A report on evil in Europe -- and justice delayed.
- By Michael Dobbs
Michael Dobbs is a prize-winning foreign correspondent and author. Currently serving as a Goldfarb fellow at the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Dobbs is following legal proceedings in The Hague. He has traveled to Srebrenica, Sarajevo and Belgrade, interviewed Mladic’s victims and associates, and is posting documents, video recordings, and intercepted phone calls that shed light on Mladic's personality.
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Shortly after he was first charged with crimes against humanity in July 1995, Ratko Mladic was asked what it felt like to be branded “a war criminal” by an international court. The Bosnian Serb military commander seethed with a mixture of barely controlled anger and contempt as he rejected the “idiotic accusations.”
“My people or I were not the first to start that war,” he insisted, veins popping from his bloated red face. “I don’t recognize any trials except the trial of my own people.”
Seventeen years later, the once all-powerful general finally appeared this spring before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague to answer charges of genocide, persecution, extermination, unlawful attacks on civilians, and hostage-taking. Partially paralyzed on his right side and looking older than his 70 years, he is physically much diminished, a shadow of the man who became known as the “butcher of the Balkans” for the campaign of terror he waged against Bosnia’s non-Serb population. But he is recognizably the same person — proud, willful, and completely unrepentant.
Mladic flashed the thumbs-up sign as he entered the courtroom in May, nodded approvingly as he listened to some of the charges against him, and even clapped his hands when the prosecutor played audio clips of him bullying United Nations peacekeepers and ordering the shelling of civilian areas of Sarajevo. “It was as if he was saying that everything that he did was completely justified,” Jasmina Mujkanovic, whose father was killed in the infamous Omarska concentration camp, told me.
Together with victim representatives like her, I was seated in the public gallery of the tribunal’s high-tech courtroom. We could see everything that was going on, but we were separated from the accused by a thick pane of glass. It was probably just as well, as the mother of one of his victims found it impossible to restrain herself in the presence of their tormentor and made insulting gestures. Mladic replied with a threat, slowly drawing a finger across his throat.
Mladic’s alleged crimes represent the greatest evil that has been perpetrated in Europe since World War II: the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Bosnian Muslims, culminating in the coldblooded execution of more than 7,000 prisoners in Srebrenica. The West may have closed its eyes to worse atrocities in the past 70 years, but none in its civilizational backyard, a mere stone’s throw from where the Holocaust laid bare Europe’s pretensions to enlightenment. Which is exactly why I have spent the past 10 months investigating the case and traveling through the former Yugoslavia — interviewing victims, witnesses, and perpetrators — identifying what we now know about these atrocities and trying to uncover what we still don’t two decades later.
Watching Mladic finally appear in court, I couldn’t help thinking about another much-anticipated war crimes case, 50 years ago. Adolf Eichmann went on trial in Jerusalem in 1961 accused of crimes against humanity for his involvement in the Nazis’ murder of 6 million Jews. The most celebrated chronicler of the Eichmann trial was, of course, Hannah Arendt, who wrote a series of articles for the New Yorker that were eventually turned into a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem. The book was subtitled “A Report on the Banality of Evil,” a phrase that sought to explain how the ordinary, harmless-looking bureaucrat in the dock had committed such monstrous, out-of-the-ordinary crimes.
Mladic was never a harmless-looking bureaucrat. He was a general born for command who got his hands dirty — and bloody — on the battlefield. He was not simply a cog in the machinery of genocide: He set the machinery in motion and supervised every aspect of its operation. In the words of the late Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. diplomat who helped bring the three-and-a-half-year Bosnian conflict to an end, Mladic was “one of those lethal combinations that history thrusts up occasionally — a charismatic murderer.”
