See more wanted dictators here.
Shortly after he was first
charged with crimes against humanity in July 1995, Ratko Mladic was asked what
it felt like to be branded "a war criminal" by an international court. The
Bosnian Serb military commander seethed with a mixture of barely controlled anger
and contempt as he rejected the "idiotic accusations."
people or I were not the first to start that war," he insisted, veins popping
from his bloated red face. "I don't recognize any trials except the trial of my
Seventeen years later, the once
all-powerful general finally appeared this spring before the International
Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague to answer charges of
genocide, persecution, extermination, unlawful attacks on civilians, and
hostage-taking. Partially paralyzed on his right side and looking older than
his 70 years, he is physically much diminished, a shadow of the man who became
known as the "butcher of the Balkans" for the campaign of terror he waged
against Bosnia's non-Serb population. But he is recognizably the same
person -- proud, willful, and completely unrepentant.
Mladic flashed the thumbs-up sign as he entered the
courtroom in May, nodded approvingly as he listened to some of the charges
against him, and even clapped his hands when the prosecutor played audio clips
of him bullying United Nations peacekeepers and ordering the shelling of
civilian areas of Sarajevo. "It was as if he was saying that everything that he
did was completely justified," Jasmina Mujkanovic, whose father was killed in
the infamous Omarska concentration camp, told me.
Together with victim representatives
like her, I was seated in the public gallery of the tribunal's high-tech
courtroom. We could see everything that was going on, but we were separated
from the accused by a thick pane of glass. It was probably just as well, as the
mother of one of his victims found it impossible to restrain herself in the
presence of their tormentor and made insulting gestures. Mladic replied with a
threat, slowly drawing a finger across his throat.
Mladic's alleged crimes represent
the greatest evil that has been perpetrated in Europe since World War II: the
ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Bosnian Muslims, culminating in
the coldblooded execution of more than 7,000 prisoners in Srebrenica. The West
may have closed its eyes to worse atrocities in the past 70 years, but none in
its civilizational backyard, a mere stone's throw from where the Holocaust laid
bare Europe's pretensions to enlightenment. Which is exactly why I have spent
the past 10 months investigating the case and traveling through the former
Yugoslavia -- interviewing victims, witnesses, and perpetrators -- identifying what
we now know about these atrocities and trying to uncover what we still don't
two decades later.
Watching Mladic finally
appear in court, I couldn't help thinking about another much-anticipated war
crimes case, 50 years ago. Adolf Eichmann went on trial in Jerusalem in 1961
accused of crimes against humanity for his involvement in the Nazis' murder of
6 million Jews. The most celebrated chronicler of the Eichmann trial was,
of course, Hannah Arendt, who wrote a series of articles for the New Yorker
that were eventually turned into a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem. The book
was subtitled "A Report on the Banality of Evil," a phrase that sought to
explain how the ordinary, harmless-looking bureaucrat in the dock had committed
such monstrous, out-of-the-ordinary crimes.
Mladic was never a
harmless-looking bureaucrat. He was a general born for command who got his
hands dirty -- and bloody -- on the battlefield. He was not simply a cog in the
machinery of genocide: He set the machinery in motion and supervised every
aspect of its operation. In the words of the late Richard Holbrooke, the U.S.
diplomat who helped bring the three-and-a-half-year Bosnian conflict to an end,
Mladic was "one of those lethal combinations that history thrusts up
occasionally -- a charismatic murderer."
But even that does not
fully explain Mladic and his motivations. When I lived in Belgrade during the
final years of Tito's dictatorship in the late 1970s, I did not consciously
divide my friends into Serb or Croat, Muslim or Christian. No one did. Tito's
insistence on "brotherhood and unity," enforced when necessary by the army and
secret police, along with collective pride in his refusal to kowtow to foreign
powers, resulted in a sort of ethnic harmony. Even if it was imposed from
above, that system had its true believers -- Mladic among them. So as I finally
had a chance to look into Mladic's piercing blue eyes, I tried to understand
how a man who ritualistically swore to defend Tito's achievements could have
ordered the coldblooded execution of thousands.
