Reflections on the arrest of Ratko Mladić

„A difficult period of our history is now over,” Serbian President Boris Tadić told reporters in Belgrade, as he announced the arrest of Ratko Mladić in the northern Vojvodinan village of Lazarevo earlier that day, “we have removed the stain from the face of the members of our nation wherever they live.” Like the late Prime Minister Zoran Djindjić before him, who dared to arrest then extradite Slobodan Milosević, Tadić had shown, with the arrest of first Radovan Karadžić, then of Ratko Mladić, that however late the event, however hesitant or unpopular, Tadić had placed himself on the side of a European Serbia. For some Serbs, still caught in the tide of the powerful nationalism of the past twenty-five years, that is a tradition of traitors to Serbia, and Tadić, like Djindjić, should pay with his life. For many, it is a tradition of sobriety and respect for others, which places Serbia back into the mainstream of nations.

With Mladić’s arrest, Serbia’s prospects of joining the European Union took a great step forward. The announcement in Brussels on June 10 that Croatia had now completed negotiations on all thirty-five chapters of its accession treaty with the EU, and now looks likely to join in July 2013, rounded off two good weeks for the Western Balkans. The carrot of EU accession has always been much more useful than the sticks which Brussels has tried, rather clumsily, to wield. But has the boil of aggressive Serbian and Croatian nationalism, which caused the wars in Croatia and Bosnia in the first place, finally been lanced? And what are the chances of reconciliation, in the wider Balkans, in the post-Mladić era?

Amid the wreckage on the floor of Ratko Mladić’s wartime headquarters in Han Pijesak in central Bosnia, a big plastic relief map of the Balkans gathers dust and mouse-droppings. You could even run your hands over the mountains, feel each one in turn, then run your fingers down onto the flat plains. There is Maglić, on the border with Montenegro, the highest at 2,386 metres. There is Igman, the watchman at the gate of Sarajevo, Trebević where the bobsleigh competitions took place in the 1984 Winter Olympics, and from which Mladić’s artillery kept up the cruel bombardment of Sarajevo through the war, and the strangely named Zep, towering over us here in Han Pijesak, as though directing the thunderstorm, not the shelling now. The statistical yearbook of Bosnia-Hercegovina lists sixty-five mountains over the height of 1,500 metres.

The whole map is like a crumpled sheet on the bed of Europe, the mountains in brown, the plains in green, the cities in red, and the rivers blue, like veins dividing the mountains. The map even notes the existence of a small place called Lazarevo, up on the green plains of Vojvodina, where Mladić was arrested on May 26. Did the general’s eye ever pause on that place, as he studied this map on his office wall in wartime? After years of rumours that he and his bodyguards would fight to the death, his arrest was actually a rather quiet affair, a couple of dozen secret service operatives, surrounding the simple yellow brick house and garden ‘I am the man you are looking for’, he told them, leaving his two U.S.-made pistols untouched. According to one account, he was even relieved to have been discovered at last.

A long trial can now be expected, starting some time next year, dovetailing but never quite merging with Radovan Karadžić’s long-running performance in the dock. Karadžić’s trial began in October 2009, following his arrest in Belgrade in July 2008. The men were partners in power, often on good terms, increasingly at loggerheads, and it will be interesting to see if they coordinate their arguments in the courtrooms, or blame each other for what went wrong. They both stand accused of putting into practice a ‘criminal project’ which cost over a hundred thousand lives, and displaced nearly two million people from their homes, at least half for ever. The trial should also shed more light on the inter-relationship between Serbia and the Bosnian Serb leadership, political, military and financial during the war. The bigger the involvement of Serbia as a separate state, the harder to maintain the fiction that what happened in Bosnia was a civil war.

