The United Nations Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague on 22 November 2017 convicted General Ratko Mladic, former commander of the Bosnian Serb Army who led the Serbian forces in the gruesome massacre of Bosnian Muslims in the early 1990s, for genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Mladic was found guilty of killing over 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in July 1995 and for the 43-month siege of Sarajevo, in which more than 10,000 civilians, mostly Muslims, were killed by shelling, mortar and sniper fire. Minutes before the verdict, Mladic was hustled out of the court for angrily shouting, “This is all lies, you are all liars!”. ICTY presiding judge Alphons Orie, while reading out a summary of the judgment, said: “The crimes committed rank among the most heinous known to mankind and include genocide and extermination as a crime against humanity. Many of the men and boys were cursed, insulted, threatened, forced to sing Serb songs and beaten while awaiting their execution.”
The tribunal found Mladic “significantly contributed to genocide committed in Srebrenica with the goal of destroying its Muslim population, personally directed the bombardment of Sarajevo and was part of a joint criminal enterprise aimed at purging Bosnian Muslims and Catholic Croats from Bosnia.” Prosecutors said the ultimate goal of Mladic, Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, and Slobodan Milosevic, former president of Serbia, was ethnic cleansing aimed at carving out an Orthodox Greater Serbia from the ashes of the multinational state of Yugoslavia.
On June 28, 1389, the Serb prince Lazar Hrebeljanovic and his forces were defeated by the Ottoman Turks in the Battle of Kosovo, beginning five centuries of Ottoman rule in the Balkans. Bosnia became an Ottoman province in 1463. After the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, which resulted in the defeat of the Ottoman forces, Bosnia and Herzegovina were assigned to Austria-Hungary. After World War I the region was annexed by Serbia. By the end of World War II in 1945, the territory became a part of communist Yugoslavia. The former Yugoslavia, whose boundaries stretched from Central Europe to the Balkans, consisted of a conglomeration of six regional republics and two autonomous provinces, which were created largely on ethnic distinctions. The six republics included Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Macedonia and Montenegro. The two autonomous provinces, which were part of Serbia, were Kosovo and Vojvodina.
The disintegration of Yugoslavia began in 1991. Slovenia and Croatia were the first to break away from the federation. The Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence on 15 October 1991, and was formally recognized by the European Union and the United States in April 1992. The Bosnian Serbs, however, were extremely unhappy with the declaration of independence and were determined to remain with Yugoslavia. In fact, their ambition was to make Bosnia and Herzegovina a part of Orthodox Greater Serbia. The declaration of independence was followed by a fierce struggle for territorial control among the three major groups in Bosnia-Herzegovina: the Bosnian Muslims or Bosniaks, who constituted about 43% of the population, the Bosnian Serbs, the followers of Orthodox Christianity who made up about 31% of the population, and the Catholic Croats, who constituted 17% of the population. The Bosnian Serbs, aided and abetted by Serbia and the Yugoslav army, took control of nearly 70% of the territory. By 1993 the Bosnian Muslim government was besieged in the capital Sarajevo.
The civil war that engulfed Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995 involved large-scale killing of Bosnian Muslims, forced deportations, torture in concentration camps and mass rape of Muslim women by Serb soldiers. More than 296 Bosnian Muslim villages were burned down or destroyed by the Serb forces. Houses and apartments belonging to Muslims were systematically ransacked, destroyed and burned down. Civilians were attacked, tortured and killed. The Bosnian Serbs sought to create ethnically pure areas with no presence of Muslims. Systematic ethnic cleansing involved forced expulsion and killing of Muslims and destruction of their homes as well as mosques, cemeteries, madrasas and Sufi hospices. The Bosnian towns of Trebinje, Forca, Prijedor, Banja Luka and Visegrad were purged of Bosnian Muslims and Croats. Hundreds of Bosnian Muslim men and boys were locked up in concentration camps in Omarska, Trnopolje and Keraterm. Young Muslim women and girls were kept in detention centres under appalling conditions, where they were humiliated, tortured and repeatedly raped by Serb soldiers.
