Last week, I looked at Ratko Mladic's transformation from a loyal Yugoslav communist to an equally committed Serb nationalist. This week, I will address my second question: How did Mladic's actions in Srebrenica in July 1995, including the execution of thousands of Muslim men and boys, fit into his overall war strategy?
In answering this question, I want to emphasize again that I am not seeking in any way to justify horrifying war crimes. I am trying to reconstruct the internal thought processes of a mass murderer, based on the available evidence, including his own speeches and the statements of other Bosnian Serb leaders. From Mladic's point of view, there was a definite logic to the madness.
The first point to make is that Mladic's forces were coming under increasing pressure in the summer of 1995 from the Croat-Muslim military alliance, supported by the United States and NATO. After more than two years of military stalemate, the frontlines of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia were beginning to shift, to the disadvantage of the Bosnian Serbs. For the first time in the war, Mladic's men were on the defensive and struggling to hold on to their military gains from 1991-93.
The Croatian army had swept through the Serb-inhabited enclave of Western Slavonia in Operation Flash and was preparing to recapture the Serb-controlled Dalmatian hinterland of Krajina. The Muslims were becoming increasingly well-armed and militarily effective, threatening to break out of a pocket of territory around the town of Bihac in northwestern Bosnia. The Bosnian Serb statelet, Republika Srpska, risked being chopped into two.
In this context, it made both tactical and strategic sense for Mladic's forces to try to clean up the map and reduce the length of their front lines. At the top of their list of priorities was the elimination of the troublesome Muslim-controlled enclaves in eastern Bosnia that were ostensibly under the "protection" of the United Nations. The capture of Srebrenica and the other enclaves would free up thousands Serb troops who could then be transferred to other sections of the front. Serbs would be fully in control of both sides of the Drina river boundary between Bosnia and Serbia proper.
A glimpse into the thinking of the Bosnian Serb leadership is provided by Directive Number 7 of March 1995 that called for attacks on Srebrenica and Zepa, through the creation of "planned and well-thought out combat operations." The goal was to create an "unbearable situation of total insecurity, with no hope of further survival or life for the inhabitants of Srebrenica and Zepa."
In considering their attack on the eastern enclaves, Bosnian Serb commanders made little distinction between soldiers and civilians. Testifying before the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, the former chief of staff of the Bosnian Serb army, Manojlo Milovanvic, put it this way: "Where there is no enemy population, there's no enemy army."
But Mladic had an additional reason for wanting to punish the Muslim inhabitants of Srebrenica. Facing near-starvation conditions, groups of armed men under the Muslim warlord, Naser Oric, had mounted a series of raids on Serb villages around Srebrenica during the winter of 1992-1993. It is difficult to know precisely how many Serbs were killed in these raids, but several hundred seems a reasonable estimate, including not just soldiers, but elderly civilians. Serb propagandists greatly inflated the figure, building it up into a major war crime.
The Oric raids helped create what Marko Prelec, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, called "a reservoir of rage" among the Serb population of the Drina valley, the "belief that they [the Muslims] will do it to us if we do not do it to them...there was a kind of desperation, a feeling that if we do the right thing with all these prisoners of war, they will join the tsunami of Bosnians breaking over our heads."
Given this rage, it was predictable that the capture of Srebrenica and the other enclaves would result in a major bloodbath that could further undermine the international standing of Republika Srpska. The Bosnian Serb president, Radovan Karadzic, had raised the specter of such a massacre back in 1993 when he gave a speech defending the decision to agree to the establishment of a U.N.-patrolled "safe area."
"If we had entered Srebrenica, those people entering would be those whose families were killed [in 1992-93]," Karadzic told the Bosnian Serb assembly on July 20, 1993. "There would be blood to the knees and we might lose the state for that."
By July 1995, the situation had changed. Karadzic and Mladic ordered a military operation that they knew perfectly well would end in atrocities that would be condemned around the world. The question is: why? Quite apart from the moral issues involved, this would appear to be an example of what the historian Barbara Tuchman has described as the "March of Folly"-decisions that seem to fly in the face of the interests of the decision-makers themselves.
I will attempt to explain their thinking in my next two posts.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
In my last post, I outlined four mysteries surrounding Ratko Mladic that need to be resolved in order to explain the atrocities he committed during the 1992-95 Bosnia war. My first question -- How did a man indoctrinated in the Titoist ideology of "brotherhood and unity" turn into a Serb nationalist waging brutal war against his neighbors? -- may be the easiest to answer.
