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 your knees.”
During the next few days, between two and four thousand captured Muslim men, including teen-age boys, were slaughtered in an orgy of methodical revenge killings.2 Intercepted radio transmissions indicate that Mladic was present at the beginning of the executions. According to a UN source, after the first days of slaughter, Mladic told the Dutch UN commander he held captive at Potocari that Serb forces had killed “lots of people because they were trying to break out of Srebrenica.”3
Many witnesses to the murder of Muslims from Srebrenica have said that Mladic was, in fact, present during much of the butchery. One survivor of an alleged mass execution of hundreds of Srebrenica prisoners near the eastern Bosnian village of Karakaj swears that he saw General Mladic sitting in a red Ford car, watching as Bosnian men were taken in pairs off the back of a truck and summarily shot. A few hours earlier Mladic was reported to have told the prisoners: “You will be released and you have nothing to fear.”
Mladic is adept at striking an apparently benign pose while planning killings. Shortly before his soldiers began separating Muslim men from their families in Srebenica for “screening,” he arrived to comfort the conquered and to hand out meat and chocolate to the children. Serbian television cameras videotaped him swaggering among the crowds, patting children on the head, saying: “Don’t be afraid. No one will harm you.” The Bosnian men were taken away the minute the cameras were turned off.
A few weeks later, after Mladic had crushed Zepa, another Muslim enclave, the general told a Serb reporter without a hint of cynicism: “Do you think that I like to wage war? I would be the happiest man in the world if the war were over. A soldier knows best what kind of evil war is. But when their neck is being squeezed, people must be defended.”
Such are the different faces of General Ratko Mladic: an adored soldier-hero and plausibly accused war criminal; a peace-loving killer with the common touch. To his soldiers and the Serbs of Bosnia, General Mladic is a warrior prince. To his enemies, the Muslims and Croats, he is the incarnation of the devil, a man willing to persecute and kill civilians with particular brutality. Those who know him best say that he is the most charming man who ever strangled a city or pounded a village to rubble. “You’ve never spent any time in private with him. He has a marvelous intelligence and a great sense of humor,” said one of his friends, who also reluctantly admitted that at the same time Mladic can be uncompromisingly cruel.
Ratko Mladic was born on March 12, 1943, in Bozinovici, a village near Kalinovik in Herzegovina. His first name is a diminutive of Ratimir, meaning war or peace, or Ratislav, meaning war of the Slavs. These are names often given to boys born in wartime. Both his parents were partisans who fought the Nazi occupiers and their Croatian Ustashe allies. On his second birthday, his father, Nedja, was killed by the Croats, an event he rarely fails to mention to strangers.
After the war, Mladic went to a high school on the outskirts of Belgrade and then to Yugoslavia’s military academy, graduating in 1965, the same year he joined the Communist Party. Sent to Macedonia, he commanded a platoon, then a tank battalion, then a brigade. In 1991, he became deputy commander in Kosovo, where the population is more than 90 percent ethnic Albanian.
In June 1991, he was assigned by Belgrade to go to Croatia, where fighting had broken out between Croatian militias and the Yugoslav army. In those days he did not speak about “Serbian national interests” or “Serbian military traditions.” Being a Serb then had no evident importance for him. In the 1991 Yugoslav census, the last before the old Yugoslav federation collapsed, Mladic listed his nationality as Yugoslav, not Serb.4 The reasons for his transformation into a Serb nationalist, if that is what it was, are unclear. A former colleague recalled that Mladic had an uncanny political sense. “He was sly enough to know what was to be said at any particular moment:”
Success in fighting the Croats brought him to the attention of the Bosnian Serb hard-liners who were looking for a high-ranking Yugoslav officer to be their top military leader in the war that they were planning. One of them, “Vice-President” Nikola Koljevic, a Shakespeare professor formerly at Sarajevo University, recalled recently: “We didn’t know Mladic. But then we read about him in a Croatian newspaper that said ‘Mladic is no social worker.’ We decided that’s the guy we need.” In May 1992 he transferred to the newly formed Bosnian Serb army and the legend of General Mladic began to grow. It is not surprising that he was chosen for his capacity for ruthlessness. Many Serbs, particularly Bosnian Serbs, take it for granted that their soldiers will be implacable and brutal toward their enemies: “Do it to them first because if you don’t, you can be certain they will do it to you.”