unambiguous the basic facts of Srebrenica -- mass graves leave little room for
moral interpretation -- the hearings before the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal have
already revealed significant gaps in our understanding of what happened. For
example, according to Bosnian Serb military documents and testimony from key
participants gathered in preparation for his trial, Mladic did not at first
even intend to capture the town of Srebrenica. His initial goal was to create
"an unbearable situation" for its inhabitants, forcing them to leave of their
own accord. Only when he met no effective resistance from U.N. troops defending
the internationally recognized "safe area" did he request approval from Bosnian
Serb President Radovan Karadzic to order the final "takeover of Srebrenica." In
other words, this was a mass murder born of opportunism.
Since his capture after years on
the run, Mladic has appeared nearly a dozen times in public, at various
pretrial hearings and then, in mid-May, at the long-awaited start of his trial.
Never has he shown any remorse. Yet, revered by his supporters as a mythical,
godlike figure whose image remains plastered on walls all over Serbia, he has
by turns also appeared rambling, defiant, domineering, melodramatic,
conciliatory, argumentative, and seemingly on the verge of tears. At one point
during an appearance last October, he pleaded for an additional five minutes
with his wife. Mladic seems banal only in that some of his reactions have been
so predictably human.
None of this makes his case unique. It is
simply the latest step in the world's attempt to bring closure to its most
awful crimes. Half a century after the Eichmann trial, if the arc of history is
bending at all toward justice, it is doing so not because we have finally
recognized the true nature of evil and thereby exorcised it, but because we
have continued the painstaking work of uncovering who did what when -- and finding
a way, however laborious, frustrating, or belated, of punishing them for it.
SEEKING INSIGHTS INTO Mladic's life, last
November I tracked down the man who sheltered him for more than five
years in an obscure village on the flat Danubian plain north of Belgrade. Known
to his friends as Brane, Branislav Mladic is Ratko's second cousin. Their
grandfathers were brothers, Serbs from the mountainous region of Bosnia known
With a thin, angular face and
stubble of gray beard, Brane bears little outward resemblance to his famous
relative, except for the same darting eyes and abrupt, no-nonsense manner. A
bachelor, he lives by himself in a ramshackle farmhouse, with a few chickens,
sheep, and pigs roaming about the courtyard. He made clear he disliked the
United States ("The Americans attacked the Serbs for no reason"), but he agreed
to talk to me -- his first extended interview with an American reporter -- because I
had been introduced by a friend of a friend. Such connections count for
everything in Serbia.
As Brane told the story, through a
mist of tobacco smoke and repeated shots of slivovitz, the potent plum brandy
that is the Serbian national drink, in early 2006 Ratko showed up on his
doorstep in the village of Lazarevo in the middle of the night. By this time,
he had become a vagrant, living in a series of borrowed apartments, a wanted
man with a $5 million reward on his head from the U.S. government. First indicted
for crimes against humanity in 1995, shortly after Srebrenica, Mladic lived
more or less openly in Belgrade until 2002, when the Serbian parliament adopted
a law belatedly promising to cooperate with the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal.
"Do you know who I am?" he
whispered to Brane, before ordering him to turn off the porch light. Brane was
shocked by his cousin's appearance, but recognized his voice, which still had
the timbre of a man accustomed to being instantly obeyed. Although their paths
had separated, Brane had followed Ratko's exploits as the legendary general who
stood up for Serbian minorities, first in Croatia in 1991 and then in Bosnia,
during the brutal war that ended with the 1995 Dayton peace agreement and the
de facto partition of the country into mini-states controlled by Serbs,
Muslims, and Croats.
Over the next few years, Ratko and
Brane settled into a fixed routine, living in separate rooms across the small
farmyard. In the early morning, before Brane headed off to the fields, they would
drink coffee together. Ratko spoke about his father, Nedo, a member of Tito's
communist partisans killed during World War II by Croatian nationalists allied
with Hitler. Ratko
described how he went looking for his father's grave in the mountains of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
He eventually found an old Muslim who showed him the place where his father was
buried. The grave had been washed away by a mountain stream, but Ratko told
Brane that he was so grateful for this information that he "spared" the Muslim
village of Bradina from Serbian assault during the war.
