A Wilted Metamorphosis: Ratko Mladić and the Bosnian Genocide
“I looked at Mladic. Hollywood could not have found a more convincing war villain. He glowered—there was no better word for it—and engaged each of the Americans in what seemed to us, when we compared notes later, as staring contests. Nonetheless, he had a compelling presence; it was not hard to understand why his troops revered him; he was, I thought, one of those lethal combinations that history thrusts up occasionally—a charismatic murderer.
— Richard Holbrooke, To End a War pg. 149
I experienced perhaps the most profound and unsettling moment of my entire life on July 17th, 2014. At the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), I engaged in—and won—a staring contest with the nightmarish war criminal and génocidaire: General Ratko Mladić. A bizarre scenario unfolded, in which my own disdainful sentiment for the mass murderer caught his attention—the match had begun. We glared at each other for a few minutes without blinking, until he looked away in defeat. It was surreal, having been so interactive with an indicted war criminal. The sweet satisfaction of my victory, so to speak, over the “Butcher of the Balkans” was short-lived; stepping back, I realized that the man had been truly defeated long ago—broken, abandoned, and all but forgotten (Drakulić 1). Before me was no devil, no demon, no monster—only a man.
As a student of International Relations at Michigan State University, I found myself in the Hague as part of the International Relations in Brussels study abroad program. In addition to taking classes on European security and European Union (EU) policy at the Université libre de Bruxelles, we had the opportunity to visit many significant institutions, such as NATO Headquarters, European Parliament, and so on, of which the ICTY was one. Many students on our program, myself included, expressed interest in international law, so the ICTY allowed for us to experience the pinnacle of the profession and all of its accomplishments. During our visit, I had the privilege of receiving an official photograph of our seminar, in addition to one of myself as part of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) #justicematters campaign—an outreach program aimed to provide awareness on the institution and global justice.
After such a surreal experience, curiosity drove me to discover all that I could about the man, resulting in this modest compilation—a tapestry of sorts that trace the transformation of Ratko Mladić over his documented lifetime, both in terms of his words and deeds. Images are particularly relevant to this project; the man whose trial I had witnessed could not look more different from his younger self. Once the brash and ruthless leader of the Army of the Republika Srpska (VRS) who held the fate of thousands in his hands, the frail figure in front of me was a but a mere withered shell of the horrible life he once lived. In this project, I explore both the power of imagery on the human mind, but more pressingly the wilted metamorphosis of Ratko Mladić through time, through sickness, and through criminality. There are documents and personal statements by Mladić that indicate he considers himself a hero; a title that his own people gave him over twenty years ago, but have since then revoked. Awaiting his inevitable fate with an infinite lack of choice, the only victories that Mladić can hope to savor are wars of the gazes, and even in these he cannot win.
Seeking Justice: The ICTY and Ratko Mladić
At the end of the twentieth century, many did not expect to see atrocities being committed in the same vein as those in World War II. Even more shocking to some was that these brutalities occurred once again in Europe; not in some far off land. Formally established on May 25th of 1993, the ICTY oversaw the prosecution of individuals involved with the wars in Bosnia, particularly suspected war criminals, génocidaires, mass murderers, and grave violators of the basic rights and freedoms that many take for granted. Its establishment reinforced and expanded the precedent that the Nuremberg Trials had cemented nearly half a century earlier: that those in the highest echelons of command could be held accountable for both the orders that they issue and the actions of their subordinates—and be successfully prosecuted as such (Mendlovitz, Fousek 239). Although the victims and their loved ones can never regain what they have lost, the ICTY acts to dispense justice and expedite their recovery process. While many criticize the length of the trials, some of which take multiple years to complete, few can deny the meticulousness and impartiality to which the tribunal adheres.
Ratko Mladic is on trial for the most severe of charges; genocide, crimes against humanity, and violations of the laws/customs of war. According to his ICTY trial sheet, Mladić was part of a joint criminal enterprise (JCE) to rid Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats from Bosnia and Herzegovina, accomplished through forcible removal and slaughter (CSICTY 1). Various crimes against humanity were committed in Banja Luka, Bijeljina, Foĉa, Ilidţa, Kalinovik, Kljuĉ, Kotor Varoš, Novi Grad, Pale, Prijedor, Rogatica, Sanski Most, Sokolac, Trnovo and Vlasenica (CSICTY 1). In Sarajevo, he violated the laws and customs of war through the initiation of a violent campaign to terrorize and kill civilians (CSICTY 1). As is the case in many genocides, leaders like Mladic are believed to have never committed any of the acts themselves, but are nonetheless complicit and liable for the actions of their subordinates (Robertson, Basu 1). I was present during the last portion of his trial, in which a defense witness presented the dubious argument that had not the Bosnian Serbs preemptively attacked the Bosniaks and others, then they themselves would have been victimized first.
