The Serbian Orthodox church in the Bosnian Serb border town of Bijeljina is a modest, dark gray building a few blocks from the central square. On Wednesday, June 28, 1995, local peasants and Bosnian Serb refugees from Tuzla and Zenica packed the church to celebrate the feast of the fourth-century martyr Saint Vitus. This is one of the holiest occasions of the Serbian Orthodox calendar: it coincides with the day in 1389 when Prince Lazar Hrebeljanovic and his forces were crushed by the Ottoman Turks in the battle of Kosovo, beginning five hundred years of Muslim rule over the Serbs.
According to Serbian legend, the angel Elijah appeared to Lazar on the eve of battle offering him a choice over the outcome of the next day’s events. Lazar could have a victory and win an earthly kingdom, or he could choose martyrdom and a place for his people in heaven. Thus a military failure was turned into a spiritual triumph, and a battlefield became the birthplace of the Serbian mission to recover the national homeland.
Every man, woman, and child present, whether in peasant dress or wearing smart Italian sports clothes, would have known this story. The people came hoping to catch a glimpse of their modern-day Lazar, General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serbs’ military commander, who was in town for the occasion. The rest of the Bosnian Serb leadership was also there—“President” Radovan Karadzic, “Vice-President” Nikola Koljevic, and “Parliamentary Speaker” Moncilo Krajisnik—but they were a sideshow. Their comings and goings aroused mild curiosity but little enthusiasm.
When General Mladic left the church, he was mobbed by adoring fans. Old women cried and tried to hug him. Babies were held up for him to touch. Throughout all this, Mladic looked uncomfortable, as if he were genuinely surprised by the attention. His awkwardness and seeming humility only served to impress the crowd further.
“He is a god,” one well-dressed middle-aged woman told me. “I would follow him anywhere, through the woods or across rivers. He is our savior and the greatest man in the world.” She clasped her breast and looked up at the sky.
A delegation of Greek Cypriots came to pay their respects. “When you are finished here, you are welcome to come to Cyprus to help us throw our Turks into the sea,” the leader of the delegation told the general, who smiled politely at the invitation as if such a thought embarrassed him.
Two weeks later, around July 12, General Mladic was in Potocari, a village to which more than 28,000 Muslims from Srebrenica had fled in a vain search for refuge with the Dutch UN peacekeepers there. He was on a horse, surveying the faces of the refugees, when he spied a large number of men and boys. According to the testimony of one witness,1 Mladic could barely contain his delight. “There are so many!” he exclaimed. “It is going to be a mezze [a feast]. There will be blood up to…
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