Mladic’s undoubted charisma is largely based (unexpected as this might seem to outsiders) on his reputation for “honesty” and “integrity.” In a land where politicians and warlords have grown rich from the trade in war booty, Mladic is considered an ascetic. He leads a humble, some would say Spartan, existence. He has a modest house in Belgrade, and in Bosnia either sleeps on an army cot in his headquarters or out in the field with his men. His dislike of war profiteers is said to be intense. During an interview with me this summer he attacked the unscrupulous paramilitary warlords. “They went running around to jewelry stores, banks, and well-stocked super-markets. There is not a single hill that they kept or liberated. On the other hand, the soldiers and officers in the army lead modest lives.”
Mladic prefers the company of soldiers in the field. He often commands in the mud of the frontlines, alongside his men, and they are committed to him. Most of the heroic myths of General Mladic have emerged on the battlefields of Bosnia, and then are repeated and elaborated endlessly in the taverns and trenches where Serbian soldiers chain-smoke cigarettes and sip thick black coffee and plum brandy.
The latest story I heard describes how one morning after the fall of Zepa, Mladic came across a small group of Serbian soldiers soaked from the cold rain the night before. “Where are you heading?” he asked them. “To find some place to dry our clothes,” they replied, to which the general took off his hat, filled it with water, poured it over himself, and ordered, “Follow me.”
Such stories are so common that on meeting Mladic for the first time, one is surprised to find he is not a big man. The enormous head and broad face pictured in newspapers and magazines may give the impression of a towering, barrel-chested person. But he is of average height and build, and has piercing blue eyes. When I saw him this summer, in the foyer of a theater in Bijeljina, just one week before the start of his offensive against Srebrenica, what he most wanted to talk about was the need for peace and how the “international sponsors” of the war in Bosnia had to stop backing Serbia’s enemies.
“I think it is time for all peace-loving people of this world to start pondering where all this leads. I think it’s high time that the weapons in this part of the world, and all over the world, were silenced.
“If humankind were to follow my advice and if it were in my power, I wouldn’t allow the word ‘war’ to be uttered in any language, I would ban all weapons, even in the form of toys.”
As he spoke, his plans were, in fact, well advanced to wipe out Srebrenica and the other Muslim enclaves. He even hinted at this in a speech just before I saw him. “The upcoming period is very important and can be decisive for the outcome of the war,” he had said.
He talked so much about peace, it seemed clear, because I had written an article for the London Independent on Sunday which had ironically named Mladic as a candidate for “man of the year”—in recognition of his singular ruthlessness and his horrifying success in calling NATO’s bluff over Bosnia.
But the irony was lost on the general, as it was on most of the Bosnian Serbs. They actually thought he had been given this “honor” because of his virtues. So Mladic felt the need to speak like a statesman and show me that I had made a good choice. Yet every so often he could not resist changing his tone.
“We are fully aware that war is not the only way to defend our values. But if those values are fundamentally endangered, as is the case today, then war is the only way to defend them. Everything that hinders us in our effort to defend ourselves is an injustice. We did not want this war, it was thrust upon us, like all others. Defending one’s people is a holy duty,” he said.
Shortly after our talk, I happened to read the testimony of Hermann Goering at the Nuremberg Tribunal: “I did not want a war, nor did I bring it about. I have done everything to prevent it through negotiations…. The only motive which guided me was my ardent love for my people; its fortunes, its freedom, and its life.”5
Mladic, indicted by the international war-crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia this July along with Radovan Karadzic, may eventually have his chance to repeat a similar defense one day. Like Goering, Mladic often views his enemies as inferior beings, less than human. In an intercepted radio message in April 1993, during the height of the Bosnian Serbs’ first siege of Srebrenica, Mladic could be heard ordering his commanders to pound with artillery force the trenches and woods where enemy soldiers were hiding. “Hit the raw meat,” he barked. More recently, he brushed off allegations that Serb soldiers had raped some of the Muslim women fleeing Srebrenica. It was impossible, he said. “We [Serbs] are too picky.”
