Michael Dobbs

How to fight a war, Balkan-style

Visiting the village of Lazarevo, where Ratko Mladic was finally captured in May 2011, I received a vivid reminder of the nature of war in the former Yugoslavia. The present-day community owes its very existence to the practice of ethnic cleansing, which became such a noxious part of the wars in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. ...

Michael Dobbs
Michael Dobbs

Visiting the village of Lazarevo, where Ratko Mladic was finally captured in May 2011, I received a vivid reminder of the nature of war in the former Yugoslavia. The present-day community owes its very existence to the practice of ethnic cleansing, which became such a noxious part of the wars in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo.

I took the above photograph in the graveyard of Lazarevo, founded more than two centuries ago by Swabian Germans who emigrated to the rich Danubian plain of Vojvodina under the Habsburg empire. On the right, you can see the graves of the original German inhabitants, in an untended, overgrown part of the cemetery. On the left, you can see the well-cared for graves of Bosnian Serbs, who were resettled here after World War II.

The Germans were expelled from what was then Lazarfeld by the Communist regime of Marshal Tito in 1945 as collective punishment for their alleged cooperation with the Nazi occupiers of Serbia. Their land, and houses, went to the families of communist partisans from Bosnia, including several relatives of Ratko Mladic. The newcomers arrived from the south on the so-called  “trains without a timetable” that were organized to facilitate the great migration.

According to the 2002 census, only one German is left in Lazarevo, whose population of 3,308 is 95 percent Serb.  Prior to World War II, the village was almost exclusively German.

The story of Lazarfeld/Lazarevo illustrates a couple of unpleasant truths about warfare, Balkan style. First, wars in this part of the world tend to be associated with social and economic upheavals. The 1992-95 war, like World War II, was fought not just on an ethnic basis between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims — but between people of different social backgrounds, which frequently meant people from the mountains and people from the plains. Social outcasts adept at fighting saw the war as an opportunity to enrich themselves at the expense of the urban middle class, many of whom were killed or fled the country all together. 

The second truth is that Balkan wars, at least the most recent ones, typically degenerate very quickly into frenzies of ethnic cleansing, with wholesale massacres and deportations of rival ethnic groups. I am not saying this to justify the actions of men like Mladic, merely to explain them. Mladic waged the kind of brutal, uncompromising war — with little distinction made between soldiers and civilians — that his own family experiences had prepared him to fight.

The photograph below shows the grave of Dusan Mladic, who moved from Bozanovici to Lazarevo after World War II.  Dusan is the father of Branislav, or Brane, the man who sheltered Mladic for almost five years prior to his capture last year. 

For more on Lazarevo and the Mladices, please see my extended Foreign Policy profile of Ratko Mladic, in this month’s issue of the magazine, available here

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