The grave of Ratko Mladic's daughter Ana lies in a well-trafficked section of the Topcider cemetery on the outskirts of Belgrade. A well-known Serbian gangster, killed in the internecine political squabbles of the post-Communist era, is buried just across the way. Around the corner is the last resting place of Ivan Stambolic, a former president of Serbia murdered by thugs allied to his protégé and later rival Slobodan Milosevic.
Like the politician and the gangster, Ana met a violent death, testimony to a dark decade in Serbian politics. On March 23, 1994, at the height of the Bosnia war, she killed herself with a ceremonial pistol that had been presented to her father when he graduated from his military academy. Her suicide was a major event in Mladic's life that is key to understanding his dark and complicated personality.
By all accounts, the Bosnian Serb commander never quite recovered from Ana's death. According to his lawyer and family friend, Milos Saljic, Mladic "worshipped his daughter, and she worshipped him." He made several secret visits to Ana's grave during the years that he was on the run, after being indicted by the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal for genocide and mass murder. After his arrest last May, the Serbian authorities permitted Mladic to make one final visit to the grave site before his extradition to The Hague.
The precise circumstances of Ana's death have always been mysterious. The general himself has always insisted that she was murdered by his political enemies, but that version makes little sense, and is discounted by all but a handful of Mladic loyalists. What is known for sure is that she had just returned from a visit to Moscow with her graduating class from the Belgrade University medical school. According to Saljic, while Ana was in Moscow, she talked with Bosnian Muslim students for the first time, and was shocked to learn that they considered her father a war criminal.
"When she came back from Russia, she was a different person," Saljic told me.
This version -- or something close to it -- seems plausible to me. I am very skeptical of a claim by the German news magazine Der Spiegel last September that Ana killed herself following an argument with a former boyfriend, identified only as "Goran M." According to Der Spiegel's account, Goran was a human rights activist in Belgrade who worked as a doctor in a local hospital. Other Belgrade human rights activists (a tight-knit circle) say they never heard of such a person, and doubt that he exists. Saljic confirms that Ana had a boyfriend, but says he was close to the Mladic family, had nothing to do with her death, and was neither a doctor nor a human rights activist.
The conspiracy theory preferred by Mladic -- that his daughter was murdered -- is undermined by the pathologist who carried out the official autopsy. Now Serbia's minister of health, Zoran Stankovic told me that he was eager to do a full investigation into the circumstances of Ana's death, but Mladic refused permission. Had Mladic suspected foul play at the time, it seems most unlikely that he would have declined Stankovic's request to carry out an investigation.
Whatever Ana's real motivation for killing herself, her death had a shattering effect on Mladic. Video taken at the time shows him struggling to control his emotions in public, only to weep inconsolably over his daughter's coffin (at 1:35 in the YouTube video below).
According to Saljic, Mladic suffered a serious stroke several weeks after his daughter's death, and was unable to work for at least two months. His aides managed to conceal the general's illness, and his disappearance from public view. It was reported at the time that Mladic had fallen out with the Bosnian Serb political leadership. When he reappeared in August 1994, journalists noted that he looked pale and tired.
As Mladic's defense lawyer, Saljic has an obvious interest in painting a picture of his client's reduced mental capacity at the time of the Srebrenica massacre a year later, in July 1995. His claims will have to be tested in court. The larger mystery is why a man who had known such tragedy in his own life was so cavalier in condemning thousands of others -- fathers, husbands, sons, wives -- to their deaths.
The judges at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal pulled a surprise today: the Mladic trial is scheduled to begin on March 27, 2012, significantly earlier than previously expected. However, presiding judge Alphons Orie also suggested that delays are possible, saying that the opening date is not "written in stone." The defense immediately objected, complaining that they did not have enough time to prepare.
Today's announcement from The Hague reflects the court's concern over the Bosnian Serb military commander's precarious state of health. According to his lawyers, Ratko Mladic suffered three strokes over the last twenty years, and is partially paralyzed on the right side of his body. He has difficulty focusing and is liable to veer off into angry tirades that have little to do with the topic at hand, particularly when he is tired.
In an attempt to secure "a fair and expeditious trial," the court earlier this month accepted a prosecution motion slashing the size of the indictment against him for genocide and other war crimes. He will now be tried for 106 separate incidents, rather than the 196 incidents specified in the original indictment. The court wants to avoid a repetition of the Slobodan Milosevic trial, which dragged on for four years until it was abruptly terminated in March 2006, because of the death of the defendant.
