Mladic as Prosecution Witness

It is still unclear how much we will learn from Ratko Mladic when his trial, tentatively scheduled to begin on March 27, 2012, finally opens.  He has shown little desire to cooperate in pre-trial appearances, and his courtroom behavior has been erratic and unpredictable. But that may not matter.  His trial is likely to unlock a ...

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

It is still unclear how much we will learn from Ratko Mladic when his trial, tentatively scheduled to begin on March 27, 2012, finally opens.  He has shown little desire to cooperate in pre-trial appearances, and his courtroom behavior has been erratic and unpredictable. But that may not matter.  His trial is likely to unlock a wealth of archival evidence shedding light on the horrifying descent of the former Yugoslavia into murder and mayhem.

It turns out that the best witness for the prosecution is Mladic himself.  Like other mass murderers before him (Adolf Eichmann comes to mind), he was keen to justify his place in history.  He kept a meticulous record of his actions during the five-year war in Bosnia, secretly recorded many of his own telephone conversations, and videotaped family gatherings. In short, he was an archival packrat.

 

It is still unclear how much we will learn from Ratko Mladic when his trial, tentatively scheduled to begin on March 27, 2012, finally opens.  He has shown little desire to cooperate in pre-trial appearances, and his courtroom behavior has been erratic and unpredictable. But that may not matter.  His trial is likely to unlock a wealth of archival evidence shedding light on the horrifying descent of the former Yugoslavia into murder and mayhem.

It turns out that the best witness for the prosecution is Mladic himself.  Like other mass murderers before him (Adolf Eichmann comes to mind), he was keen to justify his place in history.  He kept a meticulous record of his actions during the five-year war in Bosnia, secretly recorded many of his own telephone conversations, and videotaped family gatherings. In short, he was an archival packrat.

 

The video above shows Mladic scribbling in a notebook on July 11, 1995, the day his troops seized Srebrenica.  The notebook that you can see in the video was seized during a police raid on his house in Belgrade, and is now in the hands of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal.  It records his meeting at the Hotel Fontana in Bratunac with Colonel Thomas Karremans, commander of the Dutch peace-keeping contingent in Srebrenica (on the far right.)  Other people visible in the video include Mladic’s aide, Colonel Radislav Jankovic, and an interpreter.

The Srebrenica notebook was part of a much larger trove of material discovered in the bedroom and attic of Mladic’s house at Blagoja Parovica 117A on February 23, 2010. During an earlier search, on December 4, 2008, police had discovered five of the Bosnian Serb commander’s wartime notebooks. Their haul the second time around included another 18 notebooks, 120 audio recordings, and piles of military documents.

Some of this evidence has already been introduced in other court cases, including the trial of former Bosnian Serb president, Radovan Karadzic.  Earlier this month, prosecutors used an entry in Mladic’s diary to shed light on his movements on July 14, 1995, following the fall of Srebrenica.  The diaries have also been cited in the trial of the former Serbian secret police chief, Jovica Stanisic, to demonstrate links between Belgrade and paramilitary forces operating in Bosnia.  But most of the documents are still sealed.

Prosecutors caution that there is no smoking gun in the documents such as an order for the killing of some 8,000 Muslim men captured at Srebrenica. If written orders ever existed for the executions, they have likely been destroyed.  The only explicit references to the Srebrenica massacres occur on July 14, when Mladic notes a demand by European envoy Carl Bildt for the release of the Muslim prisoners. "He says we must do something over the weekend, or else there will be problems," Mladic jotted down. "The men must be freed." The following day, July 15, British general Rupert Smith confronted Mladic with allegations of rapes and murders by Bosnian Serb troops.   By this time, of course, the killing spree was at its height.   The massacres of captured Muslims continued for another week.   

Even if there is no smoking gun, the notebooks and related documents provide unique insights into Mladic’s personality, his relationships with other Serbian leaders, the functioning of the Bosnian Serb army, and his overall war aims.  On January 29, 1994, for example, Mladic explains the rationale for the bloody siege of Sarajevo, then its third year. "You have to thrash the Muslims for long enough that the whole world sees that it does not pay to fight against Serbs.  The most important part is Sarajevo. That is the brain of their state.  With the blockade of Sarajevo, we have established our state."

As interesting as the diaries are the surreptitious recordings that Mladic made of his conversations with Serbian leaders, including Slobodan Milosevic.  On occasions, he seems to be trying to create an alibi for himself.  For example, on May 11, 1996 , he wired himself up to record a conversation with Milosevic at a military base in Dobanovci.  When Milosevic confronts him with international claims of massacres at Srebrenica, Mladic professes ignorance, saying that the "Turks…killed each other."

"There were piles of them, where 200 were killed, where ten were killed, fighting between themselves.  Some ran into minefields, trying to break through our army. I signed an agreement with them, on where they should go.  Those who arrived at our checkpoint were saved."

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. Twitter: @michaeldobbs

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