There is no doubt that Mladić, and his followers, see themselves as the latest incarnations of a race of Serbian heroes. “Prince Lazar took communion with his army and submitted himself to the heavenly kingdom,” Ratko Mladić told his soldiers on Vidovdan, 28 June, 1995 in the north-eastern Bosnian town of Bijeljina, “defending his fatherland, faith, freedom and the honour of the Serbian nation. We must understand the essence of that sacrifice so that we can draw from it a historical lesson. The fact that we have today created a victorious army has ensured that Lazar’s sacrifice has passed beyond the realms of simple myth.” How appropriate then that he be arrested in Lazarevo.

Mladić and Karadžić failed to achieve the old Serbian nationalist dream of destroying Bosnia, and dividing it with the Croats, but they did achieve a more pragmatic war aim, the creation of Republika Srpska, the Serb-dominated statelet which alongside the Bosnian Federation comprise Bosnia today. This nineteenth anniversary of the start of their war finds Bosnia still crippled by that division, with only weak central institutions. Though the war mortally wounded Bosnia, the country was, in a sense, also forged in the flames of war as a modern state.

It will probably only be re-united when both halves join the European Union.

Ten days before his arrest, only seven per cent of those asked told opinion pollsters in Serbia that they would tip off the authorities if they knew where Mladić was hiding, and pick up the ten million Euro reward. Fifty-one per cent said that, if arrested, he should not be transferred to the Hague. And while thirty-four per cent supported his arrest, forty per cent still regarded him as a hero.

“The citizens are searching for someone to blame for their dissatisfaction. They believe that the main culprits are the authorities and the pressures coming from the international community, and therefore they punish them with such a negative stand,” Rasim Ljajić, president of the National Council for Cooperation with the ICTY said at the time. After the arrest, no doubt still under the influence of the poll, he was quick to stress that the arrest would cost the government the next elections.

“There’s this opinion that Serbs live peacefully and freely only in those parts of the former Yugoslavia where Mladić went to war for them – although there is also awareness of his responsibility for crimes,” said Ljiljana Smajlović, president of the Association of Journalists of Serbia.

The stain may have been removed, as Boris Tadić suggested, but many Serbs still feel hurt by what they feel was a stain unfairly imprinted on their faces in the first

place. Until very recently, neither Serb nor Bosnian citizens could travel freely to western Europe – they had first to run the expensive and time consuming gauntlet of applying for visas. Even now, relatively few have the money to travel. That has created a sense of isolation that could take years to fade.

“The eagle is caught, but the nest remains,” read one, defiant banner, carried by a teenage boy and girl at a rally to support Mladić in Kalinovik, near his birthplace in the village of Bozanovici. They can have no memories of the war – they are just bearers of Mladić’s myth. But how many eggs are left in the nest, and who will keep them warm until they hatch?

The prime contender for the role of “mother hen” is Milorad Dodik, President of Republika Srpska. His government was quick to announce the setting up of a 50,000 Euro fund to help Mladić and other Bosnian Serbs accused of war crimes at the Hague Tribunal. Dodik has also denied, on several occasions, that what happened at Srebrenica was genocide, even though this has been confirmed in several verdicts and appeal verdicts by the Hague Tribunal. Once upon a time, western leaders invested a lot of confidence in Dodik, but now he is seen as the main obstacle to freeing Bosnia from the post-Dayton gridlock. He has repeatedly threatened a referendum, to take Republika Srpska out of Bosnia. Valentin Inzko, the latest and probably the last in a long line of International High Representatives, can only repeat that Dodik had no right to do that. Boris Tadić’s unwavering support for Dodik further complicates the picture.

“Only a completely new generation of politicians, and time will heal this country,” says former RS Prime Minister and former Bosnian Foreign Minister Mladen Ivanić. “In the short term, I’m pessimistic, but in the long term, with Croatia in the EU, and Serbia with candidate status, people will see the benefits. Then they will finally put pressure on the political elite to deal with concrete issues, rather than the big, emotive national ones.”

