In a recent series of blog posts entitled "Mladic in Srebrenica," I examined the reported movements of the former Bosnian Serb military commander during the days immediately following the fall of the United Nations "safe area" in July 1995. Today, I will address the larger question of Mladic's responsibility for the murders of around 8,000 Muslim men and boys dumped in mass graves, as shown on the map above.
Mladic's defense lawyers have said they are planning to mount a two-tier defense. First, they will argue that the number of Bosnian Muslim victims has been wildly exaggerated. While they concede that there may have been some scattered "revenge killings" following the capture of the enclave, they claim that the overwhelming majority of the deaths were due to combat, or even Muslims fighting among themselves. Former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic has employed a similar defense in his own trial, which recently moved into the Srebrenica phase.
The second pillar of the Mladic defense will be the claim that he left the Srebrenica area by the time the mass executions began, and was not himself present at any of the execution sites. His attorneys will argue that he did not order the executions and cannot be held responsible for isolated acts of revenge by forces under his overall command.
International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia
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The map above shows the reported movements of Ratko Mladic, on July 14, 1995, three days after his forces captured the United Nations "safe area" of Srebrenica. According to testimony presented to the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, he began the day preparing an attack on another "safe area", Zepa, located in the bottom left hand corner of the map. At 21:15 (according to his own war diary) he met with Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic and European peace envoy Carl Bildt at a hunting lodge near Belgrade.
The question is, what did he do in between?
A Srebrenica survivor, Hurem Suljic, has repeatedly testified that Mladic supervised a mass execution near the town of Orahovac on the evening of July 14. He says he saw the Bosnian Serb general around 1700 at the Grbavci school gymnasium, which was being used to detain hundreds of Muslim prisoners. He says he saw him again, shortly "before nightfall," at the execution site itself, approximately half a mile away. I have marked these reported sightings with blue icons, in the center of the map.
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The map above illustrates Mladic's movements on July 13, 1995, two days after the fall of Srebrenica. Although no video evidence is available on this day, his presence in the Srebrenica area has been confirmed by numerous documentary and eyewitness sources. Yellow icons denote Mladic sightings supported by multiple pieces of evidence; the blue icon at Bratunac indicates a sighting by a single eye-witness. The red marker with a dot records a massacre of 1,000 or so Muslim prisoners in a warehouse near Kravica. Click on the individual icons for more details.
Mladic began his day with a regular morning meeting with his senior commanders at which he ordered the Bosnian Serb police to kill "about 8,000 Muslim soldiers" attempting to reach Bosnian government-controlled territory. He was referring to a column of armed men and unarmed refugees that had fled northwards from Srebrenica, many of whom were blocked in woods near the village of Konjevic Polje. He did not distinguish between the soldiers and the refugees.
Wednesday, July 12, 1995, was the crucial day in the harrowing series of events that led to the killing of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys from the United Nations "safe area" of Srebrenica. At his forthcoming trial in The Hague, Ratko Mladic will be confronted with evidence showing that he ordered the executions of his male prisoners after insisting (see video above) that no harm would come to any of the refugees. Shamefully for the international community, Dutch peacekeeping forces cooperated in the expulsion of the Srebrenica Muslims and the separation of the men from the women.
Evidence collected by the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal shows that Mladic put the plan in motion by requisitioning 50 buses for the transportation of refugees who had taken refuge at the Dutch base at Potocari, two miles north of Srebrenica. During a meeting with Dutch officers at the Hotel Fontana in Bratunac at 11:00, he announced for the first time that the men would be separated from the women and children and "screened" for alleged war criminals. You can see video of that meeting here and a Bosnian Serb report on the meeting here. In an intercepted phone call recorded at 12:50, he said he planned to evacuate all the Muslim refugees -- "those who want to go and those who don't want to."
The video above shows Ratko Mladic entering the United Nations "safe area" of Srebrenica around 16:15 on July 11th, 1995. Trailed by his personal video crew, he paraded down the main street, and boasted that "the time has finally come to take revenge on the Turks in this region." "Turks" was a derogatory expression frequently used by Bosnian Serb forces to describe the Bosnian Muslims, Slavs who converted to Islam following the Ottoman conquest of Bosnia in 1463.
It is ironic that Mladic himself has supplied much of the most incriminating and authoritative evidence for his own war crimes trial. Evidence that rests on the testimony of a single eyewitness can be contested in court -- but it is hard to argue with videotape that you ordered to be recorded for your own purposes. Back in 1995, of course, the Bosnian Serb commander did not feel at all threatened by the newly-formed Yugoslav war crimes tribunal; to the contrary, he was openly contemptuous of it. His goal in documenting his own actions was to bolster his image as one of the greatest heroes in Serbian history.