But even that does not fully explain Mladic and his motivations. When I lived in Belgrade during the final years of Tito’s dictatorship in the late 1970s, I did not consciously divide my friends into Serb or Croat, Muslim or Christian. No one did. Tito’s insistence on “brotherhood and unity,” enforced when necessary by the army and secret police, along with collective pride in his refusal to kowtow to foreign powers, resulted in a sort of ethnic harmony. Even if it was imposed from above, that system had its true believers — Mladic among them. So as I finally had a chance to look into Mladic’s piercing blue eyes, I tried to understand how a man who ritualistically swore to defend Tito’s achievements could have ordered the coldblooded execution of thousands.
Indeed, however unambiguous the basic facts of Srebrenica — mass graves leave little room for moral interpretation — the hearings before the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal have already revealed significant gaps in our understanding of what happened. For example, according to Bosnian Serb military documents and testimony from key participants gathered in preparation for his trial, Mladic did not at first even intend to capture the town of Srebrenica. His initial goal was to create “an unbearable situation” for its inhabitants, forcing them to leave of their own accord. Only when he met no effective resistance from U.N. troops defending the internationally recognized “safe area” did he request approval from Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic to order the final “takeover of Srebrenica.” In other words, this was a mass murder born of opportunism.
Since his capture after years on the run, Mladic has appeared nearly a dozen times in public, at various pretrial hearings and then, in mid-May, at the long-awaited start of his trial. Never has he shown any remorse. Yet, revered by his supporters as a mythical, godlike figure whose image remains plastered on walls all over Serbia, he has by turns also appeared rambling, defiant, domineering, melodramatic, conciliatory, argumentative, and seemingly on the verge of tears. At one point during an appearance last October, he pleaded for an additional five minutes with his wife. Mladic seems banal only in that some of his reactions have been so predictably human.
None of this makes his case unique. It is simply the latest step in the world’s attempt to bring closure to its most awful crimes. Half a century after the Eichmann trial, if the arc of history is bending at all toward justice, it is doing so not because we have finally recognized the true nature of evil and thereby exorcised it, but because we have continued the painstaking work of uncovering who did what when — and finding a way, however laborious, frustrating, or belated, of punishing them for it.
SEEKING INSIGHTS INTO Mladic’s life, last November I tracked down the man who sheltered him for more than five years in an obscure village on the flat Danubian plain north of Belgrade. Known to his friends as Brane, Branislav Mladic is Ratko’s second cousin. Their grandfathers were brothers, Serbs from the mountainous region of Bosnia known as Herzegovina.
With a thin, angular face and stubble of gray beard, Brane bears little outward resemblance to his famous relative, except for the same darting eyes and abrupt, no-nonsense manner. A bachelor, he lives by himself in a ramshackle farmhouse, with a few chickens, sheep, and pigs roaming about the courtyard. He made clear he disliked the United States (“The Americans attacked the Serbs for no reason”), but he agreed to talk to me — his first extended interview with an American reporter — because I had been introduced by a friend of a friend. Such connections count for everything in Serbia.
As Brane told the story, through a mist of tobacco smoke and repeated shots of slivovitz, the potent plum brandy that is the Serbian national drink, in early 2006 Ratko showed up on his doorstep in the village of Lazarevo in the middle of the night. By this time, he had become a vagrant, living in a series of borrowed apartments, a wanted man with a $5 million reward on his head from the U.S. government. First indicted for crimes against humanity in 1995, shortly after Srebrenica, Mladic lived more or less openly in Belgrade until 2002, when the Serbian parliament adopted a law belatedly promising to cooperate with the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal.
“Do you know who I am?” he whispered to Brane, before ordering him to turn off the porch light. Brane was shocked by his cousin’s appearance, but recognized his voice, which still had the timbre of a man accustomed to being instantly obeyed. Although their paths had separated, Brane had followed Ratko’s exploits as the legendary general who stood up for Serbian minorities, first in Croatia in 1991 and then in Bosnia, during the brutal war that ended with the 1995 Dayton peace agreement and the de facto partition of the country into mini-states controlled by Serbs, Muslims, and Croats.