Mladic's pre-trial appearances suggest that the judges are likely to have considerable difficulty controlling the proceedings. Under pressure from his family, Mladic has agreed not to represent himself, and will be represented by experienced trial lawyers. On the other hand, he has also shown that he is completely unpredictable, and is liable to erupt without warning when he feels that his legal rights have been infringed or his dignity undermined.
What Mladic has to say on his own behalf may turn out to be less interesting than the documentary record accumulated by the prosecution, which includes war diaries and tapes of conversations that he secretly recorded with Milosevic and other Serbian leaders. Serbian investigators told me that they seized nearly 100 such tapes while searching Mladic's apartment in Belgrade, and have turned them over to the prosecution. Much of this material will be revealed for the first time at the trial.
It turns out that the Bosnian Serb general was an archival pack rat. He kept a very detailed record of his own actions and conversations during the five-year war in Bosnia, which will now become a key part of the prosecution case against him.
For his part, Mladic said that he was in no hurry to see his trial begin. "Maybe you're in a hurry," he told Orie. "I'm not. For me, time is of no consequence."
Serge Ligtenberg/Getty Images
In Belgrade recently, I had an interesting interview with Ratko Mladic's defense attorney, Milos Saljic, photographed above. A former Yugoslav military judge, Saljic (pronounced SHALYITCH) has been a personal friend of Mladic since they both served together in the Yugoslav army in Macedonia in the sixties, during the Tito period. He is therefore well placed to offer insights not only into Mladic's defense strategy, but also his personality.
Mladic "is a man who always knew exactly what he wanted," Saljic told me. "In every job he has ever undertaken, he was always very sure of himself. Whatever he was doing, he would always take the initiative."
Obviously, Saljic has only good things to say about his friend and client, who stands accused of horrendous war crimes. Nevertheless, his stories about Mladic's single-minded determination shed light on the character of the man alleged to have ordered the cold-blooded executions of 8,000 Muslim prisoners of war in Srebrenica in July 1995.
To illustrate his point about his friend's willfulness, Saljic told me a story about how they took their families on holiday to the Adriatic Sea in the summer of 1970. First the car broke down, but Mladic got it going again by tinkering with the engine. By the time they arrived at the seaside, it was very late and the stores and restaurants were all closed. The children were hungry. The young infantry lieutenant resolved that problem by going door to door until he found someone who would give him some bread. Saljic showed me the photograph below that shows a young Ratko Mladic taking the children for a canoe ride.
Over the coming days, I will post some more video of Mladic in Srebrenica. Whether he is ordering his soldiers to tear down Muslim signs or standing in the middle of the road to direct traffic, you are left with the impression of an extraordinarily hands-on commander. He frequently behaves more like a platoon leader than a commanding general, supervising minute details of the operation. Once he has decided to do something, he will stop at nothing to achieve his goal.
Saljic's portrait of Mladic as an extremely energetic, capable military officer possessed of great determination seems at odds with the defense strategy for the upcoming trial. When it comes to Srebrenica, the defense lawyer says that he will make the argument that Mladic was "not in charge of the operation," whatever the videotapes may suggest. He claims that any abuses were the responsibility not of the Bosnian Serb army but the police, which did not come under Mladic's direct command.
Saljic will attempt to prove that Mladic was not in the Srebrenica area at the time of the mass executions. He claims that Mladic intended to exchange the Muslim prisoners for Serbs captured by Bosnian government forces, but the operation somehow went wrong. He puts the blame on subordinates such as Radislav Krstic, the chief of staff of the Drina Corps, which received orders to capture Srebrenica from Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic.
Whether Mladic was in fact present in the Srebrenica area during the mass executions will be tested in court. But Saljic is likely to have a hard time convincing the judges to shift the blame to grey nonentities like Krstic, who is now serving a 35-year sentence for "aiding and abetting genocide." Video I posted last week shows Mladic ordering Krstic and another general around like common soldiers. (The footage begins at 0:38. Mladic refers to Krstic by his nickname, Krle.)
The truth is that Mladic displayed the same controlling, single-minded character all his life -- whether he was on holiday looking after his family or supervising a vast ethnic cleansing operation in eastern Bosnia.
