Illustration by Oliver Munday
Illustration by Oliver Munday

In the spring of 1992, at the beginning of the siege of Sarajevo, an exchange between General Ratko Mladic and a Serb artillery colonel commanding positions above the city was intercepted and recorded. "Fire on Velesici and Pofalici," General Mladic ordered, referring to two Sarajevo neighborhoods. "There aren’t many Serbs there." A certain glee in his voice is audible as he refines his order: "Don’t let them sleep. Make them lose their minds."

Later on, he’d claim that the conversation was faked, that the order was given by "a skillful imitator" of his voice. Had he ever existed, the imitator would have been deservedly praised for capturing perfectly a ruthlessness worthy of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. For General Mladic, handpicked by Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian president, to command the destruction of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the price of a few dead fellow Serbs wasn’t too high if he could make Sarajevans lose their minds, before they lost their lives.

But the man who proudly addressed a TV camera on July 11, 1995, the day the "safe" enclave of Srebrenica fell to the Serb forces, wasn’t a skillful imitator, but General Mladic himself. He offered the conquered city as "a gift to the Serb people," adding that "finally the time has arrived to take revenge upon the Turks, after the uprising against the Dahi." Apart from putting himself, out of evident patriotic vanity, on the scene of a war crime, General Mladic precisely formulated the racist pathology of Serbian nationalism: The uprising against the Dahi -- the local Ottoman overlords -- took place in the early 19th century. By "the Turks" he now meant Bosnian Muslims. Invested in an uprising from 200 years earlier, he fought imaginary enemies.

Srebrenica Massacre

His victims were far too real. In Srebrenica, General Mladic directly oversaw the killing of almost 8,000 men, a feat now known as the largest mass murder in Europe since World War II. He was all over the place, and a camera faithfully followed him: Walking the streets of the ravaged city, he issued orders off the cuff. To the desperate women and children, he promised passage to safety, suggesting that the men would follow later. He bullied Colonel Thomas Karremans, the commander of the Dutch United Nations battalion, who then meekly delivered to their death the men seeking protection in the UN camp. At a meeting with the hapless Karremans that included Nesib Mandzic, a local high-school teacher, Mladic claimed that if the Muslim men in the UN camp chose to lay their arms down (they had none, as that had been the condition of their entering the camp) he would "guarantee" their lives; to the terrified teacher he entrusted the task of convincing them, and told him that "the fate of his people (was) in his hands."

Absolute Power

The fate of the people of Srebrenica was, of course, in General Mladic’s hands. From a position of absolute power over life and death, he made his victims believe he had no reason to lie, precisely because his power was absolute. He clearly enjoyed offering false choices to the men he was about to exterminate, offering candy to their children, offering eternal expulsion to their wives and mothers, his power increasing by a pleasant notch: it was now so great that he could choose not to wield it. The whole world knows he did.

A career officer in the Yugoslav People’s Army, he’d commanded a provincial garrison in the Macedonian town of Stip in the late ’80s. After his sociopathic talents had been recognized by Milosevic, Mladic was promoted and transferred in 1991 to the Knin garrison in Croatia, where he quickly carved out a large chunk of territory, which the Serbs lost only in 1995. In 1992, he was sent to Bosnia to continue establishing Greater Serbia. When Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb civilian leader, tried to remove him from his supreme commanding post in 1995, General Mladic simply ignored him, as did Mladic’s loyal Bosnian Serb Army. All over the Serb lands, songs were sung about him and his heroic feats.

Home Movies

None of his heroic ruthlessness, however, was visible in the footage broadcast on Bosnian television in 2009, in which Mladic was featured in a series of home movies. Apart from an occasional thick-necked bodyguard stumbling into the frame, nothing suggests the war, let alone a genocidal exercise of power in Srebrenica. Instead, Mladic is seen at parties and weddings, singing loudly out of tune; he’s visited by other suspected war criminals in civilian suits, carrying flowers for his wife; he enjoys downtime in the idyllic surroundings of military barracks somewhere in Serbia -- accompanied by a singing bird, he pensively says: "Peace. Quiet." If it weren’t for the images from his suicide daughter’s funeral, where he kisses the morbid little window on her coffin, and then, ever a neat soldier, wipes it with a handkerchief, the footage would be practically a commercial for comfortable retirement.

For years after the war ended in 1995, he moved freely between the Bosnian Serb territories and Serbia proper. Only after the fall of Milosevic in 2000 did he go into what is very generously called hiding, as the Serbian security forces seemed to have known where he was all along. He continued receiving Serbian military pension until 2005.

Burning for Revenge

The 69-year-old man who emerged from a house in Lazarevo, in northeastern Serbia, looks nothing like the Mladic of Srebrenica, who was burning, his sleeves rolled up, to get to the business of revenge. Now a spent man, Mladic has outlived Milosevic, his project of Greater Serbia and the fanatical loyalty of many Serbs, fed from the fertile ground of mass murder. And there is a happy consensus in Serbia and Europe that it is time to drop the stinking weight of Yugoslav wars and proceed to Greater Europe, where free-trade oblivion will soon ensue.

But the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina today ought to be part of Mladic’s indictment: Srebrenica is still under Serb control; the families of the murdered men dare not return. The politicians of "Republika Srpska," a Serb state-let built by Mladic and his killers, but nominally part of Bosnia, participate in Bosnian political institutions only to block their functioning. Europe, for which Mladic is the Serbian ticket, is closed to Bosnia, partly because there aren’t Bosnian war criminals that could be traded in for prosperity. General Mladic’s project of Greater Serbia has failed, but his project of destroying Bosnia still has a good chance of succeeding.

(Aleksandar Hemon, a Bosnian-American writer, is the author, most recently, of the novel “The Lazarus Project” and “Love and Obstacles,” a collection of short stories. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the reporter on this story: Aleksandar Hemon at sorgespy@hotmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net