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Next week, 26 years after he was initially indicted, the UN court in The Hague will deliver its final verdict in the trial of former Bosnian Serb Army general Ratko Mladic.
Mladic appealed after the court’s first-instance verdict in 2017 sentenced him to life prison for the genocide of Bosniaks from Srebrenica in 1995, the persecution of Bosniaks and Croats throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 1992-95 war, terrorising the population of Sarajevo during the siege of the city and taking UN peacekeepers hostage.
Mladic, now aged 78, was born in 1943 in the Bosnian village of Bozinovci, some 70 kilometres south of the capital Sarajevo.
He was the child of a Yugoslav Communist Partisan family, and his father was killed in one of the last battles of World War II. Mladic decided to follow in his footsteps and went to military school in Belgrade.
His military skills were first put to the test at the very beginning of the break-up of Yugoslavia, when the Yugoslav People’s Army sent him to Croatia in the spring of 1991 to assist local Serb rebels in the town of Knin, which was a Serb stronghold at the time.
By the time Mladic was appointed commander of the 9th Yugoslav People’s Army Corps in Knin in June 1991, the territory was already cut off from the rest of Croatia because the rebel Serbs, who had declared the establishment of their Autonomous Territory of Krajina statelet in 1990, had blocked the roads around the town.
Mladic insisted he was not on the side of any ethnic group: “I serve the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia with my brother officers, in order to protect all nationalities and nations,” he told Serbian public broadcaster RTS.
In August 1991, he ordered an attack on the nearby village of Kijevo in order to lift a retaliatory blockade of Serb settlements by Croatian forces.
“In Kijevo, we fired on legitimate military targets. We didn’t destroy a single house simply for the sake of it,” he told reporters afterwards.
But the Croatian prosecution believed otherwise. In July 1992, the county court in the town of Sibenik sentenced Mladic to 20 years in prison for the attack on Kijevo, which left the village in ruins.
According to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY, the attack marked the moment when the Yugoslav People’s Army, under Mladic’s command, openly took the Serb side in the conflict.
After Yugoslav troops seized the village, local Serbs entered and took it over. This model was then used all over the former Yugoslavia during the wars that followed – in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo.
Taking the fight to Bosnia
Ratko Mladic came to the talks in Sarajevo in August 1993. Photo: EPA/ENRIC MARTI
Fighting began in Bosnia and Herzegovina the year afterwards, with many Bosnian Serb officers leaving the Yugoslav People’s Army for the newly-established, Serb-led Army of Republika Srpska.
Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic didn’t want to be perceived as an aggressor at the time, so instead of sending his own troops, he decided to supply the Bosnian Serb Army with weapons and men, and make Mladic the main military strategist.
“When I took over my position… I tasked myself with gathering people and establishing the command and headquarters… I knew immediately that a big historic event was going to happen there,” Mladic told Belgrade-based news magazine NIN.
Adam Weber, one of the prosecutors in the Mladic case from 2012 until 2017, said that Mladic was chosen because the Bosnian Serb leadership saw him as “the guy who had just carried out some ethnic cleansing operations in Croatia”.
The Bosnian Serb military chief’s right-hand man, General Manojlo Milovanovic, told the Hague Tribunal in 2013 that the day before the war broke out, Mladic had warned his political leadership about the possibility that genocide might be committed as they sought to seize the territory they wanted.
Milovanovic testified that Mladic told Bosnian Serb leaders in May 1992: “We cannot [ethnically] cleanse, we don’t have a sieve to sift so that only Serbs can stay, and others leave… I don’t know how [Bosnian Serb political leaders] Mr. [Radovan] Karadzic and Mr. [Momcilo] Krajisnik will explain this to the world. This is genocide, people.”
Under Mladic’s command, the Bosnian Serb Army spread fear and death – the city of Sarajevo was shelled for more than three years, and towns like Foca, Prijedor and Visegrad were cleared of Bosnian Muslims.
Mladic never conducted his campaigns in secret, and often allowed news cameras to film him walking around the heights above Sarajevo during the siege of the city. The civilian population was systematically shelled and targeted by snipers, and there were shortages of food, water and electricity.
In an audio recording that was played at his trial, Mladic commanded the shelling of parts of the city: “Shell Velusici and Pofalici because there are not many Serbs in those settlements,” he ordered on May 28, 1992, mispronouncing the Sarajevo settlement of Velesici.
“And shell the part near Dobrovoljacka Street, and up there around Humska street and up Djure Djakovica street,” he continued. “Can you shell Bascarsija? Fire a salvo at Bascarsija. Keep the presidency and parliament buildings under direct fire. Shoot slowly, at intervals, until I order you to stop.”
That night, many buildings in central Sarajevo were set ablaze. More than 100 wounded people were brought to the city’s hospitals in a matter of hours.
Those who stayed in the besieged city remember months spent living in fear, as people were killed queuing for water and bread, or running across bridges under sniper fire. Hospitals were shelled, along with museums and libraries.
Mladic was unrepentant. “I am just defending my people,” he said on many occasions during the war. He used the same line at his trial.
But Weber argued that the Bosnian Serb military chief was “instrumental to the creation of overall strategy of the ethnic cleansing that occurred throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, but he was also very much involved in the operational level with his core commanders and implementing that strategy”.
“And what you see from him is that he’s oftentimes very visibly present on the ground during the operations themselves, which gave him a very hands-on level of involvement at the tactical level with the actual carrying out of operations,” he added.