If anyone is qualified to get into the mind of a mass murderer, it is David Rohde. The former New York Times reporter -- now a columnist for Reuters news agency -- has the unique distinction of being held captive by both the Bosnian Serbs and the Taliban at the height of their ideological struggle against the West. He has also written a 1997 book, Endgame, that still stands up as the most authoritative account of the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995 and the subsequent killings of around 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men.
During a recent conference on Srebrenica hosted by the City University of New York, David made the interesting observation that the Taliban and Bosnian Serb forces under the command of Ratko Mladic shared a very similar sense of victimization. During his seven months in Taliban captivity in 2008, he had to endure long lectures from his kidnappers about the supposed western conspiracy to blame Muslims for 9/11 and force them to convert to Christianity. He had listened to similar diatribes, from the Orthodox Christian point of view, while being held by the Bosnian Serbs thirteen years earlier. (He had made an unauthorized trip into Republika Srpska while attempting to investigate the Srebrenica massacre.) His Serb captors claimed that Muslim women were under instructions to produce as many children as possible, in order to turn Bosnia into an Islamic state.
David told me later that he had experienced a similar conspiratorial mindset from Hindu extremists in India and Sinhalese nationalists in Sri Lanka. What most alarmed him was "not so much the human tendency to be sadistic, to know that you are doing wrong and enjoy it, but our ability to rationalize almost anything we do. Both the Taliban and the Bosnian Serbs felt they were completely justified in carrying out these horrible atrocities."
I have included extracts from my interview with Rohde above. Off-camera, we also discussed Mladic's motivation in ordering the executions of thousands of Muslim prisoners of war. He pointed to the following footage, showing Mladic's entry into Srebrenica on July 11, 1995, as the best evidence for his state of mind on that day. At 1:49 in the footage, shot by one of his soldiers, the Bosnian Serb commander talks about finally "taking revenge" against "the Turks" for a massacre that took place more than a century earlier. He describes the fall of Srebrenica as a "gift to the Serbian people."
Megalomania played a role in the tragedy of Srebrenica. According to Rohde, Mladic "saw this as his moment in history to pay back ‘the Turks,'" as he called Muslims, for crimes supposedly committed against the Serbs. This was his chance to "establish his fame" as a Serbian national hero.
David believes that Mladic bought into the Bosnian Serb propaganda line that he was merely "defending his people" against the crimes of the other side. As justification for what happened at Srebrenica, Mladic has frequently pointed to raids against nearby Serbian villages carried out by forces loyal to a Muslim warlord named Naser Oric. "A rough equivalency developed in the Serb mind between the killings of Serb civilians and the killings of Muslims," Rohde says. "The numbers are not even close. We are talking about 8,000 Muslims versus several hundred Serbs."
But there was also an important international dimension to Mladic's thinking, David believes. "He had earlier gotten away with ethnic cleansing throughout eastern Bosnia. The Serbs had learned from the passivity of the West that they could push further and further, and not get punished for it."
Could the Srebrenica massacre have been prevented?
Certainly, says Rohde. He is convinced that Mladic would have "backed off" had the United Nations and NATO responded to Serb advances with air strikes as soon as they began encroaching on the U.N. "safe area." David puts much of the blame for the fiasco on the permanent members of the Security Council, such as the United States, Britain, and France, for producing "vague Security Council regulations with all those loopholes" that provided an excuse for non-action.
"They did not give U.N. commanders on the ground enough troops to fight off the Serbs," he says.
As I have mentioned in previous posts, the Ratko Mladic trial is unlikely to get underway before the fall of 2012. But we are already getting a foretaste of how it will go from the trial of former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic, which has just entered its final, Srebrenica phase. Like Mladic, Karadzic is accused of mass murder and genocide stemming from charges that he approved the cold-blooded executions of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys in July 1995 following the capture of Srebrenica.
In a recent interview in Belgrade, Mladic defense lawyer Milos Saljic told me he planned to challenge prosecution claims that his client personally witnessed some of the executions. If Mladic can be proven to have been present when the executions took place, it would of course destroy his claim to have had nothing to do with the killing of Muslim prisoners of war. Saljic says that the former Bosnian Serb commander has an alibi: he was in Belgrade, and his military headquarters of Han Pijesak, when the massacres occurred.
