It seems the Serbs have finally decided to arrest the murderer, General Ratko Mladic, sixteen years after he personally oversaw the cold-blooded massacre of 8,000 men and boys at Srebrenica in July 1995.
This isn’t the only blood on Mladic’s hands. The killers who lurked in the hills overlooking Sarajevo were acting under his orders as they shelled civilians and shot people down in the street with high-powered rifles. His forces murdered thousands as they systematically destroyed 300 Bosniak villages around Srebrenica and he knowingly facilitated the Chetnik thugs led by the criminal Arkan as they robbed, slaughtered and raped their way across Bosnia.
Srebrenica was a gigantic failure for the UN, with General Philippe Morillon’s hollow assurance still resounding as an example of empty posturing.
I will never abandon you, he told the terrified refugees, and promptly departed for safety. When the Serb forces rolled into the town, the remaining Dutch UN soldiers surrendered without firing a shot and the slaughter began.
Use this moment, Mladic urged his soldiers.
One by one, Mladic surrounded and bombarded Bosniak settlements while at the same time laughing at the ultimatums he received from the United Nations. While his army had endless supplies of munitions and fuel thanks to Slobodan Milosevic’s support, the EU was imposing an embargo on supplies of weapons to the Bosnian forces to defend themselves.
Probably the most stark example of how powerless the UN was can be found in the ludicrous concept of safe areas. Sarajevo, Goražde, Žepa, Bihac, Srebrenica and Tuzla were so designated, but the UN failed to define precisely how they might be made safe. In Srebrenica and Žepa, the Serbs overran the defences and massacred the people. The people of Bihac were besieged and starved by attacking Serb, Croat and, bizarrely, Serb-supported Bosniaks. Civilians in Goražde were saved only because NATO attacked Serb forces from the air, finally convincing Mladic that at last he was dealing with people who meant business.
In the end, the UN had to admit that the term “safe area” applied only to their troops, who had no mandate, or capability to carry the fight to the Bosnian Serb army which was, after all, a branch of the JNA, a very professional fighting force. Be under no illusions. Ratko Mladic was a highly-trained officer of an extremely capable army. Not only that, he was among the very best of his generation — a man not to be taken lightly, despite his bluff, shoulder-punching bonhomie. He might have had the common touch, but his intellect was far from ordinary and if Morillon was under the illusion that he dealt with an inferior, he was badly mistaken.
Mladic never took his orders from the ridiculous Radovan Karadzic, figurehead of the Bosnian Serbs. He rarely disguised his contempt for the occult-obsessed former psychiatrist who always brought a fortune teller with him to perform incantations before a battle, even though, of course, he took no part in the fighting. Karadzic was always an absurd and rather pathetic figure. Even at the height of the siege, a documentary about his poetry played to packed audiences in Sarajevo cinemas and broke all records for attendance at comedy events.
It was the Krajina uprising that launched Mladic’s murderous career when Milosevic appointed him chief of the Bosnian Serb army staff in 1992, and the connection with Belgrade continued unbroken thoughout the conflict. Despite Belgrade’s denials, the Krajina uprising and the Bosnian war were instruments of Serbian policy, and the Serb forces there were controlled, paid and supplied from Belgrade.
Mladic saw himself, probably correctly, as a key figure in the creation of a Greater Serbia, and worked closely with his old friend, General Momcilo Perisic, chief of staff of the Yugoslavian army in trying to achieve that aim. There was little limit to Mladic’s arrogance, or to his awareness of his world profile. This was a man who named his pet goats after his international critics.
There’s no doubting his efficiency. By the end of 1994, he had taken 70% of Bosnia for the Serbs. Both he and Perisic stayed in close contact with Slobodan Milosevic, co-conspirator with Croat president Franjo Tudjman in a plan to divide Yugoslavia by violent means but true to form, Mladic seems to have also held Milosevic in contempt, even though Slobo was in theory giving the orders.
As Mladic went about his job of mass murder, he was living with his own personal tragedy. Not only had he lost both parents through suicide but, a year before the Srebrenica atrocity, his daughter Ana, a medical student, had taken her own life after learning of her father’s genocidal activities in Bosnia. Ironically, the suicide weapon was the treasured pistol presented to Mladic in the military academy for being such an outstanding student.
Most people would be flattened by the loss, but not Mladic, who carried on his military campaign regardless, though he was said to have been distraught and profoundly depressed as a consequence of Ana’s death. Some say his daughter died of shame, but clearly, the experience of losing a beloved child in such circumstances didn’t cause him to reflect on what he was doing to thousands of other parents, or to wonder about the morality of his actions.
This, above everything else, in my opinion, makes Mladic monstrous. He was not a man without feelings, but he was capable of suppressing them.
Even after the Dayton peace accords were signed, Mladic refused to give up control of the Bosnian Serb army to Biljana Plavsic — another convicted war criminal. Eventually, Bosnian Serb police physically destroyed the communications between Mladic and his commanders, but he still remained an officer of the Serbian army in Belgrade until 2001 when, eventually, the new Prime Minister, Vojislav Kostunica, forced him to resign.
This is what makes the Serb case so ludicrous. They were employing him and paying his wages while the rest of the world treated him as a wanted war criminal. Over the years since he supposedly went on the run, Mladic was frequently seen in the Belgrade cemetery at Topcider, sitting on a bench beside the grave where his daughter is buried. He plainly felt safe under the protection of Serb security forces.
Obviously, it now suits the Serb government to hand him over for political reasons, but they must be wondering how the final chapter will play out.
Will Mladic follow the example of his parents and daughter, and finish his own life as he has threatened? That’s what Milan Babic did, although his suicide was more than likely driven by guilt, since he was the most prominent figure in the Krajina uprising that sparked the whole Yugoslav bloodbath.
Or will he do something much worse, and tell the real story of how Serbia and Croatia conspired to fight a war that enriched so many politicians at the cost of so much human misery?
After all, whatever else we can say about Ratko Mladic, he didn’t benefit personally from the horror of the Bosnian war, unlike many others, Bosnian, Serb and Croat.
In the long run, Mladic failed to achieve anything but cause misery. The Krajina Serbs were ejected en masse during Croatia’s German-supported Operation Storm in 1995. Bosnia is now a patchwork of ethnically-delineated municipalities existing uneasily beside each other, while Republika Srpska seethes at having to share power with the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Open war is never far from the surface as the ancient hatreds continue to ferment. For now, though, the Bosnian Serbs are limited in what they can do because in the west they rely almost totally on Croatia and in the east on Serbia. When Serbia joins the EU, Republika Srpska will be given no room to manoeuvre, but in that region, a grudge can last a thousand years, while the EU is unlikely to be there in a hundred. When the Union finally decides to call it a day, Bosnia’s Serbs will be ready and wiling to spark another Balkan war, beginning the whole futile cycle all over again.
Update: Mladic extradited