Sometimes he talks of himself as god-like. During an international peace conference in 1993 in Geneva, when Alija Izetbegovic, the Bosnian president, expressed doubts about Serbs keeping their promises, Mladic said, “When I guarantee something to you, it is the same as when the Almighty does.” After the fall of Zepa, when the UN rushed to conclude a civilian evacuation deal with the Bosnian Serbs, Mladic, before television cameras, boarded a bus carrying civilians from Zepa to Sarajevo and announced, “I am General Mladic. You have probably heard of me. Has anyone here been raped by Bosnian Serbs?” When the cameras were switched off, he told the group, “No Allah, no UN, no NATO can save you. Only me.”
Mladic does not see Muslims or Croats as people fighting, however misguidedly, for self-determination, or for a multicultural society, or to avenge the injustices inflicted on them by General Mladic’s own soldiers. They are for him the forces of Modred, representatives of foreign powers bent on the destruction of the Serbs. For the general there is a diabolical plan behind every action of his enemy. The Bosnian Muslims are thus not fighting to take back a rocky hill in order to control the goat path beneath; they are acting under the instructions of their powerful masters in Tehran, Washington, and Bonn, particularly Bonn.
“Germany sponsored the war,” he told me. “It turned the Croats and the Muslims against the Serbs and set them in motion to achieve the German aim to Germanize the Balkans.”
The German theme recurs so often in the general’s statements that it has led some Serbs who know him to suggest that his brutality is inspired in part by a desire for revenge. When he says, “This war was begun and declared on us by the same people as in 1941,” he may be referring to the “same people” who killed his father. Gaja Petkovic, a retired Yugoslav army colonel and a former colleague of Mladic, suggested as much last year in a critical article on Mladic in a Belgrade magazine, writing: “Some used to say that by fighting Croatia Mladic was avenging the past, his dead father, and his unhappy childhood, that he was resolving his frustrations and venting his inborn sadism.”6 Soon after the article was published, Petkovic said, Mladic threatened him with violence—a claim Mladic denies.
What is clear is that there is hardly any difference between past and present for General Mladic. He talks about both in the same breath, and different periods of history become conflated as he speaks. The Serbs today are still fighting to turn an Islamic tide away from Europe; Germany has never abandoned its expansionist aims; and the world’s newest imperial power, America, also wants a slice of the Balkan pie.
“The Balkans and Europe as a whole are very much in danger of being Germanized,” he told me. No less a danger is the threat of Islamization. There is also, he said, a big and “quite openly expressed wish” to have the region put under American control. All of this, he continued, runs counter to prospects for peace, and to the “real interests” of the Balkan nations.
“The time is right,” he added, “for the Serbian people to get what belongs to them, the right that derives from the past and the present.”
Until the recent NATO air strikes, he brushed aside the possibility of international military intervention. During the UN hostage crisis, a friend warned him that he might have caught a tiger by the tail. “Don’t you worry,” he replied. “To me it doesn’t look much like a tiger. More like an old nag.”
The only enemies that he really fears, I gathered from some of his statements, come from within his own ranks, although when we talked he was reluctant to name any of his Serb opponents or to speak openly of a rift with Karadzic. This pretense of unity would soon disappear.
“Maybe we went a little bit too far with General Mladic: we have made a legend of him.” When Karadzic said this on August 4, 1995, he meant to cripple his military commander, not just wound him.
For a long time Karadzic had been worried by General Mladic. He feared the general’s popular appeal and his ties to Slobodan Milosevic and the other Serb leaders in Belgrade who don’t like Karadzic. He was bothered by Mladic’s puritanism; his loathing of gambling and womanizing and war-profiteering, all of which have become part of political life in Serb-controlled Bosnia. Above all Karadzic feared the general’s strength.
Relations were cool between the two men even before Karadzic broke with Milosevic, in August 1994. The split was over Karadzic’s refusal to sign a peace plan supported by Milosevic. Mladic is viewed as loyal to Milosevic, but he has played down the stories that Belgrade was encouraging him to mount a coup against Karadzic and his allies in Pale. Mladic accepted a division of labor: he would run the war while Karadzic dominated the Bosnian Serb politicians in Pale and in the Bosnian Serb towns. As long as politics did not undermine the war effort, Mladic did not interfere. The two men, however, detest each other.