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With the Ratko Mladic trial due to start at the end of March, this seems a good time to look in more detail at the evidence against the former Bosnian Serb commander. I am planning a series of posts examining the gravest accusation of all: the murder of around 8,000 Muslim males from Srebrenica in July 1995, a crime described as "genocide" by the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal.
At the core of the prosecution case against Mladic is his physical presence in and around Srebrenica during the days immediately following the capture of the former United Nations "safe area." The prosecution will attempt to demonstrate that he exercised direct command and control over the troops who rounded up, transported, and executed thousands of Muslim prisoners before dumping their bodies into mass graves. The defense will argue that the number of killings has been greatly exaggerated and that Mladic was not himself present at any of the executions.
One Srebrenica survivor, Hurem Suljic, claims that he personally saw Mladic a total of six times over the course of three critical days, July 12-14th. The first such occasion was on July 12th, when he was separated from his family outside the headquarters of the Dutch peacekeeping force in Potocari. The final incident was at a mass execution site near the village of Orahovac on July 14th, some thirty miles to the north-west.
I have plotted these sightings on the map above. The map markers are color coded. A blue icon indicates an event that Suljic remembers as having taken place on July 12th, the day after the fall of Srebrenica, a red icon July 13th, a yellow icon July 14th. Click on the individual icons for more details of each sighting.
A crippled ex-carpenter, Suljic is the only known survivor among the group of a thousand or so Muslim males who were seized by Bosnian Serb forces outside the United Nations base in Potocari, after being forcibly separated from the women and children. His disability made it impossible for him to join a much larger group of men from Srebrenica who attempted to escape across the mountains to Bosnian government-controlled territory to the north. Many of these people were rounded up and executed.
Suljic first made his accusations in a series of 1995 interviews with western journalists, including the Associated Press and David Rohde, whose book "Endgame" was the first detailed reconstruction of the Srebrenica events. Since telling his story to reporters and western officials such as U.S. human rights envoy John Shattuck, Suljic has appeared in several Srebrenica trials as a "protected witness," testifying under a pseudonym. The uniqueness of his story makes him easily identifiable.
In future posts, I will incorporate the testimony of Suljic and other survivors into the mass of documentary evidence accumulated by investigators during the fifteen years since Srebrenica. I will also attempt to evaluate the reliability of the evidence, distinguishing claims that have been independently verified from those that rest on the testimony of a single eye-witness.
The historical record has been enriched, and in some cases amended, by the release of previously secret intelligence documents, war diaries, telephone intercepts, war diaries, reconnaissance photographs, and forensic investigations of the various crime scenes. Much of this material was not available to the journalists who wrote the "first rough draft of history" in the immediate aftermath of the worst massacre in Europe since World War II. I will draw on this material, as well as survivor testimony, to reconstruct Mladic's movements and actions over the critical period, July 11-14th, 1995.
Sixteen years after the end of the Bosnia war, a huge amount of work remains to be done in reconciling the opposing ethnic factions. If anything, hatreds are growing -- but at least in one respect, huge progress has been made. Investigators have succeeded in finding the remains of approximately two thirds of the 40,000 people who went missing during the fratricidal wars in the former Yugoslavia.
To put that figure into perspective, a decade after 9/11, more than forty per cent of the people killed at the World Trade Center remain unaccounted for. Primarily using DNA evidence, the New York medical examiner has identified the remains of around 1,630 of the 2,800 people murdered at Ground Zero. That in turn is much higher than the number of missing persons identified in other cases of mass murder or genocide, including Latin America or Rwanda.
Much of the credit for this success in the former Yugoslavia should go to the International Commission of Missing Persons, which pioneered the use of DNA evidence for tracking the victims of war crimes. The organization was founded at the initiative of President Clinton in 1996, as part of the international community's response to massacres at Srebrenica and elsewhere in the Balkans. After focusing initially on simply bringing closure to the relatives of the victims, the ICMP has transformed itself into a kind of forensic truth commission. Its findings have been used to prosecute war criminals in The Hague and establish a basic set of objective facts about events that remain shrouded in mythology.
In the video interview above, ICMP director-general Kathryne Bomberger explains that it would have been impossible to achieve such results without the cooperation of governments of the region, including the Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska. ICMP needed the cooperation of all sides in order to build its database of DNA samples and excavate the remains of the victims, which were scattered in mass graves all over the former Yugoslavia. In the case of Srebrenica, body parts of the same individual were found in as many as sixteen different locations, after the initial graves were bulldozed and human remains transferred to secondary sites.
"Srebrenica was a huge forensic puzzle," said Bomberger. "It is amazing that we have got as far as we have in establishing what happened."