‘Protector of the Serbs’
Ratko Mladić (on the left) and Radovan Karadžić. Photo: EPA-EFE/STRINGER.
Mladic freely admitted that offensives were “the main method of my warfare style”.
“My goal is simple – the protection of Serb territory and the people who have lived there for ages,” he asserted.
In July 1995, just a few months before the conflict ended in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mladic’s forces captured the eastern town of Srebrenica, which the United Nations had declared a “protected zone” two years earlier.
Mladic arrived in Srebrenica with a smile on his face, congratulating the soldiers who met him in the streets of the now-deserted town.
Cameras recorded the general’s movements and Bosnian Serb television reported on the “liberation” of the town, which tens of thousands of Bosniaks were then fleeing.
“Here we are in Serb Srebrenica on July 11, 1995,” Mladic said in the broadcast. “On the eve of yet another big Serb holy day, we are presenting this town to the Serb people. Finally, the time has come to get even with the Turks for the first time since the uprising against Ottoman rule.”
What followed was the mass murder of several thousand men and boys, which subsequent indictments and verdicts passed down by international and Bosnian courts have classified as genocide.
During the night of July 11 to 12, Mladic held three meetings at the Fontana hotel in Bratunac. The fate of the people of Srebrenica was the subject that was discussed.
At one of the meetings, he told representatives of the Bosniak residents of Srebrenica: “You can either survive or disappear. In order for you to survive, I am asking all your men, who are armed, even if they committed crimes, and committed crimes against my people, to hand in their weapons to the VRS [Bosnian Serb Army].”
On July 12, Mladic arrived in the village of Potocari near Srebrenica, accompanied by a TV crew. The cameras filmed him distributing chocolate bars to children who had not seen such luxuries for years, and telling their parents not to be afraid because “nobody will do them any harm”.
“All of you who want to stay can do so. All those who want to leave this territory are free to do so. We have secured a sufficient number of buses and trucks for you,” he promised.
Mladic repeated the same message in a meadow in Sandici, in a hangar in Bratunac and at a stadium in Nova Kasaba, addressing captured Bosniak men and boys who were surrounded by Serb soldiers.
Instead, those who were captured or who surrendered were shot. According to the ICTY’s indictment of Mladic, “more than 7,000 prisoners captured in the area around Srebrenica were summarily executed from 13 July to 19 July 1995. The killings continued thereafter.”
On the run in Serbia
Ratko Mladić. Photo: MKSJ
The war in Bosnia ended in November 1995 with the Dayton peace agreement; four months earlier, Mladic had already been indicted by the ICTY, although the arrest warrant was only issued a year later.
Mladic pledged he would never surrender. “I can only be tried by my people,” he declared.
In 1996, Mladic moved to Serbia, together with a number of Bosnian Serb Army officers. During the war, the Serbian authorities provided Mladic with weapons, and in peacetime they gave him shelter.
He appeared to live freely, without fear of arrest, and went out to restaurants and football matches in the Serbian capital Belgrade.
Until 2003, Mladic was protected by the Serbian military establishment, but when Belgrade adopted a law on cooperation with the ICTY, Mladic had to rely on a closer group of his Bosnian Serb military lieutenants, and then, in the final years before he was caught, on his family.
On May 26, 2011, police special forces went to the Serbian village of Lazarevo to raid a house owned by a relative of Mladic. They went into the house and then tried to enter one of the rooms, but someone was behind the door – an elderly man in a baseball cap.
“Who are you?” police asked.
“You have found who you’re looking for,” the man responded. “I’m Ratko Mladic.”
His arrest sparked huge protests in Belgrade and various towns in Republika Srpska. His lawyers tried to postpone his extradition to The Hague on health grounds, but their requests were denied, except one – a 40-minute visit to the grave of his daughter Ana, who killed herself in 1994.
Mladic made his first appearance in the ICTY courtroom in The Hague in the summer of 2011.
During his nine-year trial, he often provoked war victims who were attending hearings and refused to comply with the judge’s orders.
He had several serious medical problems while in detention in the Netherlands and suffered two strokes and a heart attack. His defence repeatedly asked for him to be hospitalised, claiming that his health was deteriorating and raising concerns that he might not be mentally competent to follow proceedings.
Addressing the court at his appeal hearing in October 2020, he claimed that the collapse of Yugoslavia was the result of a Western plot, and repeated his wartime assertion that he was just protecting the Serb people.
“Fate put me in a position to defend my country, the SFRY [Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] that you Western powers had devastated with the help of the Vatican and the Western mafia, [US President George HW] Bush and [German Foreign Minister Klaus] Kinkel,” he said.
“Ratko Mladic was not the one who started that war. He was not the one who made the plan to attack Yugoslavia,” he added.
The wartime victims of the Bosnian Serb Army were not impressed by such statements. Izudin Alic, one of the children from Srebrenica who Mladic gave chocolate to in July 1995 before the massacres started, told BIRN in 2017 that he sometimes asked himself if the former Bosnian Serb military commander remembered him.
“I often wonder about this, when I see him in The Hague. I wonder if he knew all those men would be killed… My father and uncle, all of them,” he said.
“What do I feel about him? Nothing! I am only glad that he was arrested and that he is on trial,” Alic added.
“He should answer for all that he did in Srebrenica.”
This is an updated version of an article originally published by BIRN on November 14, 2017.