Karadzic became particularly angry in mid-June when Mladic did not show up for the wedding of Karadzic’s daughter, Sonja, in Pale, the ski resort outside Sarajevo that serves as the Bosnian Serbs’ political headquarters. The wedding was an ostentatious affair, with a bottle of Ballantine whiskey on every table and hundreds of guests trying to relieve the boredom of Pale and ingratiate themselves with the first family.
Privately Mladic said that what made the celebration particularly obscene for him was that it was held at the height of the Muslim attempt to try to break the siege of Sarajevo. During the wedding reception, above the sound of the dance music, the wail of ambulances carrying Serb wounded to the local hospital could be heard.
Mladic formally excused himself because of “official business.” But when asked by a local magazine why he had not come, he mentioned perhaps the single most important event that has marked his life, apart from his father’s death: the suicide in Belgrade of his daughter, Ana, a university medical student, in March 1994. She had been in a deep depression, exacerbated, some of Mladic’s associates claimed, by particularly fierce criticism in the Serbian press accusing her father of war crimes. Whatever the truth about her death, friends say that Mladic never fully recovered from the loss. Whenever he gets a chance to go to Belgrade, they say, he spends time at her graveside.
“I visit feasts and celebrations reluctantly these days,” he told the Serb magazine, “regardless of whose honor they are being held in. Ever since we had a family tragedy, ever since our Ana is gone, I deem it normal not to attend parties.”7
Nothing he said smoothed relations with Karadzic. The break came on August 1, when Milosevic sent a peace proposal to the Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Muslims. The letter to the Muslims was addressed to Alija Izetbegovic, the president of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The letter to the Bosnian Serbs was addressed to Mladic, an open snub of Karadzic.
On Friday, August 4, 1995, with 100,000 Croatian regular forces being mobilized for attack against Serb-held areas in the Krajina, Karadzic announced that he was removing Mladic as Bosnian Serb military commander and assuming personal command of the army himself. Karadzic blamed Mladic for the loss of Grahovo and Glamoc, two key towns in western Bosnia populated entirely by Serbs, which fell to the Croats the week before. Karadzic used the loss of the towns as the excuse to announce his unexpected changes in the high command. General Mladic was demoted to an “adviser.”
It turned out to be one of the most unsuccessful military reshuffles in recent history. Mladic refused to go, calling the move “unconstitutional.” “I entered the war as a soldier and that is how I want to leave,” Mladic said in a statement released by the army press office. “Therefore, I shall remain at the post of commander of the main headquarters of the Bosnian Serb Army as long as our fighters and people support me….”
Karadzic tried to retaliate by enlisting the support of politicians in the “parliament” of the self-styled Republika Srpska. But most of the deputies are seen as war profiteers and their decision carried little public weight. Mladic countered with a statement that he had the backing of twenty-one of the most important Bosnian Serb generals and “the people.”
Karadzic then insisted that Mladic was a psychopath. “Ratko is a madman,” he told a meeting of local officials in the northern Bosnian town of Banja Luka in August. “I am telling you this as a psychiatrist with long experience. He simply could not bear the strain anymore and went insane.”
Within a week, Karadzic was outmatched. In a country built on war and in the midst of war, the decision of the men in charge of the guns is likely to be final. On August 11, Karadzic announced that no changes would be made in the Bosnian Serb army after all. But the confrontation left Karadzic looking weak. Instead of shoring up his own power, he turned General Mladic into the de facto leader of the Bosnian Serbs. More worrying for Karadzic, there was talk among Serbs about a military takeover of Bosnia in which he would be ousted. In late August there were unconfirmed reports of gun battles between Mladic’s and Karadzic’s supporters. A Serb publication claimed that during the last week of August one of Mladic’s closest associates, General Milan Gvero, “detained” Karadzic for a day and berated him for his hostility to Mladic and the army high command. By the beginning of September, Karadzic, faced with NATO air strikes, appeared at least to accept the dominance of Mladic and Milosevic.
Karadzic’s mistake was to think that the propaganda machinery which had brought him, a psychiatrist of dubious reputation, to the office of “president” was also responsible for creating the “myth” of General Mladic. He forgot that Ratko Mladic’s legend emerged from the killing fields of Bosnia and Croatia, not from state-controlled television.