The estimates of the number of victims during the Bosnian war include around 100,000-110,000 killed and 1.8 million displaced. Most of the victims were Bosnian Muslims ((66%), followed by Serbs (25%) and Croats (8%). More than 83% of civilian victims were Muslim. Some 30% of Muslim civilian victims were women and children. The estimates of Muslim women raped by Serb soldiers range between 20,000 and 50,000. According to the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia at The Hague, the crimes committed during the Bosnian war of 1992-95 amounted to crimes against humanity. The war crimes, ethnic cleansing and genocide that took place in Bosnia-Herzegovina had the active support and involvement of the Bosnian Serb Army, paramilitary forces and police. Furthermore, they had the active connivance of the Orthodox church, media and civil society. Radovan Karadzic was blessed by an Orthodox priest on the eve of the Bosnian war in March 1992. Significantly, Russia secretly provided heavy weapons to the Bosnian Serbs.
The horrifying atrocities committed on Bosnian Muslims were masterminded by Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic. On 13 October 1991 Karadzic had declared, “In just a couple of days, Sarajevo will be gone and there will be five hundred thousand dead, and in one month’s time Muslims will be annihilated in Bosnia-Herzegovina.” Milosevic was brought before the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia for trial. He died in prison in 2006 while the trial was underway. Karadzic was indicted by the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia for genocide and crimes against humanity. For 13 years Karadzic was at large, secretly protected by the powerful networks of former and current members of the Serbian security forces. He disguised himself as a practitioner of alternative medicine in a quiet corner of Belgrade. He was finally arrested by the Serb forces on 21 July 2008 and brought to The Hague to face trial. He was sentenced to 40 years in jail.
General Ratko Mladic
Ratko Mladic was born on 12 March 1943 in Bozinovici, a village in Herzegovina. His father Nedja was killed in 1945 by a member of the fascist Croatian group Ustase, which had sympathies with Hitler. Mladic went to a high school on the outskirts of Belgrade and then to Yugoslavia’s military academy, from where he graduated in 1965. He then joined the Communist Party and was sent to Macedonia, where he commanded a platoon, then a tank battalion and thereafter a brigade. In 1991 he became deputy commander in Kosovo, where the majority of the population consisted of Albanian Muslims. In 1992 he was transferred to the newly formed Bosnian Serb Army, thanks to his growing reputation for ruthlessness. In 1992 he was appointed Chief of Staff of the Bosnian Serb Army by the Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic. Mladic directed an army of 180,000 soldiers during the Bosnian War in the early 1990s.
During the 43-month siege of Sarajevo under his command, more than 10,000 Bosnian Muslims, including 1500 children, were killed. He instructed his snipers to shoot Bosnian Muslims without hesitation. On several occasions he threatened to bomb Srebrenica if the Muslim population failed to surrender their weapons. Mladic had a deep-seated and virulent hatred for Muslims in general and for Bosnian Muslims in particular. He often spoke of the threat of Islamization in Europe. Mladic saw the war as an opportunity to avenge what he believed were five centuries of occupation and enslavement of Serbs by the Ottoman Turks. He would refer to Bosnian Muslims as Turks so as to humiliate them. Notes written by Mladic in the 1990s, which were discovered in his home in 2010, reveal his mentality and the intensity of his hatred for Muslims. In a note written on 29 January 1994, he scribbled: “You have to thrash the Muslims for long enough that the whole world sees that it does not pay to fight against Serbs. The most important point is Sarajevo; that is the brain of their state. With the blockade of Sarajevo, we have established our state. Our interest is the founding a pan-Serbian state.” A note written on 18 September 1995 reveals that in Belgrade, Serbian general Dragan Radenovic offered Mladic, on behalf of the Russians, weapons with tremendous destructive power, priced at $52,000 per unit. The note mentions that the weapons would be sold to the Bosnian Serbs via a third party, and the Russian secret service would, in addition, send numerous other military items, with the approval of the then Russian president Boris Yeltsin.
In April 1993 the United Nations declared Srebrenica a safe area under UN protection, with a 400-strong contingent of Dutch peacekeepers, Dutchbat. In July 1995, Mladic visited Potocari, a village in Srebrenica, where more than 28,000 Bosnian Muslims had taken refuge with the United Nations Dutch peacekeeping force. Riding a horse, he looked closely at the faces of men and boys in the crowd and exclaimed with glee, “There are so many! It is going to be a mezze (feast). There will be blood up to your knees.”
