Michael Dobbs

Mladic voted against ethnic cleansing before he voted for it

The photograph above is from an old postcard, depicting the Austro-Hungarian fortress at Kalinovik, down the road from Ratko Mladic’s birthplace. (You can find my photograph of the modern-day scene here.) It was sent to me by a reader who quibbled with my claim that Kalinovik was once on “the frontier between Christendom and Islam.” ...

The photograph above is from an old postcard, depicting the Austro-Hungarian fortress at Kalinovik, down the road from Ratko Mladic’s birthplace. (You can find my photograph of the modern-day scene here.) It was sent to me by a reader who quibbled with my claim that Kalinovik was once on “the frontier between Christendom and Islam.” While that description applies in a general sense to Bosnia-Herzegovina, I was wrong to imply that the Kalinovik fortress was a frontier post. 

In fact, says my informant, who is well-versed in Bosnian history, Kalinovik was a military training center, far from the front lines. Its main attraction for the Austro-Hungarian army was the open, relatively flat terrain of the high mountain plateau and “the sparse population of the area, which made it suitable for practicing field maneuvers.”

The postcard above of Austro-Hungarian soldiers on the march gives a good impression of the desolate, rock-strewn karst surroundings of Kalinovik that reminded me of a lunar landscape.

Prior to the most recent war, the Kalinovik municipality included a mixture of Serbian villages (such as Mladic’s native Bozanovici), and Muslim villages. The 1991 census records that 2,826 Serbs and 1,716 Muslims lived in Kalinovik municipality. Mladic visited the area in May 1992, soon after the war broke out, and promised to protect the Muslim villages from attack. On his orders, Yugoslav army artillery guns that had been threatening the Muslim villages were removed. But the same guns were brought back in August 1992, and used to bombard Muslim villages. 

It is interesting to speculate what caused this reversal of policy. Was Mladic sincere in making his original promises to his Muslim neighbors, or were his reassuring words simply a feint, to lull them into a false sense of security? It is worth bearing in mind that immediately after his visit to Kalinovik he warned his fellow Bosnian Serb leaders against a policy of ethnic cleansing, which he said would be tantamount to “genocide.” Since these remarks were made at a private session of the Bosnian Serb assembly, they cannot be simply dismissed as wartime propaganda.

What is clear is that by the summer of 1992 any sense of restraint had disappeared. In June, the Muslims of Kalinovik municipality were herded into a disused Austro-Hungarian army warehouse and elementary school. Beginning in August, a number of the detained women were repeatedly raped while several dozen male prisoners were killed. Others were beaten and tortured. The survivors were deported to camps in Bosnia. 

Today, virtually all trace of Muslim life has been eradicated from Kalinovik municipality.  Most of the mosques have been destroyed. 

In my Mladic/Kalinovik post, I also erred in describing Kalinovik as part of the Romanija region of Bosnia. In fact, Romanija is to the north east of Sarajevo, around the town of Han Pijesak, where Mladic had his wartime headquarters. I have corrected this reference in the post. The Kalinovik municipality straddles the border of  Herzegovina, the mountainous triangle between Bosnia, Montenegro, and southern Dalmatia.

 Twitter: @michaeldobbs

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