I have only seen Ratko Mladić on television and on my computer screen, but I am well aware of his legacy in eastern Bosnia. Earlier this decade, I spent two years in Foča, a mountainous district in the Upper Drina Valley near the borders with Montenegro and Serbia.
Apart from its rugged nature, the Drina Valley is known because of what happened there during the Bosnian War (1992-95). Despite the overwhelming media attention on the besieged Sarajevo, much of the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims was carried out in isolated rural areas, in places such as Goražde, Višegrad, Srebrenica and Foča itself.
Mladić was born there, in Kalinovik, a scruffy and isolated village on the high planes of Treskavica. And while he may be despised internationally, the “General” enjoys a hero’s standing among many Serbs in the region, as evidenced by the graffiti supporting him that I used to see when I arrived in the valley in 2010 as a human rights officer for the OSCE.
Reading the recent sentence by The Hague Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, two memories from that time come to mind: the local response to his arrest, and our work in the mass graves he and others created.
In May 2011 the police finally arrested Mladić in Lazarevo, Serbia. Like his political mentor, Radovan Karadžić, detained in Belgrade in 2008, Mladić had been in hiding since the end of the 1990s, protected by elements of Serbia’s security apparatus. Although news of his arrest spread like wildfire across the world, a heavy silence weighed on Foča that morning.
In “Homage to Catalonia”, Orwell outlines how, in the midst of historical events, there is no time for the “’analysis’ of the situation… so glibly made …hundreds of miles away”. In our small office, an hour and a half from Sarajevo at best and more like three in winter, there was no glory to savour. We were concerned about the nationalist demonstration in support of Mladić planned that afternoon, and for our physical safety. The local personnel worried about being associated with an OSCE conflated with NATO and the “anti-Serb” West.
The demonstration was huge for a town the size of Foča. At the front marched many of those idle, quasi-gangsterish men I saw in bars and cafés every day. They proudly unfurled Serbian flags along with those of paramilitary units that had sowed terror among Bosniaks.
But also present were a large number of usually kindly middle-aged and elderly ladies, Balkan babushkas, who that day bore bitter, scowling faces. They held up Orthodox icons and portraits of Mladić, mixing religion and the myth of the national hero. Many of the town’s children were scampering about noisily, enjoying a festive moment of their own.
The march ended at the monument to Mladić’s Bosnian Serb army (VRS), built on a site where Muslim dwellings had stood until 1992. For years after his arrest, the streets and lampposts continued to bear pictures of Mladić.
The second memory stems from the hours spent supervising the process of exhuming bodies from mass graves, which continue to appear along the Drina, in forests, in town cellars, and in ditches dug next to country lanes. The remains, in groups of five, ten, or more corpses, patiently tagged by the forensics with different papers and identification numbers, belonged overwhelmingly to Bosnian Muslims or Croats, executed by the VRS and paramilitaries like the “Tigers” of Željko Ražnatović (alias, “Arkan”) and the “White Eagles” of Vojislav Šešelj.
Mladić will never return to the Drina. He has been sentenced to life for the genocide at Srebrenica and other war crimes, such as those committed during the siege of Sarajevo. The Tribunal attests that Mladić’s commands were so instrumental to the perpetration of these crimes that, without them, they would not have happened the way they did. The Hague’s jurisprudence confirms that Mladić, Karadžić and others formed a criminal structure (a “Joint Criminal Enterprise”, JCE) designed to ethnically cleanse regions bordering Serbia of Muslims and Croats. This included the genocide of around 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica in the space of just a few days in July, 1995.
In a disputed part of the ruling, The Hague does not attribute this same genocidal intent to the ethnic cleansing and other war crimes perpetrated in other localities on the Drina, such as Foča and Višegrad, where it is estimated that perhaps over 2,000 Muslims were murdered, often in very gruesome ways. The standard of proof for genocide is very high. In any event, this criminal enterprise was part of the ultranationalist project for a Greater Serbia, the responsibility for which – for some, the ultimate responsibility – resided in the Belgrade of Slobodan Milošević.
The other and largely forgotten great criminal enterprise against Bosnia was the ‘Greater Croatia’ project, incarnated in the pseudo-republic of Herceg-Bosna. One of its leaders – another general – Slobodan Praljak, achieved fame last month by staging his suicide on television as the court was hearing the guilty verdict against him and other Bosnian Croats. Behind was the Croatia of Franjo Tuđman, who negotiated the division of Bosnia with Milošević while fighting a war against him at the same time. Like his Serbian counterpart, most agree that Tuđman should have ended up in The Hague had death not intervened.
Sadly, both the results and the ethno-nationalistic politics of these terrible crimes are still latent forces in the region. In Foča, some of the destroyed mosques have been rebuilt, but there remain very few Muslims around to heed the muezzin’s recorded call to prayer. Ethnic cleansing was, sadly, nearly completely successful.
The current mayor of Višegrad just inaugurated a mural dedicated to Karadžić and Mladić. Milorad Dodik, today’s leader of Bosnia’s Republika Srpska, denies the Srebrenica genocide and fans the flames of historical revisionism in this post-truth age. Other crimes committed against the Serbian population in the region remain unanswered for. And politicians from Croatia, now a European Union member state, have criticised the verdicts against war criminals, while they continue to meddle in the affairs of Bosnia, a country that theoretically aspires to EU membership too.
Years later, I still find it hard to understand figures such as Mladić, even at the comfortable distance that ought to facilitate the analysis of historical events. Maybe there is little to understand – another rendering of Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil. I see the aged Mladić shouting pathetically at the calm but steadfast judge, “Vi niste sud!” (This is not a court!). I see Praljak braying how he is not a war criminal as he swallows the poison. And with that, the curtain comes down on The Hague tribunal.
Verdicts such as Mladić’s life sentence are necessary, and I hope they have brought some comfort to those survivors and other victims that I met. With the Hague phase over, it is about time for a serious investment in a difficult process of reconciliation, for which education and the creation of a shared historic memory will be key.
Perhaps this will prove too much to ask of the current generation. But perhaps, in time, new generations can start from scratch.
Borja Lasheras is author of Bosnia en el limbo: testimonios desde el río Drina (UOC, 2017), in English with Ibidem Press (2018).
A longer Spanish version of this article appeared in El Mundo newspaper on December 8. It was translated by James Badcock.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.