First, a little background. Prior to the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, Mladic had served with distinction in what was then known as the "Yugoslav People's Army" for 26 years. Trained as an infantry officer, he passed political loyalty tests with flying colors, rising to the rank of colonel. He described himself as a Yugoslav (literally a "South Slav") in responses to official questionnaires, not as a Serb. People who knew him at the time say that he never talked about "Serbdom," the "Serbian military tradition," or "Serbian interests." If he was a closet nationalist, it was very well disguised.
In explaining Mladic's ideological transformation, it helps to know a little bit about the nature of the regime he served.
Michael Evstafiev/AFP/Getty Images
In my last post, I talked about the "explicability of evil." Let me explain what I mean by that phrase. We should all be able to agree that the massacre of thousands of unarmed prisoners at Srebrenica in July 1995 was an evil act for which there can be no possible justification. But that does not mean that it cannot be explained -- both as an act of state policy on the part of the Bosnian Serb leadership and as a rational decision on the part of Ratko Mladic, the man who ultimately determined the fate of the people of Srebrenica.
The Srebrenica massacre belongs to a special category of war crimes so monstrous that it defies the imagination of decent people. It has been described as "genocide" by the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Whatever you want to call it, there is no denying that it was the most heinous crime of the wars that tore the former Yugoslavia apart between 1991 and 1995, the worst massacre to occur on European soil since the end of World War II. This is why I have paid so much attention to the Srebrenica events in this blog, as a particularly horrifying example of the evil that human beings still inflict on each other.
In the case of former United Nations "safe area," the evil was compounded by the fact that it occurred a short plane ride away from the great European capitals, at the end of the 20th century, on the continent that created the slogan "Never Again."
Serge Ligtenberg/Getty Images
My post entitled "In Defense of the Serbs" has drawn a lot of debate and controversy, and has been widely picked up by the press in both Bosnia and Serbia. Judging from the comments on this blog, I have succeeded in antagonizing champions for both sides. If you insist that the fault lies exclusively on one side, then clearly you will be offended by someone who tries to understand multiple points of view.
Bosniak spokesmen have accused me of "legitimizing genocide" by daring to suggest that the international community failed to pay sufficient attention to the grievances of the two-million strong Serb minority in Croatia and Bosnia. Apologists for the other side view my explanation of the "Serb point of view" as an inadequate attempt to demonstrate my impartiality following a long chain of posts detailing atrocities committed by Bosnian Serb forces commanded by General Ratko Mladic.
I am struck by the ad hominem nature of many of these attacks.
ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images
My last posting, "In Defense of the Serbs," has prompted a protest letter to Foreign Policy from Hamdija Custovic, Vice President of the Congress of North American Bosniaks. The letter is too long to reproduce in full here, but I will summarize its contents in the spirit of free and open discussion. You can read the letter in full at his organization's website.
Custovic accuses me of "appeasing the Serbs" who have been critical of my coverage of the Ratko Mladic trial by seeking to "spread the blame" for the Serbian "aggression and genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina." He compares Milosevic's project for a "Greater Serbian state" to Hitler's attempts to "consolidate all Germans into a single state." According to Custovic, the Serbian "war of aggression finally prompted a NATO intervention in the fall of 1995 in Bosnia and again four years later in Kosovo." He fears that we are now witnessing a revival of the "same nationalist rhetoric" that caused the Bosnia war in the first place, as evidenced by the election of Tomislav Nikolic to the presidency of Serbia.
ENRIC MARTI/AFP/Getty Images
The off-and-on war crimes trial of Ratko Mladic got underway again this week in The Hague after a month-long summer break. As the prosecution outlines its case, I am planning a series of posts that will attempt to explain the mindset of the former Bosnian Serb military commander. By way of introduction, I want to look at the terrible war in the former Yugoslavia from the viewpoint of the Serbs, widely viewed in the West as the aggressors.
My focus in this blog has been the crimes of a single individual, and in particular Mladic's decision to kill or deport the Muslim population of Srebrenica in July 1995, which has become the centerpiece of the genocide charge against him. While I have inevitably talked a lot about Mladic's crimes against Bosnian Muslims, I do not mean to imply that Serbs were the only people committing war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, or that Serbian leaders were exclusively responsible for the war.
