at Dubravica just east of Vitez; and the road from Zenica along the Bosna River that turns west at the junction of the Lasva and Bosna Rivers and enters the valley via Grablje, Strane, and Kaonik.

During the Muslim-Croat conflict in 1992-94, central Bosnia could be reached from the Dalmatian coast and Herzegovina to the south by five routes, all except one of which passed through Jablanica.23 From Split, the principal port of entry for Bosnia-Herzegovina, the main route for all traffic to Jablanica (Route circle) ran via Brnaze and Kamensko to Tomislav-grad and thence to Mandino Selo. From Mandino Selo the main road continued to Jablanica and thence to Prozor (Route square), but it was also possible to go directly from Mandino Selo to Prozor (Route triangle). The easternmost (Konjic-Hadzici-Sarajevo-Visoko) and westernmost (Bugojno-Donji Vakuf-Turbe-Travnik) routes from Jablanica into central Bosnia were both in the BSA's hands for most of the period under consideration and were thus not available to either the HVO or the ABiH. The route from Jablanica through Bugojno via Reput to Novi Travnik was apparently little used even before the ABiH took Bugojno thereby closing that route to the HVO altogether. Once the ABiH took Konjic, a significant portion of the route from Jablanica via Konjic, Kresevo, Kiseljak, Buso-vaca, Kaonik to the Puticevo intersection (Route PACMAN) was also denied to the HVO, which in turn blocked the road south of Kresevo thereby denying its use to the ABiH as well. Thus, the route from Jablanica via Gornji Vakuf (Uskoplje) and Reput through Novi Travnik to the Puticevo intersection with the road running down the Lasva Valley (Route diamond) was the main supply route from Herzegovina to central Bosnia over which flowed the bulk of UN relief cargo as well as a small amount of commercial traffic. It was also the principal resupply route for UNPROFOR forces, and the British Royal Engineers improved and maintained it during the entire period.24 From April 14, 1993, neither the ABiH nor the HVO had free use of this critical LOC because each held various segments of its length. The HVO held the termini at Gornji Vakuf and Novi Travnik, and the ABiH held the center section.

During the course of the Croat-Muslim conflict in central Bosnia, both sides constructed a number of alternative "war roads" to replace routes lost to the enemy or unusable because they were under direct observation and fire from the other side. The HVO built two such routes into the Lasva Valley from the south. The first ran from Prozor to Gornji Vakuf and then across the mountains to Fojnica. Called the "Road of Hope" by the HVO, this road was known to UNPROFOR as Route salmon. Another HVO resupply route ran from Gornji Vakuf over the hills northeast to Sebesic, where it split— one path continuing on to Vitez and another to Busovaca.25 Not suitable for vehicular traffic, the HVO used this route primarily to move essential supplies on horses and mules.

The main route through the Lasva Valley itself was used extensively during the war, but because it was vulnerable to attack from the hills north of the road, the HVO built a war road on the south side of the Lasva River running from Novi Travnik via Vitez to Busovaca. Despite sustained attempts by the ABiH to interdict it, this route remained open to HVO vehicular traffic from Vitez via Rijeka and Rovna to Busovaca as late as mid-January, 1994. Both sides constructed numerous other local war roads because they were needed to support particular locations and operations.

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  • leighton
    What is the physical environment of bosnia and herzegovina?
    6 years ago

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