Over the next few years, Ratko and Brane settled into a fixed routine, living in separate rooms across the small farmyard. In the early morning, before Brane headed off to the fields, they would drink coffee together. Ratko spoke about his father, Nedo, a member of Tito’s communist partisans killed during World War II by Croatian nationalists allied with Hitler. Ratko described how he went looking for his father’s grave in the mountains of Bosnia-Herzegovina. He eventually found an old Muslim who showed him the place where his father was buried. The grave had been washed away by a mountain stream, but Ratko told Brane that he was so grateful for this information that he “spared” the Muslim village of Bradina from Serbian assault during the war.
Several of Mladic’s relatives, including Brane’s father, Dusan, ended up in the rich agricultural region of Vojvodina after World War II. As former partisans, they were encouraged to occupy land that had been cleansed of Swabian Germans. At school, they were taught that ethnic differences no longer mattered in the brave new Yugoslavia being forged by Tito. At home, they clung to the traditions they had brought with them from the inhospitable Herzegovinian mountains, as well as the memory of defending themselves from their enemies, whether Germans, Muslims, or Croats.
Unlike Brane, a former factory worker who turned to farming when the Yugoslav economy fell apart following the collapse of communism, Ratko rose through the ranks of the Yugoslav army, serving in Kosovo and Macedonia. As a professional military officer, he had a strong incentive to embrace the Titoist idea of loyalty to an overarching nation. He described himself as a “Yugoslav,” or “South Slav,” rather than as a “Serb,” in official censuses. At the same time, he was always very aware of his ethnic identity. With its Serb-dominated officer corps, the Yugoslav People’s Army was one of the most efficient channels of upward mobility for peasant families like the Mladices who bore the brunt of the fighting in World War II.
Born in 1942 according to official Yugoslav records — 1943 according to family lore — Mladic was a child of a conflict that was a struggle for national liberation, political revolution, and civil war all rolled into one. His very name, Ratko, derives from rat, Serbian for “war,” and he spent his entire professional life preparing for war against the enemies of Tito’s Yugoslavia. The war, when it came, was against internal enemies rather than external ones, but the ideological mindset was much the same. As Mladic saw it, Croats and Bosnian Muslims became proxies for Germans and Ottoman Turks, the peoples who had inflicted so much suffering on his Serbian ancestors.
Although Brane refuses to speak ill of his celebrated relative, living alone with Ratko for five years cannot have been easy. As Mladic has shown in The Hague, he is a controlling person, given to angry outbursts when he fails to get his way. Whether he is commanding an 80,000-man army, dealing with a roomful of judges and lawyers, or living at home with his hermit cousin, he must always be the focus of attention.
According to Brane, Ratko whiled away the time watching television and reading newspapers. For exercise, he would occasionally walk around the farmhouse late at night, once he was sure that all the neighbors had gone to bed. Brane let him have the keys to his ramshackle Volkswagen Polo, but he does not think his cousin ever used it. The former general liked to reminisce about his exploits during the war in Bosnia, but steered clear of controversial topics, such as the killings in Srebrenica. Brane accepted his cousin’s explanation that “everything that I did was for one purpose only — to defend the rights of the Serbian people.”
One evening in January 2011, Brane returned home from the fields to find Ratko slumped over in the bath, paralyzed on the right side of his body. “For four days, he could not get up. He could not go to the toilet. He could not move,” Brane told me. Afraid to summon a doctor who might report Mladic to the authorities, Brane treated his cousin with heart medicine he was able to scrounge from a pharmacy.
Recovering from a stroke without proper medical attention may have weakened Mladic’s resolve to evade capture and transfer to The Hague. He yearned for contact with family, particularly his son, Darko. A few weeks after what his lawyer said was a third stroke, in May 2011, Mladic demanded to see his grandchildren, who were visiting another relative in Lazarevo. Darko brought his 10-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son to Brane’s place, on the pretext of looking at the animals. Mladic stared at the children through the curtains of his room as they petted the pigs, but did not actually greet them.
“I told him it was a big mistake, but he wouldn’t listen,” Brane recalled.
