News / Europe

Mladic Legacy Remains '95 Srebenica Massacre

A woman walks past graffiti of then-fugitive Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic in Belgrade June 11, 2009.
A woman walks past graffiti of then-fugitive Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic in Belgrade June 11, 2009.

Former Bosnian Serb military leader General Ratko Mladic is in custody after years of evading arrest on war crimes charges.

As commander of Bosnian-Serb forces during the three-year Bosnian civil war, Mladic was responsible for what is considered to be the worst atrocity in Europe since the Second World War, the massacre of thousands of Muslim civilians in the U.N.-protected enclave of Srebrenica.

He was also responsible for the 43-month shelling, between the years of 1992 through 1996, of Bosnia's capital, Sarajevo - the longest siege in the history of modern warfare.

Day in and day out, Sarajevo's citizens were the targets of Bosnian-Serb forces under the command of General Mladic.  News reports broadcast around the world showed the devastation perpetrated on the local population.

His origins

Ratko Mladic was born in Bosnia on March 12, 1942 in the village of Kalinovik.

He was brought up in Tito's Yugoslavia and trained at the military academy of the Yugoslav People's Army in Belgrade.  He rose to the rank of colonel.

Daniel Serwer, with the U.S. Institute of Peace, says Mladic perverted the military title.

"It is with difficulty that I pronounce any soldierly title in front of his name, since his behavior was not only unprofessional, but absolutely murderous," Serwer says.

As Yugoslavia began to disintegrate in 1991, Mladic was posted to the town of Knin, the site of a Croatian-Serb rebellion against Croatia's declaration of independence from Yugoslavia.

A year later, Mladic was promoted to the rank of General Colonel and took overall command of Bosnian-Serb military forces, who began fighting for a separate Serb state after Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia.

Srebrenica Massacre

Analysts say General Mladic will be most remembered for the 1995 Bosnian Serb attack on the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica.

Balkan expert Edward Joseph says Bosnian Serb forces first laid siege to Srebrenica, in eastern Bosnia, where tens-of-thousands of civilians had taken refuge from Bosnian Serb offensives elsewhere.

"In Srebrenica, in July 1995, they were finally overtaken by the Serb forces, in spite of the fact that they were a U.N. safe area, there were Dutch troops there, and there was the possibility to call on NATO air strikes," says Joseph. "But instead, there were only token air strikes, and the Dutch troops there did not effectively protect the safe area or the citizens.  The women were mostly bussed out - the women and children mostly bussed out - and the men, including some boys, were rounded up and slaughtered over a period of days there. And the numbers are at least, at least 7,000, according to ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] missing numbers - and that is at the low end of the estimated slaughter in Srebrenica," Joseph says.

Journalist Dusko Doder was outside Srebrenica at that time, and remembers first hearing about the massacre from an elderly woman who came from the town.

"I was driving her, and she was describing to us that they were killing people in the thousands and that they were [herding them] at the stadium," says Doder. "I couldn't believe it. I thought the old lady must have exaggerated a bit. The first stories I wrote I said in the hundreds, because I just could not believe that something like that could happen."

In 1995, The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia - located in The Hague - indicted General Mladic and Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic on counts of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.  During the three-year (1992-95) Bosnian civil war, an estimated 100,000 people were killed and more than one million left homeless.

Into hiding

After the war ended, General Mladic returned to Belgrade where some experts believe he was supported and protected by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.  But after Milosevic was arrested and transferred to the tribunal in The Hague, Mladic went into hiding.  

Balkan expert Edward Joseph says General Mladic must have had support among the Serb military and secret services to avoid arrest for so many years.

"Clearly, you do not get to stay at large, if you are that prominent and visible without some help," he says. "And secondly, we should point out, that as a military commander in particular, General Mladic has a range of allies and a very, very strong and deep, wide support in the population, much wider and deeper than Radovan Karadzic."

Experts such as Charles Kupchan, with the Council on Foreign Relations, say the capture of indicted war criminals is the first step in the process of reconciliation and healing among the various ethnic groups in the region.

"If you take a somewhat longer time horizon, and you say what kind of events are important to communal healing, to collective healing, these apprehensions, these trials, these prosecutions do play an important role even on a personal basis," says Kupchan. "Because there is a sense that justice is being served, there is a sense that those responsible for crimes against humanity are being held accountable,"

Kupchan and others say with General Mladic in custody, following the arrest of Karadzic, a major hurdle has been removed in Serbia's quest to become a full member of the European Union.

Andre de Nesnera

Andre de Nesnera is senior analyst at the Voice of America, where he has reported on international affairs for more than three decades. Now serving in Washington D.C., he was previously senior European correspondent based in London, established VOA’s Geneva bureau in 1984 and in 1989 was the first VOA correspondent permanently accredited in the Soviet Union.

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