In the next few days, from 13th to 19th July, the Bosnian Serb army separated the men and boys from the crowd, loaded them onto buses and trucks, took them to deserted spots and shot them in cold blood. Intercepted radio transmissions indicate that Mladic was present at most of these executions. In many cases the victims were blindfolded and their hands were tied behind their backs. The dead bodies were dumped in freshly dug graves. In some cases, earth-moving equipment was used to remove the dead and to dump them in mass graves.
According to the Bosnian Federal Commission of Missing Persons, 8,373 Bosnian Muslims, including 500 young boys under 18 years, were killed at Srebrenica. The worst massacre in Europe after World War II took place under the noses of the Dutch peacekeepers. In fact, just two days before the massacre, Mladic entertained General Bernard Janvier, Commander of the UN Protection Force, to a feast of suckling lamb. As the Serb army advanced towards Srebrenica, the Dutch peacekeepers, sensing grave danger to the Bosnian refugees, sent repeated requests to the UN officials to allow NATO warplanes to strike at the advancing Serb army, but the requests went unheeded. The Serbs took Srebrenica without a fight.
A video, shown at the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia at The Hague on 2 June 2005, presents graphic details of the gruesome killing of six Bosnian Muslims by Serb paramilitary police in Srebrenica in 1995. The video, shot by a member of the group, shows six emaciated Bosnian Muslims being removed from a canvas-covered military truck from Srebrenica to Treskavica, a mountainous area in Serb-held territory. All six men were lined up with their hands tied up behind their backs and shot with machine guns. The footage also shows the group of Serb paramilitary police being blessed by an Orthodox priest before the start of the mission. The video was later broadcast on Serbian television, following which Serbia’s then prime minster, Vojislav Kostunica, announced the arrest of several of those caught on the video.
Mladic was indicted by the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia for genocide and war crimes in 1995. In 2001 he was finally forced to retire by Vojislav Kostunica, Serbia’s prime minister at the time. He then went into hiding to evade arrest, but continued to be protected by Serbian security forces. Significantly, after his arrest, Mladic said that he had been visited several times in the past years by many Serb Orthodox priests. Deeply depressed by allegations of war crimes against her father, Mladic’s daughter, Ana, who was a medical student at Belgrade University, committed suicide in March 1994. Mladic’s luck ran out in May 2011 when Serbian police descended on an insignificant-looking house in the village of Lazareo, north of Belgrade, and found him disguised in black clothes and a black mask. More than 700 Serbs took out a protest rally in Belgrade on 29 May 2011 against the arrest of Mladic and his extradition to The Hague. The protesters rampaged through the city centre after the rally, sang Serb nationalist songs, overturned rubbish bins and broke traffic lights.
The United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia has hundreds of documents and witness reports that clearly implicate Mladic in the genocide of Bosnian Muslims during the siege of Sarajevo and especially at Srebrenica. In May 1992, as Sarajevo was under a barrage of heavy shelling, Bosnian intelligence intercepted a phone call in which Mladic was heard giving orders about targets: “Fire on the parliament, presidency, the Old Town. Fire so that they cannot sleep, burn their brains.”
In a landmark 2004 ruling, Theordor Meron, the American judge who presided over the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia at The Hague, observed: “By seeking to eliminate a part of the Bosnian Muslims, the Bosnian Serb forces committed genocide. They targeted for extinction the 40,000 Bosnian Muslims living in Srebrenica. They stripped all the male Muslim prisoners, military and civilian, elderly and young, of their personal belongings and identification, and deliberately and methodically killed them solely on the basis of their identity”.
The United Nations, particularly the Dutch peacekeeping force stationed at Srebrenica, must shoulder a large share of responsibility and blame for their failure to prevent the massacre. In November 1999 the UN released a highly self-critical report on its performance during the Srebrenica genocide, stating, “Through error, misjudgement and the inability to recognize the scope of evil confronting us, we failed to do our part to save the people of Srebrenica from the Serb campaign of mass murder.” Kofi Annan, the then Secretary General of the United Nations, said that the United Nations failure to prevent the massacre of Muslims in Srebrenica would haunt our history for ever.