Several of Mladic's relatives,
including Brane's father, Dusan, ended up in the rich agricultural region of
Vojvodina after World War II. As former partisans, they were encouraged to
occupy land that had been cleansed of Swabian Germans. At school, they were
taught that ethnic differences no longer mattered in the brave new Yugoslavia
being forged by Tito. At home, they clung to the traditions they had brought
with them from the inhospitable Herzegovinian mountains, as well as the memory
of defending themselves from their enemies, whether Germans, Muslims, or
Unlike Brane, a former factory
worker who turned to farming when the Yugoslav economy fell apart following the
collapse of communism, Ratko rose through the ranks of the Yugoslav army,
serving in Kosovo and Macedonia. As a professional military officer, he had a
strong incentive to embrace the Titoist idea of loyalty to an overarching
nation. He described himself as a "Yugoslav," or "South Slav," rather than as a
"Serb," in official censuses. At the same time, he was always very aware of his
ethnic identity. With its Serb-dominated officer corps, the Yugoslav People's
Army was one of the most efficient channels of upward mobility for peasant families
like the Mladices who bore the brunt of the fighting in World War II.
Born in 1942 according to official
Yugoslav records -- 1943 according to family lore -- Mladic was a child of a conflict
that was a struggle for national liberation, political revolution, and civil
war all rolled into one. His very name, Ratko, derives from rat, Serbian
for "war," and he spent his entire professional life preparing for war against
the enemies of Tito's Yugoslavia. The war, when it came, was against internal
enemies rather than external ones, but the ideological mindset was much the
same. As Mladic saw it, Croats and Bosnian Muslims became proxies for Germans
and Ottoman Turks, the peoples who had inflicted so much suffering on his
Although Brane refuses to speak ill
of his celebrated relative, living alone with Ratko for five years cannot have
been easy. As Mladic has shown in The Hague, he is a controlling person, given
to angry outbursts when he fails to get his way. Whether he is commanding an
80,000-man army, dealing with a roomful of judges and lawyers, or living at
home with his hermit cousin, he must always be the focus of attention.
According to Brane, Ratko whiled
away the time watching television and reading newspapers. For exercise, he
would occasionally walk around the farmhouse late at night, once he was sure
that all the neighbors had gone to bed. Brane let him have the keys to his
ramshackle Volkswagen Polo, but he does not think his cousin ever used it. The
former general liked to reminisce about his exploits during the war in Bosnia,
but steered clear of controversial topics, such as the killings in Srebrenica.
Brane accepted his cousin's explanation that "everything that I did was for one
purpose only -- to defend the rights of the Serbian people."
One evening in January 2011, Brane
returned home from the fields to find Ratko slumped over in the bath, paralyzed
on the right side of his body. "For four days, he could not get up. He could
not go to the toilet. He could not move," Brane told me. Afraid to summon a
doctor who might report Mladic to the authorities, Brane treated his cousin
with heart medicine he was able to scrounge from a pharmacy.
Recovering from a stroke without
proper medical attention may have weakened Mladic's resolve to evade capture
and transfer to The Hague. He yearned for contact with family, particularly his
son, Darko. A few weeks after what his lawyer said was a third stroke, in May
2011, Mladic demanded to see his grandchildren, who were visiting another
relative in Lazarevo. Darko brought his 10-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son
to Brane's place, on the pretext of looking at the animals. Mladic stared at
the children through the curtains of his room as they petted the pigs, but did
not actually greet them.
"I told him it was a big mistake,
but he wouldn't listen," Brane recalled.
The Serbian police were monitoring
Darko's movements, hoping that he would eventually lead them to his father.
Less than a week later, on May 26, they broke through the gates of the
farmyard. Mladic had a loaded pistol nearby, but made little attempt to reach
it. Sick and feeble, he was psychologically ready to embark on a new stage of
his never-ending war.
