He was both a shocking throwback to Europe’s dark past and a disturbing herald of the power ethnic grievance still had in the continent
“People are not little stones, or keys in someone’s pocket, that can be moved from one place to another just like that…. Therefore, we cannot precisely arrange for only Serbs to stay in one part of the country while removing others painlessly. I do not know how [Speaker] Krajišnik and [President] Karadžić will explain that to the world. That is genocide”
The BBC reported yesterday that:
Former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic has been found guilty of genocide for some of the worst atrocities of the 1990s Bosnian war.
Known as the “Butcher of Bosnia”, he faced 11 charges, including crimes against humanity, at the UN tribunal.
He was convicted of the massacre of more than 7,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995 and the siege of Sarajevo in which more than 10,000 people died.
I hope that this is a case where life means life. Mladic’s crimes were so enormous and so without justification that nothing else feels adequate.
A heart of darkness
A few years ago I took part in an inter-faith visit to Bosnia. Srebrenica was one stop on our itinerary. We visited the cemetries, museums and the battery-factory where so many of the shootings took place. We also met some survivors. They were a group of otherwise normal seeming young men, nonetheless haunted by horrors they would have faced while they were still children.
Srebrenica was supposed to be a safe haven for Bosniak’s fleeing a program of ethnic cleansing. A UN Security Council resolution had decreed that it “should be free from any armed attack or any other hostile act“. UN peacekeepers guarded it. And it soon became home to thousands of refugees.
However, rather than affording protection to its inhabitants, the town became a trap for them. Mladic’s forces surrounded it, cutting it off from supplies. Refugees began to starve. The UN forces in the town were outnumbered and running out of food, ammunition and fuel. In a separate battle around Sarajevo, a group of French soldiers were captured. Mladic threatened to kill these men in the event of Western airstrikes on his forces. That removed the last serious impediment to a Bosnian Serb takeover of Srebrenica and Mladic ordered his forces to take the town. Aware of the weakness of their position and with many of their members captured, UN forces struck a deal with Mladic. In exchange for being allowed to withdraw from the city, they would turn over thousands of refugees, supposedly to be transported into Bosnian territory.
In fact, what happened was that the Mladic’s soldiers began splitting the refugees into two groups. Men were seperated from women and children. They supposedly needed to interogate the men about purported war crimes. The women were ‘spared’ – that being a relative term as many were raped – but they were eventually given to the Bosnian government. However, the men were being taken to the battery factory, shot and buried in mass graves. Thousands of them. As news of this spread throughout Srebrenica, thousands more of the men began fleeing into the hills and trying to make it towards government held territory. Many of them made it. Many didn’t.
It took less than a fortnight for the massacre to unfold. In that time in a single town, Mladic had overseen the massacre of as many as eight thousands souls.
These and the crimes the army Mladic led, were to constitute his legacy: an instigator of genocide, who drove tens of thousands from their homes, enabled mass rapes, ran concentration camps, defied international law, used peacekeepers as human shields, and had his forces shell the homes of ordinary people and architectural treasures. In order to commit these crimes, he flat out lied. He told both the international community and the Bosniak refugees in Srebrenica themselves that he would spare them. That he only wanted to move them from Serb territory. All this while already having made the decision to massacre them.
A warning from history
On the surface Mladic can seem like a throwback to an earlier period of European history, a figure from the 1930s/1940s somehow making misery in the 1990s. One imagines that had he been born in a different time or place, he would have been helping Hitler to murder Jews or Stalin to starve Ukranians, and that the manner in which he approached that grim task would have been much the same.
However, he also presents a disturbingly contemporary figure. He and the other leaders of Serbian nationalism were amongst the first in the Europe that emerged after the fall of communism, to harness the power of a fusion of ethnic chauvanism and Islamophobia. In videos of his arrival in Srebrenica, Mladic refers to the Bosniaks as ‘Turks’ and presents the capture of the town as revenge for the centuries during which Serbia was ruled by the Ottoman Caliphate based in Istanbul. At his war crimes trial, he and his lawyers would attempt to excuse his actions by suggesting he was defending Serbs from “ethnic and religious fanaticism” and point to the prescense of a handful of foreign “mujahideen” in Bosnia as evidence.
Across much of Europe democracy, human rights and the rule of law are under enormous pressure. As in Bosnia, the culprit is a toxic mixture of national, ethnic and religious sectarianism.
Clearly as bad as these situations are, they are not remotely close to approaching the horror that was unleashed in the former Yugoslavia. However, taking precautions against such darkness is worthwhile, and perhaps Mladic’s conviction can serve as a warning to would be strong men and demagouges across the continent.
Plus, the fact that someone as richly deserving of justice as Mladic has recieved it, does give one hope that perpetrators of atrocities in Syria, Myanmar and North Korea might also find themselves in the prison cells where they belong.