A Bloody Mess: State Collapse, Ethnic Cleansing, and the Wars in Bosnia
One of the most destructive societal forces outside of war proper is state collapse. With the disintegration of a state, the greater infrastructure, government services, and basic good will collapse along with it. In the case of the former Yugoslavia, the scenario was especially volatile. While a centralized government gave Croats, Bosniaks, and Serbs the requisite security and comfort, its removal led to uncertainty, then mistrust, followed by hatred, and eventually escalated to violent ethnic conflict among various factions—as few and far between as they may have been (Cohen, Dragović-Soso 1-2). In its place remained a handful of countries, all of which housed significant minorities of other ethnicities.
The ethno-religious tensions that pervaded them detonated after Bosnian Serbs aligned with the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) to secure so-called Serbian territory within Bosnia and Herzegovina on April 6th, 1992. Elites among Serbs attempted to rally their people against the Bosniaks—Bosnian Muslims— in the region, citing them as remnants of the bitter Ottoman legacy. Atrocities were committed by all sides, making it difficult at best to determine who was at fault. Aside from actual armies and militias like the VRS, a significant proportion of looting, rape, and other crime was committed by hooligans, degenerates, and criminals—not the stereotypical neighbor-on-neighbor violence associated with ethnic conflict (Mueller 42). The ethnic cleansing that followed in the supposed UN safe-areas of Srebrenica, Žepa, and Gorazde claimed more than 8,500 total lives, with the further mass expulsion of another 30,000 or so (Sacco 2). All of this occurred under the approving supervision of General Ratko Mladić.
Breakout from Oppression: The Life and Evolution of Ratko Mladić
Although he seemed to be larger than life during his peak in the mid-1990’s, Mladić traces his origins to rather humble beginnings. Born in Kalinovik in March of 1942 in what was once part of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), he grew up in a modest Communist household (Lindala-Haumont). A member of the Yugoslav Partisans, his father, Neđjo, was killed during a raid against Nazi occupiers and their supporters, leaving his mother to raise their three children. Given his family’s animosity towards Nazis and fascists, it is ironic to think that the barbarities committed under his command were second only to the brutality of Nazi violence in World War II (Borger 1). This of course was balanced against his acquired contempt for Croats and other ethnicities, prevalent among certain elite military and political circles.
Until war broke out in 1991, Mladić undertook a remarkably generic career. He belonged to the League of Communists of Yugoslavia, undoubtedly influenced by the path his father chose years ago. Beginning in 1965, he made his way through the ranks of the JNA before it and the entire nation collapsed. He served as a lieutenant colonel during the Croatian-Serbian war, launching attacks in tandem with racist thugs against the village of Kijevo (Holbrooke 30). During the Bosnian war and the subsequent genocide that ensued, Mladić inspired fear and awe in his own soldiers, but even more so in his adversaries. He utilized a quixotic mixture of reassurance and brutality to achieve his outlined objectives. One moment, he would pass out chocolates to Muslim youth and spin calming tales; the next, he would corral hundreds of men and boys into buildings and set them ablaze (Powers 401). He dealt shrewdly and brusquely with UN commander General Bernard Janvier, and challenged the authority of the United Nations and the legitimacy of NATO forces at every turn (Holbrooke 113). At one point, Mladić was reported to have smirked and said, “I am in charge here. I’ll decide what happens. I have my plans and I’m going to carry them out. It will be best for you if you cooperate” (Engelberg, Weiner 1).
As time passed, Mladić found himself becoming increasingly sidelined. The political leaders of his cause, Slobodan Milošević and Radovan Karadžić, realized that they were losing ground against both NATO forces and through the scrutiny of the international community at large. In many a negotiation session, Mladić was known to lose his temper. He decried the NATO bombing campaign as fascist and criminal, evoking conspiratorial theories regarding the destruction of ‘rightful’ Serb land and the Serb people as a whole (Holbrooke 150). His many allusions to the Nazis are wrought with irony; both due to the Nazi bombing campaign against Belgrade as part of Operation Retribution in 1941, and because of his own atrocities that struck such a similar cord to that of his most hated enemy. Although seemingly at peak condition, many believed Mladić’s health to have been failing him. He was hospitalized with kidney stones according to Milošević, but whether or not this was a political convenience to strike a deal with NATO forces or an actual emergency may never be known (Holbrooke 156). The controversial and tragic loss of his daughter, Ana, changed his life forever. While all signs indicated that she took her own life after learning of her own father’s murderous rampage, Ratko Mladić believed that his daughter targeted for political murder by his enemies (Dobbs 1).
