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Mladic's Long Shadow

  • Gordana Knezevic

Bosnian Serb ex-military commander Ratko Mladic appearing before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague

Bosnian Serb ex-military commander Ratko Mladic appearing before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague

The day before his extradition to The Hague to face charges of war crimes and genocide, Ratko Mladic requested permission from the Serbian authorities to visit the grave of his daughter Ana.

She had committed suicide in 1994 at the height of the Bosnian conflict that had earned her father worldwide notoriety. Mladic wouldn’t take no for an answer: let me go, or bring her coffin to my cell was the message to his captors.

The final image of himself that Mladic wanted to project to the Serbian public was that of a grieving father desperate to pay homage to the memory of a beloved daughter.

It was meant to generate some empathy for a man accused of directing the worst massacres committed in Europe since World War II.

But the tone and manner in which he phrased his request was a flashback to the old Mladic, the bullish wartime commander of the Bosnian Serb Army, remembered with terror and rage by the survivors of Srebrenica, Sarajevo, and many other places in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Mladic's Daughter Also A Victim Of His Mania

Ana, a medical student at the time, was distraught over the war in Bosnia and her father's role in the torture and killing of civilians, according to reports in some opposition media not loyal to the Milosevic regime.

Her death is inseparable from thousands of others who died during those years (1992-95), victims of a concerted campaign against Bosnia's civilian (and above all, Muslim) population.

She, too, was a victim of her father's mania. Yet Mladic did not request a visit to the gravesites of Sarajevo or Srebrenica, where unmarked mass graves are still being identified and catalogued, 16 years later.

No trace of remorse or sorrow was visible on his face, haggard and significantly paler than the last time he appeared on our TV screens. Facing the cameras in The Hague courtroom, Mladic was reminiscent of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, as portrayed by Hannah Arendt in her book "Eichmann in Jerusalem," when he described the charges against him as "obnoxious," and insisted that he had only been defending his people.

Eichmann, too, was only doing his duty. Speaking in Serbian, Mladic exclaimed, "I am Ratko Mladic, the general, and the whole world knows about me!" After 16 years behind the scenes, it’s his time to play the hero again. However, this time he may not have the final word.

Sarajevo residents dive for cover during a Serbian mortar attack on the besieged city in 1992. Bosnian Serb forces led by Ratko Mladic kept the city under siege for 44 months.

Having in mind the serious health problems he's been struggling with in recent years, including alleged hospital visits, it is very hard to imagine that the Serbian authorities were unaware of his whereabouts.

Nevertheless, even if we assume a certain level of negligence, or worse, complicity, between the alleged war criminal and those claiming to be on his trail, the fact that he was finally apprehended by Serbian security forces carries some weight.

Culture Of Criminal Impunity

It was a bold move, especially if we keep in mind that former Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was assassinated not least for handing over Slobodan Milosevic to The Hague tribunal.

Djindjic believed that cooperating with The Hague was not only a formal obligation, but that it was in his country's best interests to break with its violent past, and its culture of criminal impunity -- and therefore to bring all suspected war criminals to justice.

The current Serbian leadership is more pragmatic than Djindjic. They are less inclined to dwell on the past, and more concerned with Mladic's worth in furthering Serbia's present interests abroad -- including hoped-for concessions over Kosovo, as well as throwing open the doors to Serbia's EU accession.

Serbian President Tadic is being praised by world politicians for finally detaining Mladic and EU dignitaries are queuing up to salute Belgrade, predicting a "new era" in its relationship with the continent, and hastily turning a "new page" in relations with Serbia.

Uncomfortable Questions

The trial will take its course, but most have been reluctant to explore why arresting Mladic was so important. In the Serbian case, stirring the memories of the 1990s would only draw attention to those elements in Serbian society and political life that haven't changed their outlook or nationalist agenda.

For the European powers, the questions would be no less uncomfortable. Why did the UN fail to protect its designated "safe havens," one of which was Srebrenica, before it was overrun by Mladic's troops?

Why did the Dutch peacekeepers on the ground not even attempt to save the people there? Why did the siege of Sarajevo last 44 months, while its citizens were subjected to myriad daily humiliations as thousands were killed and wounded?

As one of those besieged in Sarajevo in 1992, I remember the first time I heard Mladic's voice. It was the second month of the war and the entire city was under Serbian bombardment.

Our telephone lines were cut off. Bosnian ham-radio operators intercepted a command issued by Mladic, and they sent the audio recording to the city's main radio station.

Mladic was heard talking to his officers on the ground, in the hills surrounding Sarajevo: "Fire on Velusici, not too many Serbs there. Drive them crazy."

More than 20 people were killed that night alone. Many more homes were destroyed, but the following day the only topic of conversation was the fact that Mladic had mispronounced the name of Velesici, one of the suburbs of Sarajevo (he had pronounced it "Vel-oo-sici.").

"He is destroying a city he knows nothing about," angry Sarajevans commented while standing in a line to get water, buy a newspaper, or just share with neighbors the hope that "Europe will stop these crazy guys who're shooting at the city."

Waging A War Against Coexistence

Another part of his intercepted order has not been forgotten either: Serbs may be killed too if they get in the way or choose to stay with their Muslim and Croatian neighbors, friends, and family members.

Mladic's army was waging a war against coexistence, forging apartheid with shellfire and artillery. It was not a war to protect (a Serbian "people" in Bosnia), or even to create anything (a Serbian "republic" within the country's borders).

The first task was to destroy what was already there, to forcibly divide ethnically mixed communities, to break up families, and to destroy those lives and places that would not yield to a simpler, ethnically pure vision of Bosnian reality dreamt up by Mladic and Karadzic.

Serbs, Croats, and Muslims fought and died together against those who would deny them the right to live together.

The capture of Mladic marks a major step in a process of reconciliation begun, largely at the initiative of outsiders, nearly two decades ago.

In the winter of 1992-93 Aryeh Neier, president of the Open Society Foundation, came to Sarajevo determined to teach its people how to keep records of war crimes, to write down the times of detonations, to describe the damage, to find out the names of the victims.

He was the first one who pointed out that the war would be over one day, and the people who were then shooting at the city would have to face some international court.

The Hague tribunal had not been established yet. Neier had to keep his winter coat on during the lectures, because there was no heating in the old Austro-Hungarian railway facility where he spoke, opposite the city's Presidency building in downtown Sarajevo that had been targeted by snipers and artillery.

Theater Of The Absurd In The City Of The Absurd

Today I wonder what sort of evidence would have remained without people like Neier, ready to risk his own life to make sure that war criminals would one day face justice.

Shortly after Neier's visit, Susan Sontag came to Sarajevo. Surprised that the intimate Kamerni Theater was still operating in the besieged city, she decided that staging a performance of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" was perfect for the situation, and could have been written with Sarajevo in mind. The best home for the theater of the absurd was the city of the absurd.

In a sense, the entire city was "waiting for Godot," for something or someone, while Susan Sontag worked with local actors using an interpreter, and by the light of oil lamps.

The time of the play's opening was kept secret, to avoid targeted shelling. During those most desperate times, Sontag provided so much joy and so much laughter to people who refused to accept ethnic borders as the boundaries of their life -- as ordered by Mladic.

When Sontag passed away in 2004, Bosnians paid her a special tribute and the square in front of the main theater in Sarajevo was renamed after her.

That may be considered as the territory she liberated when she decided to stage "Godot" in defiance of Mladic's artillery.

Gordana Knezevic is director of RFE/RL's Balkan Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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