At Large

Where’s Ratko?

Serbia is poised to join the EU even though its government is hiding war criminals guilty of genocide.

By 4.29.05

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Just four years ago it was not unusual to find wanted war criminal Ratko Mladic enjoying himself at one of Belgrade's finer dining establishments or getting drunk and belligerent at a football match. Hailed as a war hero and protected by President Slobodan Milosevic and the Serbian army, the former Bosnian Serb general was living the good life in retirement. In contrast, try to imagine Himmler or Mengele attending opening night at the Vienna Opera House in 1950.

Mladic remained on the payroll of both the Serbian and the Bosnian Serb military for years after he was indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, the Sarajevo daily Dnevni Avaz reported late last year. Then the general's social life suffered a serious setback when Milosevic was arrested in 2001 after a 24-hour standoff at his Belgrade home. (Milosevic told police he and his family would not be "taken alive," and his daughter opened fire on police.)

Since then the general has gone underground. But not too far underground. NATO forces thought they might nab Mladic in August 2003, after the funeral of his mother, Stana Mladic. But a raid on her home near Sarajevo failed to net Ratko. After Mladic's daughter, a pre-med student at the University of Belgrade, committed suicide in 1994, her father was said to have been a regular visitor at her grave in Topcider. More recently he has been seen in a suburb of Moscow, and is regularly spotted in Thessalonica and Athens. In fact he has been seen so often that prosecutors suspect many of the reports are fabricated to obscure his trail.

Currently more than 15 suspects are wanted by The Hague Tribunal for alleged involvement in Bosnian war crimes. No fewer than a dozen of them are hiding out in Serbia, says chief UN war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte.

Last week del Ponte told Reuters that Serbian officials know Mladic's whereabouts. "They know exactly where he is and they could provide the arrest and transfer within hours." Del Ponte has repeatedly stated that Mladic is being protected by the Serbian Army, a charge the government denies. "If the Serbian government decided that it truly wanted to arrest Mladic it would be able to do so in a matter of hours," del Ponte told the Serbian daily Blic. NATO official George Kacirdakis agreed, saying, "It is only a matter of the Serbian government having enough political desire to make the arrest."

"Your government," Kacirdakis told Belgrade's Radio B92, "receives information regarding Mladic being hidden somewhere, and then they are afraid that his arrest might bring unrest to the country, so they allow him enough time to escape to a new location. Then they go to the location and say: 'See, he is not here.'"

On the streets of Belgrade one cannot walk more than block without coming across posters praising Ratko Mladic.

IN APRIL 1993, THE FORMER Bosnian mining town of Srebrenica became the first city in the world to be declared a United Nations' "safe area." At the time no one seemed to know exactly what that meant, except that the inhabitants would be "protected" by UN peacekeepers. The peacekeepers were supposed to "deter by presence," which might be effective if you are being attacked by a troop of girl scouts. Anyway, it sounded good.

In the summer of 1995, the safe area concept was put to the test when tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims fled to Srebrenica seeking refuge from the Bosnian Serb Army and its bloody campaign of "ethnic cleansing." Srebrenica was defended by understaffed, undersupplied, and despondent Dutch peacekeepers, and a rag tag band of Muslim soldiers who often positioned themselves near the Dutch for protection. The city was soon surrounded by General Mladic's troops, and the Dutch peacekeepers were ordered to surrender. Many did gladly, as their outposts fell one by one to the advancing Bosnian Serb army. Repeated requests for UN air support were rejected or delayed until it was too late, mostly because Mladic had threatened to kill the 35 Dutch hostage-prisoners if the UN launched air strikes. "In the end, being a Bosnian Serb hostage was paradise compared with being a peacekeeper," wrote a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor.

The Dutch troops were happy to be relieved from their job of protecting Muslim soldiers and civilians, many of whom they despised. The Dutch complained the Muslims refused to fight and stole supplies. The last straw came when a Bosnian Muslim soldier shot dead a Dutch peacekeeper for abandoning his post. It was no wonder then when on July 11, 1995, Dutch peacekeepers stood idly by as Mladic and his four tanks and 200 infantry entered what was left of the city. "Hello neighbors," he smirked, as his troops began rounding up the Muslims.

The next day the Muslim women were bused into Muslim territory, while all males 12 to 77 were brought to a high school gymnasium and a soccer stadium for "interrogation." During July 13-19, more than 7,000 Muslim prisoners were executed on Mladic's orders. The bodies were eventually buried and reburied in mass graves in isolated locations.

"[Wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan] Karadzic and Mladic ordered the manhunt and mass execution of Srebrenica's men because they wanted to, because they could and because they were confident that no one would ever hold them accountable for it," wrote David Rohde, who won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the Bosnian War. "In hindsight, they appear to have been right."

Mladic and Karadzic (who is believed to be hiding in eastern Bosnia) have since been indicted by the UN war crimes tribunal on 16 counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and violation of the laws of wars in Bosnia-Hercegovina between April 1992 and July 1995. They are accused of shelling Sarajevo and of using nearly 300 peacekeepers as human shields in the summer of 1995. The crimes charged against Mladic and Karadzic are so numerous and horrific that one cannot hope to comprehend them all. These include the murder of 2,500 civilians in the town of Kozarac, including the Muslim mayor publicly executed by having his throat cut, and the shooting of more than 150 Muslims in camps at Omarska and Keraterm after some prisoners had been forced to castrate each other, notes veteran British journalist Fred Bridgland.

Prosecutors believe that the recent arrests of two close allies of the general may bring them a step closer to finding Mladic. Former Gen. Momcilo Perisic, 60, turned himself in to the UN war crimes tribunal earlier this month, and in February former Gen. Milan Gvero, 67, was apprehended. Gvero is thought to know the whereabouts of his wartime commander, the Independent newspaper reported. "Veterans of the war remember the pair as keen chess partners with the condition that Mr. Gvero would ensure that he never defeated his senior officer."

IT IS NOW NEARLY A decade since the worse massacre in Europe since World War II. This month EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said Serbia had made "sufficient progress to begin negotiations on a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU," the first hurdle toward EU membership. Talks are scheduled to begin in October.

Human Rights transgressor Turkey is also on track for EU membership. The EU seems determined to expand, convinced that bigger is better, regardless of whom they let in.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.