The photograph above is from an old postcard, depicting the Austro-Hungarian fortress at Kalinovik, down the road from Ratko Mladic's birthplace. (You can find my photograph of the modern-day scene here.) It was sent to me by a reader who quibbled with my claim that Kalinovik was once on "the frontier between Christendom and Islam." While that description applies in a general sense to Bosnia-Herzegovina, I was wrong to imply that the Kalinovik fortress was a frontier post.
In fact, says my informant, who is well-versed in Bosnian history, Kalinovik was a military training center, far from the front lines. Its main attraction for the Austro-Hungarian army was the open, relatively flat terrain of the high mountain plateau and "the sparse population of the area, which made it suitable for practicing field maneuvers."
The photograph above shows me outside Ratko Mladic's house in Bozanovici. Standing there made me realize the distance that Mladic traveled to become a general in the Yugoslav army and arguably the most powerful Serb in the world. But how exactly did he leave the village, while his cousins got left behind?
Undoubtedly, Mladic proved to be a very capable military officer, with a peasant-like cunning that noticed everything that was happening around him. But key to his promotion through the ranks of the "Yugoslav People's Army" was his impeccable political pedigree. His father Nedo was a member of Tito's communist partisans, who was killed in a raid on the home village of the Croatian quisling dictator, Ante Pavelic.
The first page of Mladic's official military biography, which you can see here, includes the annotation, "Father killed in NOR," an acronym for "People's Liberation War." Implicit in the formula is that Nedo was on the right side.
Being on the "right" side opened a lot of doors in Tito's Yugoslavia.
I have travelled all over the former Yugoslavia, but do not think I have ever been anywhere quite as isolated as the birthplace of Ratko Mladic. Visiting the village of Bozanovici, high up in the mountains of Bosnia-Herzegovina, explains a lot about the man dubbed "the butcher of the Balkans" by the popular press.
Most Bosnian villages nestle in the river valleys that form the principal axes of communication in the country. Bozanovici is located in a different world entirely, a boulder-strewn mountain plateau that resembles some desolate moonscape remote from civilization. During the harsh winter of 2011-12, the villagers of Bozanovici were cut off from the rest of Bosnia by 20-foot snowdrifts for three months, and barely able to leave their homes.
"I was born in the village of Bozanovici," Mladic told the judges when he was brought to the Hague last year, as if proclaiming his very identity. "At the time I was born, there was a war going on."
Izudin Alic was eight years old when he met Ratko Mladic outside the headquarters of the U.N. peacekeeping battalion in Srebrenica. Staging an elaborate propaganda show for the television cameras, the 53-year-old Bosnian Serb commander picked out a cherubic-looking boy from the crowd, and patted him twice on the cheek. Then he asked his age.
"Twelve," lied Izudin in a squeaky voice, trying to appear more grown up than he actually was.
I met Izudin during my recent trip to Srebrenica. He is now 25, and only has hazy memories of that terrible day, seventeen years ago, when Bosnian Serb forces embarked on their killing spree against men and boys who had taken refuge in the United Nations "safe area." Izudin's father, Sahzet, was among some 8,000 Muslim refugees who were hunted down and killed by Mladic's men.
Izudin returned to his native village of Prohici, just outside Srebrenica, soon after the end of the war along with surviving members of his family, including his mother. He watched the opening of the Mladic trial in The Hague on television, trying to make sense of the moment when he was briefly thrust into the media spotlight. He recalls rushing to the front of the crowd of refugees when Bosnian Serb soldiers began distributing candy and chocolates for the benefit of the television cameras.
"I was there when the children were taking the candy," he recalled. "Like the other children, I took some candy from the soldiers and ate it. Had I known about the crimes that were being committed, I would never have accepted the candy."
Normally I would be more irritated than impressed by a mass gathering of bikers, revving up their engines into an almighty roar to obliterate everyday conversation. But there was something reassuringly sane about the hundreds of bikers in full leather regalia who stormed through the center of Srebrenica last weekend, enjoying the present, seemingly oblivious to the past.