Last week, Karadzic challenged the evidence of a protected prosecution witness, identified only as KDZ 039, who claimed to have seen Mladic at an execution site near the village of Orahovac on the evening of July 14, 1995. (He was one of two survivors of the execution.) According to Karadzic, Mladic was in the Belgrade area that day for meetings with Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic and European peace envoy Carl Bildt. He had further meetings in Belgrade the following day with other international envoys. You can read a chronology of his movements here, at my U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum website.
Responding to Karadzic, prosecutors cited an entry in Mladic's war diary (seized from his Belgrade apartment) stating that the meeting with Milosevic and Bildt did not begin until 9.15 p.m. In theory, this would have left the Bosnian Serb commander time to witness the executions in Orahovac and fly by helicopter to Belgrade. But the schedule would have been very tight.
It is possible that Mladic flew directly from the execution site to his meeting with western envoys. It is also possible that the prosecution witness is confused about the timing of the executions. This would be quite understandable. Terrified for his own life, he was in no condition to remember precise details of what took place. It is quite possible that the executions he refers to took place a little earlier, allowing more time for Mladic to get from Bosnia to Belgrade. If either version is true, it is an extraordinary demonstration of the contempt that the Bosnian Serb general held for the international community. This would be roughly analogous to Hitler personally participating in the executions of thousands of Jews, and holding courteous diplomatic talks with Neville Chamberlain the same day.
It is also possible that the prosecution witness is mistaken, and Mladic was not present at the Orahovac execution site. We will probably have to wait for the Mladic trial to test the documentation of the alibi claimed by his defense lawyer. In this and previous appearances before the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, the witness has consistently claimed that he saw Mladic a total of six times between July 12 and 14.
If Saljic can show that Mladic flew to Belgrade much earlier on July 14, it would strike a blow to the prosecution case that he personally organized the Srebrenica executions. On the other hand, it would not fatally undermine it. Although no one else has placed him at the scene of the massacres, there remains a mountain of evidence that he directed the entire operation from the very beginning.
Why the prosecution insists on the anonymity of witness KDZ 039 is a puzzle. His testimony is virtually identical to a Srebrenica survivor named Hurem Suljic, who has given extensive interviews over the years to western journalists and government officials. I have embedded above an extended interview he gave to Britain's Channel Four News in October 1995, three months after Srebrenica. (His testimony begins at 1:46; his claims to have seen Mladic are at 5'36".) Suljic also spoke to U.S. human rights envoy John Shattuck and is a central figure in David Rohde's seminal 1997 book, Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica, Europe's Worst Massacre Since World War II.
The Srebrenica massacre may well be the best documented war crime in history. Teams of international investigators have succeeded in painfully reconstructing the murders of thousands of Muslim males, and the subsequent attempt by the Bosnian Serb authorities to cover up the evidence. Despite this unprecedented international documentation effort, underpinned by more than 6,000 positive DNA matches, there are still people who deny well-established facts about what happened in and around Srebrenica in July 1995.
I ran into one such "expert" at the recent Belgrade book fair. A U.S.-trained lawyer, Stephen Karganovic heads a group called the Srebrenica Historical Project, which has received funding from the Bosnian Serb authorities. You can see sections of my interview with him above, along with my own attempts to set the record straight in captions underneath. While he assumes the persona of a sober academic, he makes a series of claims that fly in the face of multiple legal, forensic, and journalistic investigations.
Take his most startling allegation, which is that only "a couple of hundred" Muslim prisoners of war were executed at Srebrenica, in contrast to the 7,000-8,000 figure widely accepted by international investigators. Karganovic does not deny that "something terrible" happened at Srebrenica. Rather, his intent seems to be to demonstrate that the number of Muslim victims was roughly equal to the number of Serbs killed by Bosnian Muslim forces in earlier armed raids from Srebrenica. In other words, the two sides were more or less equally guilty.
In order to reach his magic number, he first claims that investigators have succeeded in tracing the remains of less than 2,000 Muslim corpses (1,920 to be precise.) He then further reduces the number of victims by excluding anybody killed in Bosnian Serb attacks on a mixed column of Muslim soldiers and civilians that attempted to break out of the United Nations safe zone following its capture by the Serbs. He ends up with a figure of 600-800 Muslims "executed" by Serb forces.
Karganovic's figures are completely at odds with the data collected by the International Commission on Missing Persons, which has succeeded in establishing DNA matches for more than 6,000 people killed at Srebrenica. (The process of matching bone samples to missing individuals is still underway.) The vast majority of these people were killed not in military clashes with Bosnian Serb forces, as claimed by Karganovic, but were executed in cold blood as prisoners of war.