Even more astonishing than Karadzic’s miscalculation was a growing consensus among Western (particularly French and British) diplomats that General Mladic may be the leader who could deliver peace in Bosnia. They thought that Mladic, as Milosevic’s man, would agree to a deal awarding the Serbs a “viable” 49 percent chunk of Bosnia.
The folly of such thinking became apparent during the first weekend in September at a meeting between General Bernard Janvier, the United Nation’s top military commander in the former Yugoslavia, and General Mladic. The meeting was held after the first wave of NATO air strikes against Bosnian Serb military and communication installations. Janvier was dispatched by the UN and NATO to get Mladic to agree to remove his big guns from around Sarajevo and thus avoid any more air raids.
The meeting itself was set up by President Milosevic and held in Serbia, in the shabby border town of Mali Zvornik. For more than a year Milosevic had been trying without success to get his Bosnian comrades to see that peace was in their best interests. The main obstacle had always been Karadzic. But Milosevic also sent a senior military officer from the Yugoslav army to “advise” Mladic just in case he forgot Serbia’s official position. Mladic, however, showed that he was no one’s man but his own. He said he viewed General Janvier’s demand for withdrawing guns from Sarajevo as tantamount to surrender. “All the tension and pressure for us to withdraw our weapons is senseless because the war is not over and yet they ask us to withdraw our weapons that we are defending our people with,” he later said.
According to UN sources, Mladic stormed out of the fourteen-hour meeting at least four times. When he returned to negotiate, they said, he spent much of the time insulting the French general and his family and insisting that Serbs would not negotiate “at the point of a gun.”
The Yugoslav officer then spent some time with Mladic explaining just what a renewed NATO air campaign would involve, urging him to agree to Janvier’s demands. Mladic then reportedly made a lengthy statement complaining about how the Serbs had been unfairly treated and insisting they had a right to statehood.
Eventually at the end of the long session with Janvier, Mladic accepted the main demands, but he then hedged his letter of acceptance with conditions and qualifiers—a practice familiar from the previous behavior of Bosnian Serb leaders. Mladic agreed “in principle” to the removal of heavy weapons by “all parties,” so long as “withdrawal will not confer advantages upon any party, or alter the balance of forces.” NATO said Mladic’s “acceptance” was unacceptable; only full compliance would avoid further bombing raids. Mladic literally stuck to his guns and in doing so almost seemed to welcome more air strikes. “The more they bombard us the stronger we are,” he said.
His attitude was unlikely to endear him to Milosevic or to the Western leaders who are desperate for a political solution to the conflict. But to those people who gathered in Bijeljina on St. Vitus Day, their comparison of Mladic with Prince Lazar probably seemed more justified than ever.
“Their air power cannot harm us,” Mladic told a foreign television crew in Pale just before NATO jets renewed their attacks on the Serbs on Tuesday, September 5. “They can cause destruction and violence but we are on our land and we will win.”
—September 8, 1995
October 5, 1995
Nedzida Sadikovic, as quoted by Roy Gutman, Newsday News Service, August 9, 1995. ↩
Robert Block, “Mass Slaughter in a Bosnian Field Knee-Deep in Blood,” The Independent, July 21, 1995; and “At the Mercy of Mladic,” The Independent On Sunday, July 23, 1995. ↩
Although Mladic has denied the reports of mass killings as enemy propaganda, in February 1994 he expressed his desire to get even with Srebrenica Muslims for their 1992–1993 guerrilla war against the Bosnian Serbs in which hundreds of Serb civilians were killed. Referring to the UN’s efforts to stop him from overrunning Srebrenica in April 1993, he said: “Had there not been the involvement of the international community, they [the Muslims] would have paid dearly for everything they had done to the Serbian people. Srebrenica Turks committed some of the greatest crimes ever against the Serbian people.” See Colonel Gaja Petkovic’s article, “Guarantees of the Almighty,” Nin magazine, Belgrade, March 11, 1994. ↩
David Binder, “Pariah as Patriot,” New York Times Magazine, September 4, 1994, p. 26. ↩
Nuremberg: A Personal Record of the Major Nazi War Criminals, Airey Neave (Coronet Books, 1980), p. 280. ↩
Colonel Gaja Petkovic, “Guarantees of the Almighty,” Nin magazine, Belgrade, March 11, 1994. ↩
Interview with Ratko Mladic, Svet magazine, Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, July 21, 1995. ↩