THE HAGUE – Almost three decades after the outbreak of war in the Balkans, which saw some of the most gruesome atrocities in Europe since the end of World War II, the man convicted of being a military commander-in-chief of bloodshed was scheduled Tuesday to have his last day in court.
The commander, former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic, was convicted in 2017 of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Now 79, Mr. Mladic has always maintained that he was only fulfilling his military duties and appealed the verdict handed down by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
Despite getting a conviction, with the judge presiding over the trial, Alphons orie, saying that Mr. Mladic’s crimes were ranked “among the most heinous known to mankind” – the prosecution also appealed.
Mr. Mladic was convicted on a series of charges that included attacking and murdering civilians during the 43-month siege of the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo. He was also convicted of genocide for leading the notorious mass executions of 8,000 Muslim men and boys after Mladic’s forces invaded the United Nations-protected enclave of Srebrenica.
But prosecutors want the court to add another genocide verdict to include the bloodshed of 1992, the deadliest year of the war, when some 45,000 people died.
Both the appeal and the effort to add to Mladic’s crimes will be decided on Tuesday.
In the course of the war in Bosnia, which raged between 1992 and 1995, approximately 100,000 people died and 2.2 million were displaced. By some estimates, more than 50,000 women were raped.
Who is Ratko Mladic?
Mr. Mladic’s first name, Ratko, is a diminutive form of Ratimir; in English, the name can be translated as a question: War or peace? It is a name that is generally given to a baby boy in times of war.
Mr. Mladic told The Times in a 1994 interview that he was born “in what was called Old Herzegovina” – now part of the independent country of Bosnia and Herzegovina – in 1942, during World War II. Conflict was the defining theme that ran through his life; his actions during the war in the Balkans led him to be called “the Bosnian Butcher”.
During World War II, the Balkans were engulfed in the maelstrom of violence, with the multi-religious and multi-national mosaic of Serbs, most of whom had their roots in the Eastern Orthodox Christian faith; Bosnians, who were generally Muslim; and the Croats, who were generally Roman Catholics, often clashed with each other. About 1.7 million people in the former Yugoslavia died between 1941 and 1945.
From the ashes of war, Josip Broz Tito, who became the leader of Yugoslavia, promoted a slogan to unite the fractured region: “bratstvo i jedinstvo” or “brotherhood and unity.”
But Tito died in 1980, And by 1991, the ties that held Yugoslavia together had frayed to the breaking point, with the country’s eventual collapse fueling years of bloody regional wars.
Mr. Mladic, who served in the Yugoslav Army, was appointed Commander of the Serbian Army in Bosnia in May 1992. After the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 and his indictment for war crimes, Mr. Mladic initially lived openly in the headquarters of the Serbian army. but then he hid and kept running. He was captured in 2011 and sent to The Hague for trial.
Why the final verdict matters
The latest ruling in the Mladic case comes at a time of growing fervor among Serbian nationalist groups who are committed to rewriting the history of the conflict, denying allegations of war crimes on their side and banning references to the episode in textbooks. .
Convicted war criminals are hailed as heroes and given prominent positions. At least one has been appointed to teach at a Serbian military war academy.
In the Serb-dominated half of Bosnia, giant paintings and posters of Mr. Mladic with his military equipment appear in public areas, and he has been appointed director of an association of war veterans.
A student residence is named after Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb political leader in wartime who is serving a life sentence for his role during the fighting.
Serge Brammertz, the chief prosecutor of the Hague court, recently said in a teleconference with journalists: “Today, the glorification and denial of genocide are much stronger than five or 10 years ago, and I have been in this job for 13 years”.
He noted that politicians across the region, in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, were still trying to use ethnic hatred to their advantage. “The underlying attitudes are still present in many politicians,” he said. “The difference is that today they are no longer ashamed to tell their lies publicly.”
What has the court achieved?
When the tribunal was first announced in 1993, even as the fighting was still raging, the goals were to hold the perpetrators of the worst atrocities to account and establish a solid historical record of events in the hope that it could lay the groundwork for the reconciliation.
Over the years, more than 160 people have been charged and some 80 trials have been carried out, with more than 5,000 witnesses offering often heartbreaking accounts of the barbarity they experienced.
Court supporters say it is too early to say what role court records will play in helping heal a still divided region.
Wolfgang Petritsch, an Austrian diplomat who served as the United Nations High Representative in Bosnia and who still travels a lot in the region, said: “I am quite pessimistic. The three countries maintain that they were victims of the war and are promoting revisionist points of view, questioning the facts and their roles. “
He singled out Serbia for its inability to confront its past.
“The Serbs never accepted that they were the perpetrators,” he said. “They accept that the murders happened during the war. But they don’t want to be called a genocidal nation. “
A view of a victim
For many who were on the receiving end of the murderous campaign to expel Muslims and Croats from their homes and lands, only the truth can end the tensions between the ethnic groups in the region.
Among them is Emir Suljagic. He witnessed the horrors in Srebrenica while working as an interpreter for United Nations peacekeepers.
His father and brother died in the butcher shop. Today, Mr. Suljagic teaches at the University of Sarajevo.
“Ratko Mladic spent the most important part of his life taking other people, taking the people he loved,” he wrote in a recent analysis.
“When he’s gone forever, his life’s work will still be with us. It will continue to poison the future until it is taken into account. “
What happens next?
For Mr. Mladic, the appeal ruling is final. If the guilty verdict is upheld or the charges are expanded, he will be sent from the United Nations detention center in The Hague to one of the European countries that have agreed to take prisoners from the court. That destination has not been disclosed, but it is not expected to be the Isle of Wight jail, a British island off the south of England, where Karadzic is serving a life sentence.
Considering the previous convictions on the massacre, it is considered unlikely that any important part of his appeal will be successful.
Probably more important to people who have followed the Mladic case is how the general’s actions will be judged by history. Will he go down in the annals as a great villain in a bloody genocide, or will attempts to paint him as a patriot and a hero endure?