In 1996 the Dutch government commissioned The Netherlands Institute for War Documentation to prepare a report on the role of the Dutch peacekeeping forces in Srebrenica. The institute conducted more than 900 interviews and collected hundreds of testimonies over a period of six years and submitted its report in April 2002. Hans Blom, director of the institute, stated in the report: “The events that occurred cannot be described as an act of vengeance that got out of hand. Although they occurred rapidly and in an improvised way, the scale and course of the murders clearly indicate that they were organized. Places of executions were sought, transport was arranged and troops were ordered to carry our executions”. The report also said that the conduct of Dutchbat was not beyond reproach. On 16 April 2002 the Dutch government resigned en masse, owning moral responsibility for the failure of Dutchbat to prevent the massacre.
A report by a committee of the French parliament, published in 2001, conceded that the fall of Srebrenica was a failure of France. The report also pointed out that General Bernard Janvier, who was Commander of the UN Protection Force, should have acted upon the repeated requests made by Dutchbat for air support against the advancing Serb forces. The role of the United States in preventing the Srebrenica genocide in particular and in the Bosnian war in general was deplorable and intriguing. It is inconceivable that President Bill Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore were not aware of the advancing Bosnian Serb forces and the impending massacre and genocide at Srebrenica.
A question arises as to why the Serbian government took so long to arrest Mladic. It is well known that he was moving about freely, playing ping pong, attending parties and toasting friends. The fact of the matter is that he was protected by friends and supporters in the Serbian military and intelligence services. The arrest of Mladic should be seen against the backdrop of Serbia’s bid for membership of the European Union. The European Union had insisted that unless Serbia apprehended all those who have been charged with war crimes and genocide and handed over for trial before the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia, Serbia’s application for membership would not be considered. Serge Brammertz, the chief prosecutor of the United Nations Tribunal at The Hague, was expected to release a report a few days before Mladic was caught, in which he was expected to say that Serbia was not cooperating with the international effort to apprehend Mladic. Such a report would have damaged Serbia’s prospects for the EU’s membership. Furthermore, it was no coincidence that the arrest of Mladic was announced on the day the European Union’s policy chief, Catherine Ashton, was scheduled to visit Belgrade.
For three years the US and NATO dithered and did little to stop the atrocities inflicted on Bosnian Muslims by the Bosnian Serb forces. Shocked by the carnage at Srebrenica, the US and NATO finally decided to resume air strikes on Bosnian Serb positions. In the meantime, in early August 1995, Croatia launched a massive offensive against Bosnian Serb positions in Croatia. A simultaneous, combined Croatian-Bosnian Muslim attack in Bosnia routed Mldic’s forces, forcing him to come to the negotiating table. Following a deal at Dayton, Ohio in November 1995, the horrifying Bosnian war came to an end.
Mass graves of the victims of the Bosnian war are still being discovered. Thousands of people reported missing during and after the war are still untraceable. In many areas of Bosnia, where the houses of Muslims were burned and their inhabitants driven out or killed, the atmosphere of fear and apprehension is palpable. Occasionally, when some Muslim families return to their villages to resettle, they are either threatened by their Serb neighbours or targeted by Serb snipers.
Mladic is widely seen as a war hero by the Serbs, and his portraits continue to adorn cafes, bars and souvenir stalls all over Republike Srpska. The legacy of the Bosnian war lingers on. Before the war, Visegrad, a town in eastern Bosnia, had 13,000 Muslims. Today the population of Muslims in the town is less than 1,000, most of whom are elderly persons. However, it is heartening to note that in many villages and towns of Bosnia, an increasing number of local Muslims are determined to pick up the threads of their lives and to assert their religious and cultural identity. The town of Kozarac, which Karadzic hoped to wipe out, is bustling with activity once again. Many of the former inhabitants of the town have come back to live here to rebuild their homes. Many of the mosques which had been destroyed or burned are being rebuilt. One of the survivors of the massacre, Edin Kararic, says,” I don’t go to the mosque, but I like it that they are there, because every minaret is a finger up to the people who tried to put us out. It says, “We’re back!”.