Despite being convicted of war crimes, the “butcher of Bosnia” continues to be celebrated as a war hero by officials and youth in Serbia and beyond.
On Tuesday, the Appeals Chamber of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals sentenced Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic to life in prison. He was found guilty of genocide in Srebrenica, crimes against humanity and other atrocities throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina.
This court verdict was not very different from the first instance verdict back in 2017. Although Mladic has gone down in history as one of the most notorious war criminals, his ideology remains influential in parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia.
A track record of atrocities
It was Tuesday, May 12, 1992, when the Bosnian Serb Assembly met in Banja Luka for a special session. Attended by Bosnian Serb political, religious, police and military officials, this was an important day for Republika Srpska – the self-proclaimed separatist region in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
High-ranking officials took to the stand giving speeches, announcing victory and a fight for equality. Every one of them saw themselves as saviours of Serbdom—a messiah complex common in the Balkans.
On that day, the Assembly adopted “The Six Strategic Goals of the Serbian Nation,” the official policy of Bosnian Serbs and Republika Srpska throughout the war. This included “state delineation from the other two national communities” and “the establishment of a corridor in the valley of the Drina River, meaning the elimination of the Drina as a border between the two Serb states.”
That same day, the Assembly appointed Mladic as the Commander of the Bosnian Serb Army. As an experienced Yugoslav Peoples’ Army officer, with a track record for atrocities in Croatia, he seemed perfect for the position.
During his acceptance speech, he seemed very eager to do his job – getting rid of non-Serbs from the territories. In his speech, he very honestly stated that “people [were] not keys or coins to move from one pocket to another”.
The goals were feasible and realistic, but genocide needed to be committed.
“Therefore, we cannot cleanse or have a sieve to sift so that only Serbs remain, or for Serbs to perish and for the others to leave. Well, that will not happen, I don’t know how [assembly speaker] Mr. Krajisnik and [Bosnian Serb president] Mr. Karadzic will explain that to the world. That is genocide.”
Not that he had a problem with it. Or any other attendee at the Assembly for that matter.
His first operation was in Sarajevo where he immediately ordered the bombardment of areas populated with non-Serbs. Bosnian intelligence personnel intercepted his telephone orders to a Bosnian Serb officer.
"Don’t let them sleep. Make them lose their minds."
Fast-forward three years and Mladic is in Srebrenica leading a group of soldiers down the town centre. Surrounded by TV crews, genocide was filmed. Mladic was the new messiah. He stopped and stood in front of the Srebrenica shopping mall.
“Here we are, on July 11, 1995, in Serb Srebrenica. On the eve of yet another great Serb holiday, we give this town to the Serb people as a gift. Finally, after the Rebellion against the Dahis [19th-century Serb rebellion against the Ottoman Empire], the time has come to take revenge on the Turks in this region.”
However, Mladic’s fame was short-lived. He and Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb political leader, had to go into ‘hiding’, or more precisely, away from public life. This was probably an agreement between Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and some members of the international community.
The road to justice
The wars that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and especially the genocidal campaign against Bosniaks in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992-1995, were directed, funded and organised by Milosevic's regime in Belgrade.
In 2011, Mladic was finally arrested near Zrenjanin, some 70km from Belgrade. The image of a confused and disoriented aged man found alone in a house changed the image of Mladic everyone remembered from the 1990s. From the infamous brutal and feared general, he was now alone and abandoned.
Since then, sympathy for Mladic has grown. As the trial at the Hague proceeded, he suddenly became lionised once again, this time by youngsters born after the war ended. Murals with Mladic’s portrait popped up throughout the Bosnian Serb entity and Serbia.
Memes of Mladic started being shared online. He became the icon of ‘removing kebab’ - a new slur for getting rid of Muslims, popularly employed by far-right extremists worldwide.
The trial and conviction of Mladic is a huge step forward, not only for Bosniaks and Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also for international law. Mladic certainly did not envision this kind of retirement back in May 1992 when he announced the genocide.
The road to justice was long, almost a quarter of a century. However, what is devastating is that despite the load of forensic evidence available, Mladic’s crimes continue to be denied.
Soon after the verdict was pronounced, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik stated that the verdict was "an attempt to create a myth about the genocide in Srebrenica that never happened."
Serbian tabloids, especially those close to the government, published front pages hailing Mladic as a hero. Mladic’s son Darko went as far as stating that Serbs are the new Indigenous Americans. Serbian officials also condemned the sentence and proclaimed the court as partial and biased.
This brings us to a defeatist but realistic attitude - war criminals like Mladic will be celebrated not only in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but throughout the world. He serves and will continue to serve as an inspiration to right-wing extremists, terrorists and human rights abusers.
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