Lure of EU membership led to arrest of Mladic
ANALYSIS: The EU has succeeded in getting Serbia to arrest Europe’s most notorious war criminal
THE MAN blamed for slaughter on an epic scale in Bosnia and Croatia in the 1990s was finally netted not by sleuthing but by the EU’s decision that Ratko Mladic be handed over as the price for talks on EU membership.
Nobody at The Hague tribunal is complaining: the tribunal is the oldest of the clutch of international war crimes courts, recently celebrating its 18 birthday, but it has yet to land a “big fish”.
The chance seemed to have passed in 2006 when Slobodan Milosevic, former president of Yugoslavia and architect of the Balkan wars, died of a heart attack in the fourth year of his trial before a verdict could be reached.
Now The Hague gets a second bite at the apple. Radovan Karadzic (also on trial in The Hague) may have been the political leader of Bosnia’s Serbs but it was Mladic who, as head of the Bosnian Serb army, quite simply made Bosnia’s ethnic-cleansing happen.
As the hard-nosed warlord commanding Serb forces he oversaw a murderous campaign of extermination that resulted in 100,000 dead and two million refugees.
He did it with an unapologetic style: Mladic made no bones about his hatred for Bosnia’s Croats and Muslims, nor about the delight in seeing them bleed. For the bull-necked Mladic, the Bosnian war always seemed to be about personal score settling.
He was born in 1942 in Krajina, a Serb enclave in what is now Croatia. He never knew his father, who was butchered by Croat fascists allied with Adolf Hitler. He joined the army as a young man in a Yugoslavia which was dedicated to burying the old Croat-Serb hostilities, rising fast through the ranks.
When Yugoslavia broke apart in 1991 and the old Croat-Serb feud reasserted itself, Mladic took his chance.
The Serb-dominated Yugoslav army went on the offensive and Mladic took command of the mountainous Krajina, a breakaway region of Croatia that had itself broken away from the Yugoslav mother state. Here he engineered a payback for his own loss, organising a campaign of brutal attacks against Croats.
The following year he joined the Bosnian Serb army as its commander, and in Bosnia his anger found its full fury. Along with the Bosnian Serb president Karadzic, he organised a systematic programme which his officers described as “ethnic cleansing”, introducing a new phrase into the lexicon of murder, financed by Milosevic in neighbouring Serbia.
Along with brutality came skill. Mladic, unlike many other Serb commanders, did not earn the scorn of his men after they were found to be profiting from the looting of Croat and Muslim homes.
His forces rounded up thousands of Muslims and crammed them into concentration camps where the psychopaths among Serb forces could indulge their sadistic fantasies.
When the Muslims of Sarajevo mustered a scratch force to hold the city against attack, Mladic’s anger was turned on them.
One infamous radio intercept, played during another Hague trial, hears him being asked by an artillery commander in the hills above the Bosnian capital for orders. Mladic replied: “Shell them till they are on the edge of madness.”
The subordinate obeyed. Indiscriminate bombardment left large parts of the city in ruins and 11,000 civilians dead, including 1,200 children. Journalists braving the frontline crossing would meet these crews, often drunk on slivovic, the local distilled plumb brandy, as they fired their guns on the city below.
But the heart of the darkness in this campaign took place far from the eyes of the media – in the eastern town of Foca. Here Mladic’s men rounded up Muslim women and installed them in houses where passing Serb units were invited to gang rape at will.
In 1995 the dream of a racially clean state began to unravel. First, Croatian forces, spurred by secret shipments of weapons and a thirst for revenge, smashed into the defenders of Krajina in an offensive in which previous brutalities were repaid in kind.
The Bosnian Serbs decided to clear their lines, focusing on Srebrenica, a Muslim enclave in the east of the country. Srebrenica was an old silver town founded by the Ottomans and once conquered with great savagery by the Romanian prince Vlad Dracula. Now Mladic planned to conquer it for himself.
The town was designated a UN safe area and had an understrength United Nations Dutch battalion deployed to defend it.
But when the attack came, and for reasons still to be explained, Nato refused to use air power. The Dutch quickly surrendered, perhaps expecting that the town’s population would simply be shipped west to Bosnian government territory.
But Mladic’s troops had other plans. They herded the civilians into a giant pen outside the town. As Dutch troops left they noticed that the Serbs had begun to separate the men from the women. Once the Dutch were gone, the slaughter began, with the Muslim men lined up and machine gunned, their bodies buried with bulldozers around the town.
When it was over Srebrenica was “clean” but Mladic’s dream would not last. A month later the Bosnian Muslims and Croatians united and, backed by Nato air power, blasted Serb forces back from much of the territory they had conquered in Bosnia.
A rout was stopped only when the US demanded a halt.
The war ended soon afterwards through the US-brokered Dayton peace accord. Mladic was obliged to step down as Bosnian Serb army commander, but for two years Nato refused to arrest him.
One winter’s day British UN troops carrying side arms were confronted by the general skiing down the piste at Sarajevo’s former Olympic skiing resort but made no move for their guns; skiing behind Mladic were four bodyguards. Despite his Hague warrant, they decided to carry on skiing.
Later Nato had a rethink, sending commandos to arrest war crimes suspects, but Mladic simply went underground. No amount of Nato action or UN demands, or even a $5 million bounty announced by Washington, could bring him in.
One reason is that among many Serbs Mladic remains popular; for nationalists he is the hero who tried to carve out a pure Serb state to be foiled only by Nato.
But the prospect of EU membership, and its billions of grant aid going up in smoke, appears to have been too much for Belgrade.
The trigger for Mladic’s arrest was a leaked UN report released this week from The Hague’s chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz that Serbia was refusing to co-operate in the search for the most wanted man in the Balkans.
That report was expected to see the EU decide next November that Serbia did not share common European values – and that membership talks would be cancelled.
Instead the arrest is likely to see Brussels conclude that Serbia’s government does after all share the union’s common values and commitment to human rights.
Mladic’s chances in the dock appear bleak. They will rest on his assertion that he knew nothing of the genocide his men unleashed on Srebrenica.
A bigger question, perhaps, is what effect this last, greatest, Hague tribunal trial will have. Will it finally close old wounds or cause them to spring violently open?
Chris Stephen is a freelance journalist who has reported from the Balkans and is an expert in war crimes and the work of the war crimes tribunals in The Hague. He is author of Judgement Day: The Trial of Slobodan Milosevic(Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005)