The ICMP database includes matches for some 6,600 Bosnian Moslem men killed near Srebrenica, out of a total of 8,000 suspected victims. It forms a key part of the prosecution case against Ratko Mladic, Radovan Karadzic, and other Bosnian Serb leaders accused of organizing genocide at Srebrenica. It is scarcely surprising then that Mladic and Karadzic have both sought to discredit the work of the ICMP, arguing that it is biased against the Serbs. Karadzic has brushed aside an offer from ICMP to select a sample of 300 Srebrenica victims for detailed study, examining how the bone remains were matched up with DNA profiles.
In fact, the ICMP has been meticulous in collecting bone samples and DNA profiles from all sides in the Bosnian conflict. While it does not compile statistics on missing people by ethnicity, collection patterns suggest that around 10 per cent are Serb and five per cent Croat. The remaining 85 per cent are Muslim. Overall, the ICMP data provides an accurate picture of the course of the 4 ½ year war.
Asked to explain how people could commit such terrible atrocities, Bomberger says that the killing spree in Bosnia got to the point where it became "part of everyday life." Even today, however, it is impossible to fully explain what took place. "It is inexplicable, irrational. Propaganda brainwashed people, creating absolute hatred of the other."
It is still unclear how much we will learn from Ratko Mladic when his trial, tentatively scheduled to begin on March 27, 2012, finally opens. He has shown little desire to cooperate in pre-trial appearances, and his courtroom behavior has been erratic and unpredictable. But that may not matter. His trial is likely to unlock a wealth of archival evidence shedding light on the horrifying descent of the former Yugoslavia into murder and mayhem.
It turns out that the best witness for the prosecution is Mladic himself. Like other mass murderers before him (Adolf Eichmann comes to mind), he was keen to justify his place in history. He kept a meticulous record of his actions during the five-year war in Bosnia, secretly recorded many of his own telephone conversations, and videotaped family gatherings. In short, he was an archival packrat.
The video above shows Mladic scribbling in a notebook on July 11, 1995, the day his troops seized Srebrenica. The notebook that you can see in the video was seized during a police raid on his house in Belgrade, and is now in the hands of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal. It records his meeting at the Hotel Fontana in Bratunac with Colonel Thomas Karremans, commander of the Dutch peace-keeping contingent in Srebrenica (on the far right.) Other people visible in the video include Mladic's aide, Colonel Radislav Jankovic, and an interpreter.
The Srebrenica notebook was part of a much larger trove of material discovered in the bedroom and attic of Mladic's house at Blagoja Parovica 117A on February 23, 2010. During an earlier search, on December 4, 2008, police had discovered five of the Bosnian Serb commander's wartime notebooks. Their haul the second time around included another 18 notebooks, 120 audio recordings, and piles of military documents.
Some of this evidence has already been introduced in other court cases, including the trial of former Bosnian Serb president, Radovan Karadzic. Earlier this month, prosecutors used an entry in Mladic's diary to shed light on his movements on July 14, 1995, following the fall of Srebrenica. The diaries have also been cited in the trial of the former Serbian secret police chief, Jovica Stanisic, to demonstrate links between Belgrade and paramilitary forces operating in Bosnia. But most of the documents are still sealed.
Prosecutors caution that there is no smoking gun in the documents such as an order for the killing of some 8,000 Muslim men captured at Srebrenica. If written orders ever existed for the executions, they have likely been destroyed. The only explicit references to the Srebrenica massacres occur on July 14, when Mladic notes a demand by European envoy Carl Bildt for the release of the Muslim prisoners. "He says we must do something over the weekend, or else there will be problems," Mladic jotted down. "The men must be freed." The following day, July 15, British general Rupert Smith confronted Mladic with allegations of rapes and murders by Bosnian Serb troops. By this time, of course, the killing spree was at its height. The massacres of captured Muslims continued for another week.
Even if there is no smoking gun, the notebooks and related documents provide unique insights into Mladic's personality, his relationships with other Serbian leaders, the functioning of the Bosnian Serb army, and his overall war aims. On January 29, 1994, for example, Mladic explains the rationale for the bloody siege of Sarajevo, then its third year. "You have to thrash the Muslims for long enough that the whole world sees that it does not pay to fight against Serbs. The most important part is Sarajevo. That is the brain of their state. With the blockade of Sarajevo, we have established our state."
As interesting as the diaries are the surreptitious recordings that Mladic made of his conversations with Serbian leaders, including Slobodan Milosevic. On occasions, he seems to be trying to create an alibi for himself. For example, on May 11, 1996 , he wired himself up to record a conversation with Milosevic at a military base in Dobanovci. When Milosevic confronts him with international claims of massacres at Srebrenica, Mladic professes ignorance, saying that the "Turks...killed each other."
"There were piles of them, where 200 were killed, where ten were killed, fighting between themselves. Some ran into minefields, trying to break through our army. I signed an agreement with them, on where they should go. Those who arrived at our checkpoint were saved."
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
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.