Along with noisy weddings, and long conversations over coffee or rakija (a potent home-made brandy), the sights and sounds of bikers strutting their stuff is a welcome sign of life returning to normal in a place better known for human depravity and suffering. After roaring past the mosque in the center of Srebrenica (destroyed by Bosnian Serb forces at the end of the war), the bikers headed out in the direction of the Memorial Center outside of town, where some 8,000 victims of Europe's worst massacre since World War II now lie buried.
I just completed a weeklong trip to Bosnia, including a day in Srebrenica and a fascinating visit to the birthplace of Ratko Mladic in the inhospitable mountains south of Sarajevo. I am planning a series of blog posts describing my impressions, but let me begin by introducing you to Emir Suljagic, one of the survivors of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, who has just launched an American-style political campaign to reelect the only Muslim mayor in Republika Srpska.
The author of one of the best books on the Bosnia war, Postcards from the Grave, Suljagic worked as an interpreter for the United Nations in the "safe area" of Srebrenica when it fell to the Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995. At the time, he was just 20 years old. He would almost certainly have been killed along with 8,000 or so other Muslim men and boys -- had he not been provided safe passage out of the enclave with other U.N. employees.
One of the reasons I liked Suljagic's book, apart from the fact that it was very well-written, was its tone of restraint and balance. In the case of Srebrenica, he acknowledges that crimes were also committed by Bosniak government forces, although nothing to compare with the mass executions of Muslim prisoners by Mladic's men. These days, however, Suljagic is not at all restrained. Alarmed by the prospect that Serb nationalists might gain political control over the Srebrenica municipality in elections scheduled for October, he is spoiling for a fight.
Faithful readers of this blog might recall my assertion a few months back that a communist dictator did a better job in restoring ethnic harmony to Bosnia than western democracies. By contrasting the record of the international community led by the United States with that of the legendary Marshal Tito, I was hoping to provoke some soul-searching among those of us who instinctively believe that democracy is the best form of government in all circumstances.
Now from Srebrenica -- a place synonymous with suffering and hatred -- comes news of a development that forces us to rethink, or at least carefully examine, some of our most cherished political notions. Rules approved this week by the high representative for Bosnia (a kind of international viceroy) will end the so-called "Srebrenica exception" that permitted Muslims expelled from the former United Nations "safe area" in July 1995 to continue to vote in municipal elections.
The High Representative's decision, which is supported by the United States and the European Union, reflects western notions of democracy and majority rule. Only actual Srebrenica residents (not former residents) will be allowed to vote in the upcoming elections. Since the Serbs are now in a majority in Srebrenica, the town's next mayor will almost certainly be a member of the Serbian nationalist party -- the SDS -- that unleashed the violence against the Muslims of eastern Bosnia back in 1992.
ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP/Getty Images
The trial began -- and then it stopped because of so-called "disclosure" problems. What's up with that?
Prosecutors at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal today gave their first detailed explanation for the bungled opening of the Ratko Mladic trial. In a 42-page filing to the court, they blamed the fiasco on a computer "operator error" that had led to the non-disclosure of around 5,000 documents, or just over 3 percent of the disclosable trial record. They added that the omissions were largely "technical" in nature, and should not require a lengthy trial delay.
The trial, which began on May 16 with a summary of the prosecution case against the former Bosnian Serb military commander, was due to resume on May 29 with the calling of witnesses. But Judge Alphons Orie ordered an indefinite delay while he investigated "significant errors" by the prosecution in the disclosure process. Lawyers for Mladic have called for a six-month postponement of the trial, alleging "an unprecedented disclosure failure whose scope is without parallel in the history of the Tribunal."
Ratko Mladic has been described as "one of those lethal combinations that history thrusts up occasionally-a charismatic murderer." What drove the Bosnian Serb military commander to order Europe's deadliest massacre since World War II? Could it have been prevented? Michael Dobbs, a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum fellow, investigates.