The Serbian police were monitoring Darko’s movements, hoping that he would eventually lead them to his father. Less than a week later, on May 26, they broke through the gates of the farmyard. Mladic had a loaded pistol nearby, but made little attempt to reach it. Sick and feeble, he was psychologically ready to embark on a new stage of his never-ending war.
THERE COULD SCARCELY BE a greater contrast between the fugitive who meekly surrendered to police a year ago and the warlord who determined with a wave of his finger whether a prisoner would live or die. “I am giving your life to you as a gift,” he told a frightened young man captured by Serbian troops a week after the fall of Srebrenica. “Don’t go back to the front. Next time, there won’t be any forgiveness.”
A former silver-mining town with a population of close to 40,000 before the war, Srebrenica was one of several Muslim-controlled enclaves in eastern Bosnia that survived the initial Serbian onslaught in 1992. Declared a “safe area” by the United Nations in 1993, it was an obstacle to Serbian control of the strategically important Drina River valley separating Bosnia from Serbia. After Muslim fighters based in Srebrenica mounted raids against nearby Serbian villages, destroying dozens of homes and killing hundreds of Serbs, Mladic swore to take revenge.
Video of Mladic’s triumphant entry into Srebrenica on July 11, 1995, captures a man intent on controlling every detail of the operation. He is commanding general, platoon leader, traffic cop, political commentator, and movie producer all rolled into one. “Film that,” he shouts to the cameraman. “Take down that Muslim street sign,” he tells someone else, addressing his subordinates as “dumb fucks.” When he comes across a U.N. vehicle stuck in a ditch, he personally supervises its recovery.
“The boss can’t stop commanding for five minutes,” jokes a member of his staff on another occasion, when Mladic’s back is briefly turned.
“You know how he is,” laments another.
Mladic’s penchant for micromanagement is one reason it is impossible to imagine that the brutal executions of more than 7,000 Srebrenica men and boys between July 12 and 15 could possibly have happened without his knowledge and express instructions. Evidence presented at The Hague strongly suggests that Mladic ordered the executions, which were then supervised by a trusted aide, Col. Ljubisa Beara.
Mladic personally oversaw the separation of Muslim male refugees from women and children outside the gates of the U.N. military compound in Srebrenica. He was also present when thousands of Muslim men attempting to flee across the mountains to government-held territory were captured by Bosnian Serb forces. Mladic promised the refugees they would be exchanged for Serbian prisoners. Instead, they were loaded into buses and taken to execution sites, where they were mowed down by firing squad.
In the fall of 1995, when the outside world began to learn the horror of what had happened at Srebrenica, Mladic mobilized the resources of the Bosnian Serb army to cover up the crime. His subordinates used bulldozers and dump trucks to dig up at least four mass graves containing the bones of Srebrenica victims and scatter the remains in dozens of secondary graves in remote valleys of eastern Bosnia. Unfortunately for Mladic, U.S. spy satellites recorded the attempted deception in detail, enabling investigators to locate the secondary graves and use DNA samples to identify victims.
The biggest remaining mystery is not whether Mladic ordered the massacre or how it was carried out, but why. Plenty of evidence shows that he always had a ruthless, hands-on streak. Intercepted phone calls show that he stood on the hills above Sarajevo in May 1992 personally directing Serbian artillery fire. “Don’t let them sleep.… Drive them crazy,” he ordered at the beginning of the siege. “Shoot at Pofalici [a predominantly Muslim neighborhood]. There is not much Serb population there.… Fire one more salvo at the Presidency [headquarters of the Muslim-led Bosnian government].” His willfulness and determination to win at all costs caused him to commit acts that most of us would consider war crimes.
There is, however, an important distinction between shelling a city, even indiscriminately, and murdering 7,000 prisoners in the space of three days. Unlike Karadzic, his nominal superior, Mladic was not a Serbian nationalist, at least not initially. He disapproved of the Chetnik paramilitaries who ran riot in Bosnia at the beginning of the war, and he attempted to build a professional army. Bosnian Serb records show that Mladic urged his comrades to restrain their territorial ambitions and avoid a strategy of ethnic cleansing, which would be impossible to justify to international public opinion. Speaking to a session of the Bosnian Serb assembly on May 12, 1992, Mladic chillingly warned that such a policy “would be genocide.”