In fact, Serbs had some perfectly legitimate concerns both prior to and during the war that are often overlooked by western commentators who have painted an excessively black-and-white picture of the conflict.
Ratko Mladic was an archival packrat, documenting his own life meticulously through diaries, videos, and photographs. Many of these records are now in the hands of Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, to be used in his genocide trial, which adjourned today until August 21. The materials provide unique insights into not just Mladic: the war criminal, but Mladic: the family man -- a loving husband, doting granddad, and grieving father.
At the top of this post, you will find a photograph of Mladic with his beloved daughter, Ana, taken from a video recorded in October 1993, at the height of the war in Bosnia. A medical student, Ana killed herself with her father's pistol five months later on March 23, 1994. The following two photographs show Mladic weeping over her coffin at the funeral in Belgrade, and being consoled by his wife, Bosiljka. I have described the Ana suicide, and the devastating impact that it had on Mladic, in a previous post.
Today marks the seventeenth anniversary of the fall of the United Nations "safe area" of Srebrenica, which led to the most serious war crime in Europe since World War II. In what has become an annual ritual, 520 more coffins were brought to the memorial complex outside the U.N. base at Potocari with the newly identified remains of Muslim men and boys executed by Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Ratko Mladic. (See photograph above.)
There is a simple -- and horrifying -- explanation for why it has taken so long to identify the dead. In a belated attempt to cover up the crime, Mladic's men dug up mass graves containing the remains of the victims and scattered the bones all over north-east Bosnia. It took a massive international effort involving hundreds of investigators, forensic scientists, and DNA specialists to establish what happened. In some cases, remains were found in twenty different locations before being returned to loved ones.
It would be good if Bosnians of all ethnicities could remember this tragedy, pay their respects to the victims, and move on, as happened in Germany after World War II. Unfortunately, despite a wealth of corroborative evidence that around 7,000 prisoners were systematically executed, there are still many people who deny the basic facts of what happened at Srebrenica. As I showed in a previous post, this denial industry is being financed in part by the highest authorities of the Bosnian Serb statelet known as Republika Srpska.
After six weeks of procedural delays and arcane legal wrangling, the trial of Ratko Mladic finally resumed today with a harrowing reminder of why it is so important: the voice of a victim.
When the Bosnia war began in March 1992, Elvedin Pasic (photographed giving his testimony above) was fourteen years old. Although he lived in a Muslim village, he went to school with Serbs and Croats. They played soccer and basketball together, celebrated each other's holidays, watched the same movies, and hung out with the same girls. Then, almost overnight, the horror began.
Shells began landing in Pasic's village on the second day of the Muslim festival of Bajram, a holiday marking the end of the month of fasting. For the next five months, his family was chased around Bosnia by Serb forces. Now 34, Elvedin choked up repeatedly as he described how his father, uncle, and 150 other friends and neighbors were killed in retaliation for the death of a Serb soldier.
It was easy to understand why prosecutors chose Pasic to speak on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of victims of the three and a half-year Bosnia war. He delivered his testimony in fluent English learned as a refugee in the United States. His detailed recounting of atrocities seen through the eyes of an innocent teenager made him a particularly convincing witness.
It turns out that genocide denial has a price tag -- and a hefty one at that. Financial records from the Bosnian Serb entity known as Republika Srpska reveal that a Hague-based group of pseudo-experts that calls itself the "Srebrenica Historical Project" has received more than $1 million from the cash-strapped mini-state over the past five years.
As diligent readers of this blog will know, the Srebrenica Historical Project specializes in questioning, and in many cases denying, basic historical facts concerning massacres carried out by Bosnian Serb forces under the command of General Ratko Mladic in July 1995. It is led by a 62-year-old Serb American "lawyer" from Chicago named Stephen Karganovic (photographed above), who claimed, in an interview with me last year, that fewer than a thousand Muslim prisoners were executed following the fall of the United Nations "safe area."
An exhaustive international investigation of the Srebrenica events, involving teams of forensic pathologists, DNA specialists, demographic experts, and detectives has established that Bosnian Serb forces murdered around 7,000 Muslim prisoners in a series of massacres between July 12 and July 16, 1995. A further 1,000 or so Muslim men and boys were killed as a result of ambushes and armed clashes as they tried to reach Muslim-controlled territory north of Srebrenica.