Two men guard the entrance to Bozanovici, Mladić’s home village. Reassured by the presence of a friend and neighbour of Mladić in the front seat, we are waved through. The house Ratko Mladić built for himself, when he was on leave from the Yugoslav army in 1965, is immediately on the left. It has a bright red tin roof, and black-faced sheep crowd past, as astonished by his arrest as everyone else. On the hillside just in front, is an ancient Muslim graveyard.

A trip to this village, where Mladić was born in March 1942, one of the darkest periods for Yugoslavia of the Second World War, gives a sense of how tough he had to be to survive. His aunt still milks her cows by hand in a small dark stable. A wood-burning stove is lit in the kitchen to take the edge off a day which is hot in the valleys, but always cold up here in the mountains. His aunt describes Ratko, loyally, as a hero. But what of the massacres at Srebrenica? I ask his neighbour, Branko Mandić.

“The men died in battle, in the woods. And many more bodies were brought from all over Bosnia, and put in the mass graves,” he asserts. So seriously, no massacre of unarmed prisoners, some as young as fourteen? “No, no, no, no, no.”

By the main road to Foca, stands a monument to the Bosnian Serb war dead. Most died in 1992. The small Cyrillic letters almost disappear in the misty mountain morning. We pick up a hitch-hiker, on his way to the pro-Mladić rally. It turns out he is a cousin of Mladić’s former bodyguard. What can a rally like this hope to achieve? He is cheerfully pessimistic. “Nothing much, but we will succeed in telling him how much we still respect him, how he is still our hero,” the man tells me, as he gets out in a side street, to take his place in the crowd.

The alcohol flows freely, mostly beer and rakia, as the rally wears on. The atmosphere seems more of defiance, celebration even, of Mladić’s life, than of hatred towards strangers or those who are different. A group of lads tell me they bought a second hand car for 400 Euros just to come to the rally. It’s there beside them in the main street, painted with the message – “General, you need your guards!” One says they plan to set fire to the car, after the rally, a sacrifice, perhaps to the man who once told air-traffic control to allow his helicopter to land with the words, “this is Ratko Mladić speaking, the Serbian God.” On the wall of a Serbian orthodox church in Bijeljina, Serbian war heroes have been portrayed as icons.

“The delivery of Mladić for trial is an important moment, but for justice rather than reckoning,” wrote Ed Vulliamy, a seasoned British war correspondent in the Guardian. “The substance of reckoning is on the ground and among the people who gladly carried out Mladić’s heinous orders. There, it is not happening. And without reckoning, there can be no reconciliation, and thereby no real peace.”

In Sarajevo, Rusmir Mahmutćehajić, Deputy Prime Minister at the start of the war in the Bosnian government, takes a more hopeful view of the arrest. “For the first time in history, those who persecute Muslims in the Balkans are being held to account.” And if Muslims feel they are not denied justice, that could have a positive effect on other Muslim communities in Europe, he believes.

“Borders are always drawn in blood, and states marked out with graves,” is a statement attributed to Ratko Mladić.

Dark clouds covered his brow as he sat in the dock in the Hague and listened reluctantly to the 16 pages of his indictment. This is a short extract:

“Acting individually or in concert with other participants in a joint criminal enterprise (JCE) Mladić planned, instigated, ordered, committed or otherwise aided and abetted the planning, preparation or execution of the intentional partial destruction of the Bosnian Muslim national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such, in Kljuć, Kotor, Prijedor, Sanski Most and Srebrenica. The destruction of these groups was effected by: the widespread killing, deportation and forcible transfer of non-Serbs in furtherance of the 1992 and 1993 ‘ethnic cleansing’ campaigns in the Bosnian Krajina and in eastern Bosnia; by causing serious bodily or mental harm to Bosnian Muslims, including torture, physical and psychological abuse, sexual violence and beatings; and by subjecting Bosnian Muslims to conditions of life calculated to bring about their physical destruction, namely through cruel and inhumane treatment, including torture, inhumane living conditions and forced labor.”

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