SO WHAT HAPPENED? A study of the trial record of top Mladic associates shows that Mladic’s thinking changed in several important ways between 1992 and 1995. First, he blamed the Muslims and the Croats for breaking up his beloved Yugoslavia in the dramatic years of 1991 and 1992, with the assistance of Western countries, notably Germany, which had been quick to recognize the new republics of Slovenia and Croatia. “We were a happy country with happy peoples, and we had a good life,” he told Dutch peacekeepers in Srebrenica, “until Muslims began listening to what [European leaders] and the Western mafia were telling them.”
As Mladic sees it, Yugoslavia was destroyed by the same forces that tore the country apart during World War II, when many Croat and Muslim politicians allied themselves with Nazi Germany. Yugoslavia’s breakup left nearly 2 million Serbs stranded in the newly independent states of Croatia and Bosnia, easy prey for politicians intent on stirring up memories of World War II atrocities.
Then there was the logic of the war itself. Serbian atrocities against Muslims led to Muslim atrocities against Serbs (though on nowhere near the same scale). Before U.N. peacekeepers arrived in 1993, the Muslim defenders of Srebrenica had raided nearby Serbian villages in search of food, destroying property and killing civilians. And Mladic lived by a very simple code, the same code that had guided so many of his ancestors: kill or be killed. He justified the mass killing of Srebrenica Muslims by pointing to the crimes allegedly committed against Serbs.
Finally, as the international community failed to intervene, Mladic became ever more contemptuous of the West and ever more convinced of his own invincibility. In 1992, he was still concerned about how the world would react to mass killings and expulsions of non-Serbs. By 1995, he had lost all sense of restraint. A pile of U.N. resolutions that were never implemented, along with the fecklessness of Western leaders, convinced him that he could get away with anything. He was fully in control of the situation in his own country, and nobody could challenge him. NATO had become a joke.
“Are they going to bomb us?” he asked rhetorically shortly after Srebrenica fell. “No way!” (In fact, a massive NATO bombing campaign began a few days later, laying the groundwork for the Dayton peace negotiations.)
I’ve come to conclude that Mladic is a prime example of Lord Acton’s dictum that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” By the summer of 1995, he had become the master of his little universe, cut off from political reality. Surrounded by sycophants who dared not contradict him, he became a victim of his own propaganda, comparing himself to heroes in Serbian history who had gained immortality by “fighting the Turks” — a term he used to disparage Bosnian Muslims, who, to Mladic, had committed the unforgivable historical sin of aiding the Ottomans who ruled over Bosnia for more than four centuries and crushed a series of rebellions by Orthodox Serbs. “We present this city to the Serbian people as a gift,” he announced grandly the day Srebrenica fell. “Finally, the time has come to take revenge on the Turks.”
LIKE BOSNIA ITSELF, Srebrenica today is a town divided. Several thousand Muslim refugees have returned to their homes, but they have little contact with their Serbian neighbors. “We nod at each other, but we don’t drink coffee together,” said Samedin Malkic. Out of the 27 boys in his high school class, only three survived, and only Malkic came back to Srebrenica. “It is a ghost town,” he told me sadly. “You don’t see a single person you know.”
Two decades after the start of the Bosnian war, it is hard to escape the feeling that the war criminals and ethnic cleansers won. There is a painful sense on both sides of the ethnic divide that Srebrenica’s former comity will never be restored. “It was like a little America here before the war,” said Zejneba Ustic, another Muslim returnee. “We had everything we needed. Today, there is no work. The factories are nearly all closed. The economy has collapsed.”