In 1995, the ICTY officially indicted Ratko Mladić (among others) for the brutalities perpetrated at his command, and he became a fugitive. The NATO leadership and several national administrations realized that a cessation of violence could not be reached without the official indictment of major offenders like Mladić and Karadžić (Holbrooke 190, 362). Neither man would be captured and extradited until several years after the Dayton Accords were signed; Mladić was in hiding for more than a decade. The combined loss of his daughter, the loss of his cause, and several years as a fugitive degraded the man into a husk. He ate next to nothing for long periods of time, and the ICTY ordered a medical examination to confirm that he was fit for trial. It is of little surprise that the man’s physical transformation aligns so well with his psychological status. Coping with the loss of his own child, in conjunction with having ordered the death of thousands of people can alter the mind in horrific ways. Regardless of how his trial ends—although a guilty verdict would come as a surprise to few—the man has known nothing but suffering for the past decade. Forgotten by his own people, hated by his enemies, and condemned to pay the price for his choices, the “Butcher of the Balkans” is at the end of the day a man nonetheless. Ratko Mladić may be responsible for the most horrific of crimes, but he is no monster. He knows pain and suffering like us all.
Figure 1: FOCUS Online. Der Frühere Befehlshaber Der Bosnischen Serben, General Ratko Mladic, in Bosnien-Herzegowina. 2011. N.p.
Figure 2: The Guardian. Former Bosnian Serb Military Commander General Ratko Mladic at the Start of His Trial at the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. 2012. N.p.
Figure 3: Our commemorative picture at the ICTY; second to the right in the second row, ICTY, Den Haag. Personal photograph by author. 2014.
Figure 4: Pictures spreading awareness of the ICC’s #justicematters campaign; bottom left, ICTY, Den Haag. Personal photograph by author. 2014.
Figure 5: New York Times. Ratko Mladic, Center, Observed the Positions of Bosnian Government Forces in Gorazde in 1994. 1994. N.p.
Figure 6: Srebrenica Genocide Blog. Gen. Ratko Mladic, the Wartime Commander of the Bosnian Serb Army and Chief Executor of Its Ethnic Cleansing Campaign. 1995. N.p.
Figure 7: Jack. Srebrenica Massacre (Srebrenica Genocide, Bosnian Genocide) Kamenica Budak Mass Grave Exhumations Exhibit 2. 1995. Srebrenica.
Figure 8: BBC News. Srebrenica Burials. 1995. N.p.
Figure 9: BBC News. Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic in Pale in 1993. 1993. N.p.
Figure 10: Daily Mail. Family Man: Ratko Mladic with His Daughter Ana, Right, and His Wife during the Bosnian War. 1994. N.p.
Figure 11: Vegetti, Matteo. The Balkans. unkown. N.p.
Borger, Julian. “Ratko Mladic: The Full Story of How the General Evaded Capture for So Long.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 2 Apr. 2013. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.
Cohen, Lenard J., and Jasna Dragović-Soso. State Collapse in South-Eastern Europe New Perspectives on Yugoslavia’s Disintegration Central European Studies 45.09 (2008): 1-415. Print.
Communications Service of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (CSICTY). Ratko Mladic. N.d. Case Information Sheet. ICTY, Den Haag.
Dobbs, Michael. “Visiting the Grave of Ana Mladic.” Foreign Policy (2011): n. pag. Print.
Drakulić, Slavenka. “The Two Faces of Ratko Mladic.” Foreign Policy (2014): n. pag. Foreign Policy. The FP Group, 20 June 2014. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.
Engelberg, Stephen, and Tim Weiner. “Massacre in Bosnia; Srebrenica: The Days of Slaughter.” New York Times 29 Oct. 1995, sec. 1: 1. Print.
Holbrooke, Richard C. To End a War. New York: Random House, 1998. Print.
Lindala-Haumont, Roland. “The Life and Times of Ratko Mladic.” CBC News – World. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 31 May 2011. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.
Mendlovitz, Saul, and John Fousek. “Enforcing the Law on Genocide.”Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 21.2 (1996): 237-58. Print.
Mueller, John. “The Banality of “Ethnic War”” International Security 25.1 (2000): 42-70. Print.
Power, Samantha. A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. New York: Basic, 2002. Print.
Robertson, Nic, and Moni Basu. “Mladic Shows No Remorse as War Crimes Trial Opens.” CNN World. Cable News Network, 17 May 2012. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.
Sacco, Joe. Safe Area Goražde. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics, 2000. Print.