Charlotte Eagar

Meeting Mladic

The Butcher of Bosnia is going on trial at last. But he won his war

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I once became obsessed with a huge boil on the back of General Mladic’s neck. We were in Pale — the Bosnian Serb ski-resort turned capital — at a meeting of their parliament, in the summer of ’94. I was there as the Balkans correspondent of the Observer and had, by that time, met Ratko Mladic several times. He was holding court, surrounded by henchmen, at the centre of the awestruck MPs; a menacing, enormous man with bulging arms and shoulders, like an inflatable killing doll. But it was the Butcher of Bosnia’s enormous boil that struck me. It must have caused him immense pain. Knowing what he had done, and what he went on to do, I’m glad about that.

A year later, July 1995, I was in the UN refugee camp at Tuzla airport watching the women of Srebrenica cooking for their children, darting between the tents. Srebrenica had fallen to General Mladic and his Bosnian Serb army the previous week, and these women had lost their husbands, fathers, sons and homes. But life ground on. Then, as we watched, an army of ghosts in ragged fatigues began to materialise, emerging through the smoke from the cooking fires: the surviving men of Srebrenica. As they searched through the tents, a woman would leap up with a caw of joy. The other women stopped their chores, frozen by unexpected hope. But there were not many men. Before the impotent eyes of the Dutch UN troops, General Mladic had sent the 8,000 who surrendered off to their deaths in a football stadium. Only a few had kept fighting, and made their way over the mountains to Tuzla.

There has been some suggestion that Mladic was not responsible for the massacre in Srebrenica. Before Serbia’s war crimes court overturned his appeal a few days ago, his son Darko had protested that the Scorpions, a paramilitary unit, were to blame. Rubbish. Mladic was far too good a general not to know what was going on — and the Scorpions in any case reported to him.

When you spoke to Mladic, you knew you were only alive because he wanted it that way. In Sarajevo, where I spent much of the siege, his troops encircled the city, shelling its people and sniping at women and children as they dashed across the streets. Under his orders the water, gas and electricity were all turned off. A modern city of tower blocks and TV stations was suddenly reduced to a medieval slum.

Were Serb atrocities exaggerated? I went to a mass grave near Zvornik in 2003, through which I had been hustled by the Serbs in July ’92 shortly after they had taken the town. I watched as the bodies of children, women, and men in tartan shirts, with Muslim names on their bloodstained ID cards, were painstakingly exhumed. The estimate was that more than 150,000 people died in that first summer of the war. The massacre at Srebrenica, three years later, was hardly a surprise. The difference was that Srebrenica, a UN safe haven, was too public to ignore: the Nato airstrikes and the artillery barrages against the Serbs all happened soon afterwards, and by November ’95 the war ground to a close.

Why wasn’t Mladic arrested before? After all, British, French and US special forces wandered Bosnia freely for many years after the end of the war and he used to be spotted in restaurants, boils and all. The problem, according to some ex-SAS chums, was that our governments wanted Mladic to be taken alive. ‘That would not have been possible then,’ said one: back then, his thugs were still pumped up enough to die for him. Sixteen years after the war, the adrenalin has ebbed. Mladic’s praetorians are bodyguarding Serb oligarchs or back tending their pigs, and the azure-eyed warlord is a shifty pensioner with a withered hand. And Serbia has traded its bloodstained mythmaker for hope of the EU.

So ding dong, the witch is dead — except that the genocidal policy of ethnic cleansing Mladic so enthusiastically executed was largely successful. There are very few Muslims left in the parts of Bosnia that were cleansed. Those who survived have fled, either abroad or to Sarajevo which is, ironically, far more overtly Muslim now, with girls in hijabs on the streets. As for Srebrenica, I went there in November 2003. It was Bajram, the Muslim equivalent of Christmas. There was only one Muslim living in the town full of guilt-stricken Serbs: Hajra Catic, the head of the Srebrenica Women’s Association, back in her old home. There was a drawing of her son on the wall but he was dead, and so was the boy who had drawn it. So was her husband, her brother, almost any man she knew. She had made traditional Bajram baklava, but the only people to eat it with her were me and Malcolm Brabant of the BBC.

Written byCharlotte Eagar

Charlotte Eagar is producer of the Trojan Women Project (trojanwomenproject.org).

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