Michael Dobbs

Visiting the grave of Ana Mladic

The grave of Ratko Mladic’s daughter Ana lies in a well-trafficked section of the Topcider cemetery on the outskirts of Belgrade. A well-known Serbian gangster, killed in the internecine political squabbles of the post-Communist era, is buried just across the way. Around the corner is the last resting place of Ivan Stambolic, a former president ...

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The grave of Ratko Mladic’s daughter Ana lies in a well-trafficked section of the Topcider cemetery on the outskirts of Belgrade. A well-known Serbian gangster, killed in the internecine political squabbles of the post-Communist era, is buried just across the way. Around the corner is the last resting place of Ivan Stambolic, a former president of Serbia murdered by thugs allied to his protégé and later rival Slobodan Milosevic.

Like the politician and the gangster, Ana met a violent death, testimony to a dark decade in Serbian politics. On March 23, 1994, at the height of the Bosnia war, she killed herself with a ceremonial pistol that had been presented to her father when he graduated from his military academy. Her suicide was a major event in Mladic’s life that is key to understanding his dark and complicated personality.

By all accounts, the Bosnian Serb commander never quite recovered from Ana’s death. According to his lawyer and family friend, Milos Saljic, Mladic "worshipped his daughter, and she worshipped him." He made several secret visits to Ana’s grave during the years that he was on the run, after being indicted by the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal for genocide and mass murder. After his arrest last May, the Serbian authorities permitted Mladic to make one final visit to the grave site before his extradition to The Hague.

The precise circumstances of Ana’s death have always been mysterious. The general himself has always insisted that she was murdered by his political enemies, but that version makes little sense, and is discounted by all but a handful of Mladic loyalists. What is known for sure is that she had just returned from a visit to Moscow with her graduating class from the Belgrade University medical school. According to Saljic, while Ana was in Moscow, she talked with Bosnian Muslim students for the first time, and was shocked to learn that they considered her father a war criminal.

"When she came back from Russia, she was a different person," Saljic told me.

This version — or something close to it — seems plausible to me. I am very skeptical of a claim by the German news magazine Der Spiegel last September that Ana killed herself following an argument with a former boyfriend, identified only as "Goran M." According to Der Spiegel‘s account, Goran was a human rights activist in Belgrade who worked as a doctor in a local hospital. Other Belgrade human rights activists (a tight-knit circle) say they never heard of such a person, and doubt that he exists. Saljic confirms that Ana had a boyfriend, but says he was close to the Mladic family, had nothing to do with her death, and was neither a doctor nor a human rights activist. 

The conspiracy theory preferred by Mladic — that his daughter was murdered — is undermined by the pathologist who carried out the official autopsy. Now Serbia’s minister of health, Zoran Stankovic told me that he was eager to do a full investigation into the circumstances of Ana’s death, but Mladic refused permission. Had Mladic suspected foul play at the time, it seems most unlikely that he would have declined Stankovic’s request to carry out an investigation.

Whatever Ana’s real motivation for killing herself, her death had a shattering effect on Mladic. Video taken at the time shows him struggling to control his emotions in public, only to weep inconsolably over his daughter’s coffin (at 1:35 in the YouTube video below).

According to Saljic, Mladic suffered a serious stroke several weeks after his daughter’s death, and was unable to work for at least two months. His aides managed to conceal the general’s illness, and his disappearance from public view. It was reported at the time that Mladic had fallen out with the Bosnian Serb political leadership. When he reappeared in August 1994, journalists noted that he looked pale and tired.

As Mladic’s defense lawyer, Saljic has an obvious interest in painting a picture of his client’s reduced mental capacity at the time of the Srebrenica massacre a year later, in July 1995. His claims will have to be tested in court. The larger mystery is why a man who had known such tragedy in his own life was so cavalier in condemning thousands of others — fathers, husbands, sons, wives — to their deaths.

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