While Karganovic's findings have been rejected by international investigators, they offer a preview of the likely defense strategy in the Mladic case.The ICMP has offered his lawyers the opportunity to select a sample of several thousand DNA matches, and examine them in much greater detail, to determine the place and circumstances of death. The defense, following Karganovic, has already signaled its determination to challenge every single DNA match separately.
My post "Defining genocide" has provoked some sharp reaction from portions of the Bosnian Muslim community in the United States. The Congress of North American Bosniaks has written to the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum-which is sponsoring my project-to denounce my comments as "outrageous" and "appalling" and demand that the post be removed from the museum website. They accuse me of "questioning genocide," much as "Holocaust deniers" question the Holocaust. You can read their letter in full here.
While I respect the opinions of my critics, and their right to disagree with anything I have written, I would invite them to read my posts about Srebrenica again. Far from questioning the crimes committed by Bosnian Serb forces under Ratko Mladic, I have described the series of atrocities in painful detail. I have written extensively about the cold-blooded executions of around 8,000 Muslim men and boys in July 1945, and the forcible expulsions of the remaining Muslim population of Srebrenica.
As I wrote in my post, genocide is the most horrific of crimes, conjuring up images of the Holocaust. We should be wary about using such terminology, without first making clear the precise legal grounds for the accusation. My post was an attempt to explain exactly what "genocide" means, in legal and criminal terms, as defined by the 1948 United Nations Convention on Genocide.
One of the reasons why genocide is difficult to prove in legal terms is that it revolves around the question of intent. In the words of the 2001 judgment in the case of Radovan Krstic, a senior Bosnian Serb general under Mladic, "It is not necessary to intend to achieve the complete annihilation of a group from every corner of the globe. Nonetheless the crime of genocide by its very nature requires the intention to destroy at least a substantial part of a particular group." Defining terms such as "intent" and "substantial part" can become extremely complicated.
The proper place to decide such questions is the courts. While I do not agree with all the opinions handed down by the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal, I agree with the conclusion of the judges that the Srebrenica massacre met the legal definition of "genocide," as defined by the United Nations Convention. I thought I made this clear in my original post. If that was unclear, I am happy to set the record straight.
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Just got back from a conference in Moscow devoted to the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union. It was hosted by the Gorbachev foundation. Unfortunately the great man canceled at the last minute -- he was recovering from eye surgery -- but we had a good discussion about the role of the leader in history. Can individuals make a decisive difference -- or are they merely the plaything of larger historical forces, such as the clash of ideologies, the rise and fall of empires, the constraints of geography, and the shifting fortunes of the economy?
I argued that communism was doomed for the reasons identified by the American diplomat George Kennan more than four decades previously. In his celebrated Long Telegram, and Mr. X article, Kennan insisted that the monolithic Soviet system contained within it the seeds of its own demise. He predicted that the state-run economy would eventually collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, and that Poles, Balts, and other repressed nationalities would never reconcile themselves to centralized rule from Moscow. Kennan's views were very much in line with those of an aristocratic French traveler, the Marquis de Custine, a century earlier:
In a nation governed like this one, passions boil a long time before breaking out; while the danger approaches from hour to hour, the evil is prolonged, and the crisis delayed. Even our grandchildren may not see the explosion; but we can say today that explosion is inevitable, while we cannot predict the time.
The fall of communism may have been inevitable, but the timing of the collapse and the manner in which it happened were shaped by the actions and decisions of mortal men. The former Yugoslavia offers a horrifying reminder of how things might have turned out in the Soviet Union had Gorbachev adopted the political survival strategy of Slobodan Milosevic and played the nationalist card, stirring up the grievances of ethnic Russians in Ukraine, the Baltic States, and Central Asia. The Communist superpower would have been transformed into a "Yugoslavia with nukes."
In the end, after some hesitation, Gorbachev remained true to his democratic principles. He refused to unleash violence against his own citizens in order to remain in power. His attempts to breathe a new lease of life into the moribund one-party state ended in utter failure, but he achieved something that he never set out to achieve. He succeeded in dismantling the most enduring totalitarian dictatorship of the 20th century with a minimum of bloodshed and violence. It cost him his job -- but at least he did not end up before an international war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
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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.