General Ratko Mladić – the infamous ‘Butcher of Bosnia’ – seems almost out of place at the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Now elderly, balding and wizened, he bears little resemblance to the battle-hardened general who, precisely 20 years ago, oversaw the massacre of 7,414 Bosnian Muslims in the UN ‘safe area’ of Srebrenica. His camouflaged uniform replaced by a sober grey suit, he denies accusations of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. For all his frailty, he is not completely broken: a shadow of the sadistic commander of former times remains. He refuses to hear his indictment read; he refuses to plead; and he has to be removed from court for jeering as witnesses – relatives of his alleged victims – give their testimony.
Ratko Mladić, born in 1942 in Herzegovina, was raised in a military environment: his father, Neđa, was a member of the Yugoslav Partisans, killed in in 1945 in WWII. Mladić entered military school in 1961, and rose to prominence during the Bosnian War, first as chief of staff of the Yugoslav People’s Army, then as General in the army of the Republika Srpska. Though his military career was illustrious, his personal life wasn’t without tragedy: in 1994, at the age of 23, his daughter Ana committed suicide, many speculating it was her inability to come to terms with her father’s role in the atrocities of the war which contributed to her death. Such claims are impossible to prove, yet what’s clear is that in the years following his daughter’s death, Mladić, an increasingly broken man, was plagued by ill health. After the war, he went into hiding and was only arrested in 2011, sixteen years after the massacre he oversaw and in a state of weakness from which he’s never recovered.
With the break-up of Yugoslavia, the road to war in Bosnia became inexorable. For most of the twentieth century, the country, part of the Republic of Yugoslavia, had been a diverse place, populated by a mixture of Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats. Yet as European communism crumbled in the 1980s and 90s, Yugoslavia was left out in the cold. Having found no viable democratic alternative to communism – unlike many of its neighbours – it slid quickly into violent nationalism. In the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, this led to a hideous civil war. Atrocities were committed by both Bosniaks and Serbs: indiscriminate shelling of cities, systematic ethnic cleansing, mutilation, mass-killing and rape.
The war tore apart the Balkan region for four years, with over 2 million people displaced. The death toll varies according to different sources, but is often estimated at around 100,000. A large number of these deaths were civilians and 12,000 of them children. Systematic rape was used as a means of torture and humiliation and as many as 50,000 women and girls were victims of it. The Bosnian war was one of the bloodiest of the twentieth century, ripping apart lives, communities and families. Even now, towns and villages once cohesive and diverse remain deserted, their inhabitants scarred forever by the experiences they lived through.
Of all the commanders in the region, it was General Mladić who inspired the greatest fear – and, inside Serbia, the greatest hero-worship. He’d already achieved infamy for masterminding the Siege of Sarajevo – the longest blockade of a capital city in modern history – which claimed over 30,000 lives. Described as “ruthlessly efficient,” Mladić was a cruel, calculating killer who spared no effort in torturing or wiping out his enemies. The events that took place on his watch in July 1995 cemented his status as “the Butcher of Bosnia” once and for all.
It was in Srebrenica that his career as mass-killer reached its crescendo. A hitherto peaceful spa-town, Srebrenica, as the war got underway, quickly became a political pawn. Located on the disputed borderlands between Serbia and the self-proclaimed Republika Srpska, the town became a natural bone of contention, subject to bitter fighting as Bosniaks and Serbs fought to gain control of it. By 1993, the city was surrounded by Serb forces and subject to repeated military attack. In March of that year, thousands of civilians were evacuated by the UNHCR and Srebrenica was declared a UN safe space, to be kept free from fighting and safeguarded by the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR).
Yet UNPROFOR, under the leadership of the Dutch Thom Karremans, failed tragically to fulfil its mission. On 11th July 1995, under General Mladić’s leadership, the town was attacked by the Army of the Republika Srpska. A prelude to what followed was filmed, with Mladić crowing to camera: ‘Here we are, on July 11 1995, in Serbian Srebrenica, just before a great Serb holy day. We give this town to the Serbian people. Remembering the uprising against the Turks, the time has come to take revenge on the Muslims.’
Then the bloodshed began. Any military-aged men Bosniak men in Srebrenica were rounded up, driven to special locations and systematically slaughtered. Chilling footage shows Mladić wandering about the town, handing out sweets to Srebrenica’s children, and reassuring their terrified parents, “Don’t be afraid. Nobody will harm you. May you live long.” Unbeknownst to them, many of their fathers, sons and brothers already lay dead.
The repercussions of the Srebrenica massacre are immeasurable. To this day, buildings in the town are peppered with bullet holes and much of it remains deserted. Few of the Muslims who fled Srebrenica ever came back. Even now, relations between Serbs and Bosniaks remain tense.
Twenty years on from the massacre, the aftermath is inconclusive. Most though not all of the bodies have come home, with memorials and mass-funerals. Mladić himself has yet to be convicted of his crimes, though his ongoing trial at The Hague holds out hope. Things are moving slowly, and given the longevity of memory in the Balkans it’s unlikely the ghosts of Srebrenica – Europe’s worst atrocity since the Holocaust – will ever fully be laid to rest. But as the 20th anniversary brings the massacre once again into focus, perhaps the relatives of the 7,414 Bosnian Muslims murdered on July 11th 1995 are finally about to receive the closure they deserve.