It is sobering to think that a communist dictator did a better job — at least in the short term — of reconciling ethnic groups and building a functioning economy than the Western democracies that took responsibility for Bosnia after the Dayton peace agreement. Tito promoted his “brotherhood and unity” ideology by throwing dissenters into prison and forcibly suppressing any real debate about the ethnic bloodletting triggered by World War II. He forced Bosnians to forget their hatreds — or at least pretend to forget. The West, by contrast, is encouraging them to remember, even if this complicates the process of reconciliation.
The Yugoslav war crimes tribunal set itself the goal of creating an objective historical record on which all reasonable people should be able to agree, based on impartial experts’ meticulous documentation of the Srebrenica massacre and other atrocities. Unfortunately, this has not prevented nationalists on all sides from challenging the evidence the court has assembled and promoting alternative, ethnic-centered versions of history. For a taste of these often-outlandish conspiracy theories, you need look no further than the comments section of my blog about the Mladic trial on Foreign Policy‘s website, where, for example, “experts” funded by the Bosnian Serb statelet Republika Srpska explain away the mass graves of Srebrenica victims by insisting that they contain the remains of Muslims “killed in combat” rather than executed prisoners.
The start of Mladic’s trial was supposed to represent both a crowning moment and a decisive test for the system of international justice that, we should remember, grew out of a humiliating failure to act. Formed in May 1993 as a half-measure by the United States and other Western governments that were unwilling to intervene militarily to stop the bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia, the court was widely viewed as an empty gesture toward the victims of a terrible war, the product of one more meaningless U.N. resolution. Indeed, in its early phase, the tribunal was noteworthy primarily for its powerlessness. Indicted war criminals continued to lead almost normal lives, seemingly immune from justice. Mladic attended weddings and soccer games, and he even went skiing at an Olympic resort near Sarajevo frequented by NATO peacekeepers. Even after he was stripped of official protection in 2002, he was still able to benefit from a support network of retired army officers as he moved from one hiding place to another.
Meanwhile, the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal spawned a network of special courts for Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, and East Timor, in addition to the International Criminal Court, which has been hearing Darfur-related cases. The tribunal’s first big breakthrough came in 2001 with the transfer to The Hague of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to face charges of crimes against humanity in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Milosevic’s trial ended inconclusively in March 2006 when the defendant was found dead in his cell following a massive heart attack.
In an attempt to avoid a repetition of the unsatisfactory ending of the Milosevic case, prosecutors have eliminated 90 incidents from the list of accusations against Mladic. The slimmed-down indictment still includes 106 separate charges, however, including two counts of genocide, revolving around the 1995 Srebrenica massacre and a massive campaign of ethnic cleansing elsewhere in Bosnia. The trial is likely to take at least two years — once, that is, it actually gets going. On only its second day, the presiding judge announced an indefinite suspension, possibly for months, because of “significant disclosure errors” by prosecutors, who had failed to share tens of thousands of documents with Mladic’s defense team. It was not a reassuring sign. It took the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal the better part of two decades to bring its most high-profile target to justice, only to bungle the grand opening.
To this point, the tribunal’s greatest service has been the promotion of the notion of individual responsibility over the pernicious doctrine of collective guilt. The Bosnian atrocities were made possible in the first place because men like Mladic sought revenge against entire communities for crimes committed “against the Serbian people” by Muslims and Croats. Similarly, Mladic has sought to depict the criminal case against him as a conspiracy by the United States and other NATO countries to discredit the entire “Serbian nation.”
“I am not defending myself,” he told the court in one of his pretrial hearings. “I am still defending both the Republika Srpska and Serbia and the whole people there.”
The presiding judge was quick to set the record straight. “You are charged before this tribunal … no one else, not a republic, not a people,” he told the old man in the dock. “I would urge you to defend yourself as an accused, rather than to defend persons, entities, organizations which are not accused before this tribunal.”
Mladic is right that the trial is about more than just him. But for Bosnia to escape the vicious cycle of hatred begetting more hatred, the judge’s approach to history must triumph over Mladic’s. As much as we may want to divine the nature of evil, it is more important that we first resolve this one case.