THERE COULD SCARCELY BE a greater contrast
between the fugitive who meekly surrendered to police a year ago and the warlord who
determined with a wave of his finger whether a prisoner would live or die. "I
am giving your life to you as a gift," he told a frightened young man captured
by Serbian troops a week after the fall of Srebrenica. "Don't go back to the
front. Next time, there won't be any forgiveness."
A former silver-mining town with a
population of close to 40,000 before the war, Srebrenica was one of several
Muslim-controlled enclaves in eastern Bosnia that survived the initial Serbian
onslaught in 1992. Declared a "safe area" by the United Nations in 1993, it was
an obstacle to Serbian control of the strategically important Drina River
valley separating Bosnia from Serbia. After Muslim fighters based in Srebrenica
mounted raids against nearby Serbian villages, destroying dozens of homes and
killing hundreds of Serbs, Mladic swore to take revenge.
Video of Mladic's triumphant entry
into Srebrenica on July 11, 1995, captures a man intent on controlling every
detail of the operation. He is commanding general, platoon leader, traffic cop,
political commentator, and movie producer all rolled into one. "Film that," he
shouts to the cameraman. "Take down that Muslim street sign," he tells someone
else, addressing his subordinates as "dumb fucks." When he comes across a U.N.
vehicle stuck in a ditch, he personally supervises its recovery.
"The boss can't stop commanding for
five minutes," jokes a member of his staff on another occasion, when Mladic's
back is briefly turned.
"You know how he is," laments
Mladic's penchant for
micromanagement is one reason it is impossible to imagine that the brutal
executions of more than 7,000 Srebrenica men and boys between July 12 and 15
could possibly have happened without his knowledge and express instructions.
Evidence presented at The Hague strongly suggests that Mladic ordered the
executions, which were then supervised by a trusted aide, Col. Ljubisa Beara.
Mladic personally oversaw the
separation of Muslim male refugees from women and children outside the gates of
the U.N. military compound in Srebrenica. He was also present when thousands of
Muslim men attempting to flee across the mountains to government-held territory
were captured by Bosnian Serb forces. Mladic promised the refugees they would
be exchanged for Serbian prisoners. Instead, they were loaded into buses and
taken to execution sites, where they were mowed down by firing squad.
In the fall of 1995, when the
outside world began to learn the horror of what had happened at Srebrenica,
Mladic mobilized the resources of the Bosnian Serb army to cover up the crime.
His subordinates used bulldozers and dump trucks to dig up at least four mass
graves containing the bones of Srebrenica victims and scatter the remains in
dozens of secondary graves in remote valleys of eastern Bosnia. Unfortunately
for Mladic, U.S. spy satellites recorded the attempted deception in detail,
enabling investigators to locate the secondary graves and use DNA samples to
The biggest remaining mystery is
not whether Mladic ordered the massacre or how it was carried out, but why.
Plenty of evidence shows that he always had a ruthless, hands-on streak.
Intercepted phone calls show that he stood on the hills above Sarajevo in May
1992 personally directing Serbian artillery fire. "Don't let them sleep.… Drive
them crazy," he ordered at the beginning of the siege. "Shoot at Pofalici [a
predominantly Muslim neighborhood]. There is not much Serb population there.…
Fire one more salvo at the Presidency [headquarters of the Muslim-led Bosnian
government]." His willfulness and determination to win at all costs caused him
to commit acts that most of us would consider war crimes.
