Ratko Mladic arrest: the Balkan beasts are no more
The Serbian army officer took a pre-breakfast swig of slivovitz plum brandy, stared at me coldly, and drew his finger sharply across his neck. We were on the outskirts of the eastern Bosnian town of Visegrad on a crisp spring Balkan morning. I had just asked him about his plans for the Muslim inhabitants – his response was the universal sign language for slaughter.
The officer was true to his word. An estimated 3,000 of Visegrad’s 25,000 residents were murdered in early April 1992, many killed on the stone Ottoman bridge across the River Drina, their bodies hurled into the chilly waters below. Thousands more were rounded up, packed like livestock into freight trucks and ferried off to newly created detention camps.
Unimaginably – as it seemed then – the horrific spectre of ethnic cleansing had returned to Europe, less than half a century after the Nazis had tried to eradicate the Jews from the Third Reich.
The campaign reached its horrendous apogee in the summer of 1995, when Bosnian Serb forces overran the supposed United Nations “safe haven” of Srebrenica and its contingent of hapless Dutch peacekeepers. They led away more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys, who were lined up in the nearby fields, executed, and buried in mass graves.
The political face of the campaign to carve out an ethnically pure Bosnian Serb fiefdom was Radovan Karadzic, operating in tandem with Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav leader in Belgrade.
But the ruthless enforcer was Ratko Mladic, a bull-chested career soldier in the Yugoslav army. With his capture yesterday, the three architects of the worst atrocities in Europe since 1945 are all now either dead or in custody.
Karadzic is already on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, based in the Hague, for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity; in 2008, he was tracked down to a Belgrade suburb, where he was living as a pony-tailed self-styled faith healer. Milosevic died in his cell in the Hague in 2006, while facing a battery of similar charges, five years after he was handed over by Belgrade. And Mladic’s extradition is now only a formality, after Serbian commandos raided his hideout in a sleepy village near the Romanian border.
The Bosnian civil war erupted in spring 1992, after the republic’s Muslim-led government, based in Sarajevo, declared independence from the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav federation in the wake of Croatia’s bloody fight for secession. I had previously asked Karadzic what would happen if Bosnia did indeed try to break away: “There will be terrible killing,” he responded. “There will be 250,000 dead.”
His comment sounded like typical swagger from the bouffant-haired braggart. In fact, his prediction was chillingly accurate: during the three-year conflict, more than 200,000 were indeed killed. Mladic oversaw much of that, although the Croatian paramilitaries on the other side were often just as brutal, if on a lesser scale.
Bosnia was – and is – a complex ethnic mosaic of Muslims, Serbs and Croats, where memories of internecine massacres, often centuries old, were passed from generation to generation. Ratko Mladic was born into this turbulent history in 1942, in a village in eastern Bosnia that was then part of a Croatian puppet state loyal to the Nazis. His father, one of the leaders of the Serb partisans known as the Chetniks, was killed when Ratko was just three, during an attack on Croatian forces.
Mladic entered an elite Yugoslav army academy from school, and rapidly worked his way through the ranks. In October 1991, as the old Yugoslavia ripped apart at its seams, he was promoted to general, as Yugoslav forces struggled to suppress breakaway Croatian forces. In response to the declaration of independence by Bosnia’s Muslim leadership, Mladic and his fellow Yugoslav generals imposed a blockade on Sarajevo in May 1992. That began a three-year siege of the capital, in which hundreds of civilians could die in a single day, either from shelling or sniper attacks from the Serbian strongholds in the surrounding hills.
Meanwhile, in regions across the republic that had once been ethnically mixed, his forces, led by officers such as the one I met at Visegrad, were “cleansing” the local population of non-Serbs with cold-blooded efficiency – whether by murder, deportation or intimidation. Many of the Bosnian Croats retaliated in kind.
The “Republika Srpska” that the Serbs were carving out was led by Karadzic politically, with its military – a mixture of former army units and paramilitaries – under the command of Mladic. During the three years of bloodshed, ceasefires were broken almost as quickly as they were brokered. And even as the international community condemned the atrocities, they continued to unfold, culminating in the horrors of Srebrenica.
By then, Nato had finally launched air strikes intended to force compliance with UN resolutions. Mladic responded by leading his forces into the eastern Bosnian town, where an estimated 40,000 Muslims had sought refuge under the protection of UN peacekeepers.
By then, the phrase “safe haven” had become little more than a sick joke; the “blue helmets”, shackled by the strictures put on their operations by UN and their home governments, were regarded by the warring factions as an irrelevance.
It was the global revulsion at events in Srebrenica that finally forced world leaders to act, triggering an intensified Nato bombing campaign that pushed the Serbs to the negotiating table – although by then they had already secured most of their land grab on the ground. In late 1995, the Dayton peace accords, signed at a huge US air force base in Ohio, ended the conflict.
Mladic and Karadzic had, meanwhile, been indicted by the ICTY for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for the siege of Sarajevo, the slaughter at Srebrenica and other atrocities. Both went into hiding, protected by a fiercely loyal network of Serb nationalists and former army officers, for whom they were regarded as heroes for defending Serbian interests and resisting the independence of Muslims and Croatians.
For several years, Serbia’s leaders in Belgrade paid only lip service to idea that they were seeking the wanted men. But as the political winds changed with the election of new governments and the prospect of joining the EU being made conditional on giving full co-operation to the ICTY – both time and friends ran out for first Karadzic, and now Mladic.
At the height of the war in Bosnia, the world had also stood impotently by as 800,000 people were massacred in a frenzy of tribal carnage in Rwanda. Five decades after the Holocaust, the phrase “never again” had terrible resonance.
Those acts of barbarism gave a fresh impetus to calls for the international community to adopt a “responsibility to protect” that entailed military intervention if a sovereign state failed to protect its own population from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.
It was on that basis that Nato launched its 1999 bombing campaign to halt Serbian atrocities in the predominantly Albanian territory of Kosovo, and that Tony Blair sent British forces into Sierra Leone to end the brutal civil war in 2000. And it was the prospect of Col Muammar Gaddafi’s forces massacring Libyan rebels as they stormed into the opposition stronghold of Benghazi that prompted the UN Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over the North African country.
It is a hopeful sign that justice will finally be brought to bear on those responsible for such a grisly part of Europe’s history – and that, two decades after my shocking encounter with that Serbian officer, the impunity and ineptitude that once characterised our attempts to track down the perpetrators of the atrocities have come to a belated end.
Source: The Telegraph