Michael Dobbs

Mladic: A man who knew ‘exactly what he wanted’

Mladic: A man who knew ‘exactly what he wanted’

In Belgrade recently, I had an interesting interview with Ratko Mladic’s defense attorney, Milos Saljic, photographed above. A former Yugoslav military judge, Saljic (pronounced SHALYITCH) has been a personal friend of Mladic since they both served together in the Yugoslav army in Macedonia in the sixties, during the Tito period. He is therefore well placed to offer insights not only into Mladic’s defense strategy, but also his personality.

Mladic “is a man who always knew exactly what he wanted,” Saljic told me. “In every job he has ever undertaken, he was always very sure of himself. Whatever he was doing, he would always take the initiative.”

Obviously, Saljic has only good things to say about his friend and client, who stands accused of horrendous war crimes. Nevertheless, his stories about Mladic’s single-minded determination shed light on the character of the man alleged to have ordered the cold-blooded executions of 8,000 Muslim prisoners of war in Srebrenica in July 1995.

To illustrate his point about his friend’s willfulness, Saljic told me a story about how they took their families on holiday to the Adriatic Sea in the summer of 1970. First the car broke down, but Mladic got it going again by tinkering with the engine. By the time they arrived at the seaside, it was very late and the stores and restaurants were all closed. The children were hungry. The young infantry lieutenant resolved that problem by going door to door until he found someone who would give him some bread. Saljic showed me the photograph below that shows a young Ratko Mladic taking the children for a canoe ride.

Over the coming days, I will post some more video of Mladic in Srebrenica. Whether he is ordering his soldiers to tear down Muslim signs or standing in the middle of the road to direct traffic, you are left with the impression of an extraordinarily hands-on commander. He frequently behaves more like a platoon leader than a commanding general, supervising minute details of the operation. Once he has decided to do something, he will stop at nothing to achieve his goal.

Saljic’s portrait of Mladic as an extremely energetic, capable military officer possessed of great determination seems at odds with the defense strategy for the upcoming trial. When it comes to Srebrenica, the defense lawyer says that he will make the argument that Mladic was “not in charge of the operation,” whatever the videotapes may suggest. He claims that any abuses were the responsibility not of the Bosnian Serb army but the police, which did not come under Mladic’s direct command.

Saljic will attempt to prove that Mladic was not in the Srebrenica area at the time of the  mass executions. He claims that Mladic intended to exchange the Muslim prisoners for Serbs captured by Bosnian government forces, but the operation somehow went wrong. He puts the blame on subordinates such as Radislav Krstic, the chief of staff of the Drina Corps, which received orders to capture Srebrenica from Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic.

Whether Mladic was in fact present in the Srebrenica area during the mass executions will be tested in court. But Saljic is likely to have a hard time convincing the judges to shift the blame to grey nonentities like Krstic, who is now serving a 35-year sentence for “aiding and abetting genocide.” Video I posted last week shows Mladic ordering Krstic and another general around like common soldiers. (The footage begins at 0:38. Mladic refers to Krstic by his nickname, Krle.)   

The truth is that Mladic displayed the same controlling, single-minded character all his life — whether he was on holiday looking after his family or supervising a vast ethnic cleansing operation in eastern Bosnia.