There is, however, an important
distinction between shelling a city, even indiscriminately, and murdering 7,000
prisoners in the space of three days. Unlike Karadzic, his nominal superior,
Mladic was not a Serbian nationalist, at least not initially. He disapproved of
the Chetnik paramilitaries who ran riot in Bosnia at the beginning of the war,
and he attempted to build a professional army. Bosnian Serb records show that
Mladic urged his comrades to restrain their territorial ambitions and avoid a
strategy of ethnic cleansing, which would be impossible to justify to
international public opinion. Speaking to a session of the Bosnian Serb
assembly on May 12, 1992, Mladic chillingly warned that such a policy "would be
SO WHAT HAPPENED? A study of the trial record of top
Mladic associates shows that Mladic's thinking changed in several important
ways between 1992 and 1995. First, he blamed the Muslims and the Croats for
breaking up his beloved Yugoslavia in the dramatic years of 1991 and 1992, with
the assistance of Western countries, notably Germany, which had been quick to
recognize the new republics of Slovenia and Croatia. "We were a happy country
with happy peoples, and we had a good life," he told Dutch peacekeepers in
Srebrenica, "until Muslims began listening to what [European leaders] and the Western
mafia were telling them."
As Mladic sees it, Yugoslavia was
destroyed by the same forces that tore the country apart during World War II,
when many Croat and Muslim politicians allied themselves with Nazi Germany.
Yugoslavia's breakup left nearly 2 million Serbs stranded in the newly
independent states of Croatia and Bosnia, easy prey for politicians intent on
stirring up memories of World War II atrocities.
Then there was the logic of the war
itself. Serbian atrocities against Muslims led to Muslim atrocities against
Serbs (though on nowhere near the same scale). Before U.N. peacekeepers arrived
in 1993, the Muslim defenders of Srebrenica had raided nearby Serbian villages
in search of food, destroying property and killing civilians. And Mladic lived
by a very simple code, the same code that had guided so many of his ancestors:
kill or be killed. He justified the mass killing of Srebrenica Muslims by
pointing to the crimes allegedly committed against Serbs.
Finally, as the international
community failed to intervene, Mladic became ever more contemptuous of the West
and ever more convinced of his own invincibility. In 1992, he was still
concerned about how the world would react to mass killings and expulsions of
non-Serbs. By 1995, he had lost all sense of restraint. A pile of U.N.
resolutions that were never implemented, along with the fecklessness of Western
leaders, convinced him that he could get away with anything. He was fully in
control of the situation in his own country, and nobody could challenge him. NATO had become a joke.
"Are they going to bomb us?" he
asked rhetorically shortly after Srebrenica fell. "No way!" (In fact, a massive NATO bombing campaign began a few days later, laying the groundwork for the
Dayton peace negotiations.)
I've come to conclude that Mladic
is a prime example of Lord Acton's dictum that "Power tends to corrupt, and
absolute power corrupts absolutely." By the summer of 1995, he had become the
master of his little universe, cut off from political reality. Surrounded by
sycophants who dared not contradict him, he became a victim of his own
propaganda, comparing himself to heroes in Serbian history who had gained
immortality by "fighting the Turks" -- a term he used to disparage Bosnian
Muslims, who, to Mladic, had committed the unforgivable historical sin of
aiding the Ottomans who ruled over Bosnia for more than four centuries and
crushed a series of rebellions by Orthodox Serbs. "We present this city to the
Serbian people as a gift," he announced grandly the day Srebrenica fell.
"Finally, the time has come to take revenge on the Turks."
LIKE BOSNIA ITSELF, Srebrenica today is a town divided.
Several thousand Muslim refugees have returned to their homes, but they have
little contact with their Serbian neighbors. "We nod at each other, but we
don't drink coffee together," said Samedin Malkic. Out of the 27 boys in his
high school class, only three survived, and only Malkic came back to
Srebrenica. "It is a ghost town," he told me sadly. "You don't see a single person
Two decades after the start of the
Bosnian war, it is hard to escape the feeling that the war criminals and ethnic
cleansers won. There is a painful sense on both sides of the ethnic divide that
Srebrenica's former comity will never be restored. "It was like a little
America here before the war," said Zejneba Ustic, another Muslim returnee. "We
had everything we needed. Today, there is no work. The factories are nearly all
closed. The economy has collapsed."
It is sobering to think that a
communist dictator did a better job -- at least in the short term -- of reconciling
ethnic groups and building a functioning economy than the Western democracies
that took responsibility for Bosnia after the Dayton peace agreement. Tito
promoted his "brotherhood and unity" ideology by throwing dissenters into
prison and forcibly suppressing any real debate about the ethnic bloodletting
triggered by World War II. He forced Bosnians to forget their hatreds -- or at
least pretend to forget. The West, by contrast, is encouraging them to
remember, even if this complicates the process of reconciliation.
The Yugoslav war crimes tribunal
set itself the goal of creating an objective historical record on which all
reasonable people should be able to agree, based on impartial experts'
meticulous documentation of the Srebrenica massacre and other atrocities.
Unfortunately, this has not prevented nationalists on all sides from
challenging the evidence the court has assembled and promoting alternative,
ethnic-centered versions of history. For a taste of these often-outlandish
conspiracy theories, you need look no further than the comments section of my
blog about the Mladic trial on Foreign Policy's website, where, for example,
"experts" funded by the Bosnian Serb statelet Republika Srpska explain away the
mass graves of Srebrenica victims by insisting that they contain the remains of
Muslims "killed in combat" rather than executed prisoners.
The start of Mladic's trial was supposed to represent
both a crowning moment and a decisive test for the system of international
justice that, we should remember, grew out of a humiliating failure to act.
Formed in May 1993 as a half-measure by the United States and other Western
governments that were unwilling to intervene militarily to stop the bloodshed
in the former Yugoslavia, the court was widely viewed as an empty gesture
toward the victims of a terrible war, the product of one more meaningless U.N.
resolution. Indeed, in its early phase, the tribunal was noteworthy primarily
for its powerlessness. Indicted war criminals continued to lead almost normal
lives, seemingly immune from justice. Mladic attended weddings and soccer
games, and he even went skiing at an Olympic resort near Sarajevo frequented by NATO peacekeepers. Even after he was stripped of official protection in 2002,
he was still able to benefit from a support network of retired army officers as
he moved from one hiding place to another.
Meanwhile, the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal spawned a
network of special courts for Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, and East Timor,
in addition to the International Criminal Court, which has been hearing
Darfur-related cases. The tribunal's first big breakthrough came in 2001 with
the transfer to The Hague of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to face
charges of crimes against humanity in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Milosevic's
trial ended inconclusively in March 2006 when the defendant was found dead in
his cell following a massive heart attack.
In an attempt to avoid a repetition
of the unsatisfactory ending of the Milosevic case, prosecutors have eliminated
90 incidents from the list of accusations against Mladic. The slimmed-down
indictment still includes 106 separate charges, however, including two counts
of genocide, revolving around the 1995 Srebrenica massacre and a massive
campaign of ethnic cleansing elsewhere in Bosnia. The trial is likely to take
at least two years -- once, that is, it actually gets going. On only its second
day, the presiding judge announced an indefinite suspension, possibly for
months, because of "significant disclosure errors" by prosecutors, who had
failed to share tens of thousands of documents with Mladic's defense team. It
was not a reassuring sign. It took the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal the better
part of two decades to bring its most high-profile target to justice, only to
bungle the grand opening.
To this point, the tribunal's greatest service has been
the promotion of the notion of individual responsibility over the pernicious
doctrine of collective guilt. The Bosnian atrocities were made possible in the
first place because men like Mladic sought revenge against entire communities
for crimes committed "against the Serbian people" by Muslims and Croats.
Similarly, Mladic has sought to depict the criminal case against him as a
conspiracy by the United States and other NATO countries to discredit the
entire "Serbian nation."
"I am not defending myself," he told the court in one of
his pretrial hearings. "I am still defending both the Republika Srpska and
Serbia and the whole people there."
The presiding judge was quick to set the record
straight. "You are charged before this tribunal … no one else, not a republic,
not a people," he told the old man in the dock. "I would urge you to defend
yourself as an accused, rather than to defend persons, entities, organizations
which are not accused before this tribunal."
Mladic is right that the trial is
about more than just him. But for Bosnia to escape the vicious cycle of hatred
begetting more hatred, the judge's approach to history must triumph over
Mladic's. As much as we may want to divine the nature of evil, it is more
important that we first resolve this one case.
Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images