What is most alarming about the Srebrenica Historical Project is not that there are people out there claiming that black is white, but that the denial industry is being financed by the Bosnian Serb authorities. A rough analogy might be the German government and parliament voting every year to fund the research of David Irving and other revisionist Holocaust historians.
Here is a breakdown of the annual subsidies to the Srebrenica Historical Project, approved by the government and parliament of Republika Srpska.
Here in the United States, we have been riveted all day on the Supreme Court health care ruling. But another judicial ruling, across the Atlantic Ocean, has significant implications for international law on genocide, which has been the subject of heated debate. It is also likely to affect the trial of former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic, whose "double genocide" trial is now due to resume on July 9.
The Yugoslav war crimes tribunal today ruled that the vicious spasm of ethnic cleansing of Muslims and Croats that accompanied the beginning of the Bosnia war in 1992 did not rise to the level of genocide. They made this ruling in response to a motion for acquittal by former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic. But they also found that genocide had occurred in Srebrenica in July 1995, when around 7,000 Muslim men and boys were executed by Bosnian Serb troops.
The ruling will make little practical difference to Karadzic, who also stands accused of numerous "crimes against humanity" and violations of the "laws and customs of war" between 1992 and 1995. But it does focus attention on the charged question of how to define genocide, a subject that I have attempted to deal with in previous posts here and there.
Controversy over proper use of the G-word dates back to the 1948 United Nations convention on genocide, which emphasized the subjective motivations of the perpetrators. Genocide is defined as mass killing or other acts with "the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national ethnical, racial or religious group." In other words, it is not enough to murder a large number of people. In order to be convicted of genocide, you must also be shown to have "genocidal intent."
One of the primary goals of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal -- beyond the obvious one of punishing the guilty -- is public education. The tribunal views itself as a kind of "truth commission" in a part of the world where facts are malleable things, filtered through the lenses of rival ethnic groups and political parties. The first step to national reconciliation is an agreement on precisely what happened.
That at least is the theory. In practice, as I discovered by participating in a recent "outreach" session organized by the tribunal in the Bosnian Serb-controlled town of Bijeljina, a more nuanced, elliptical approach sometimes works best.
Remember that Bosnia is a country where children are taught completely different narratives about the fratricidal war of 1992-95. In both school and home and through the media, Muslim students learn that Serbs began the war, and committed terrible atrocities. Their Serbian counterparts are raised to believe that the war was started by Islamic fundamentalists who wanted to control all of Bosnia.
I was intrigued to see how tribunal outreach officer Almir Alic (photographed above) would handle a room full of Serb, Muslim, and Croat law students from different parts of Bosnia who had been invited to attend a week-long "human rights school" in Bijeljina. Situated close to the border with Serbia, Bijeljina had a 34 percent Muslim population prior to the war, but was "ethnically cleansed" and is now overwhelmingly Serb. A Bijelina resident told me that "99 percent" of the population believe that former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic is a hero.
Visiting the village of Lazarevo, where Ratko Mladic was finally captured in May 2011, I received a vivid reminder of the nature of war in the former Yugoslavia. The present-day community owes its very existence to the practice of ethnic cleansing, which became such a noxious part of the wars in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo.
I took the above photograph in the graveyard of Lazarevo, founded more than two centuries ago by Swabian Germans who emigrated to the rich Danubian plain of Vojvodina under the Habsburg empire. On the right, you can see the graves of the original German inhabitants, in an untended, overgrown part of the cemetery. On the left, you can see the well-cared for graves of Bosnian Serbs, who were resettled here after World War II.
The Germans were expelled from what was then Lazarfeld by the Communist regime of Marshal Tito in 1945 as collective punishment for their alleged cooperation with the Nazi occupiers of Serbia. Their land, and houses, went to the families of communist partisans from Bosnia, including several relatives of Ratko Mladic. The newcomers arrived from the south on the so-called "trains without a timetable" that were organized to facilitate the great migration.
According to the 2002 census, only one German is left in Lazarevo, whose population of 3,308 is 95 percent Serb. Prior to World War II, the village was almost exclusively German.
The story of Lazarfeld/Lazarevo illustrates a couple of unpleasant truths about warfare, Balkan style.
The photograph above is a picture of me and the man who sheltered Ratko Mladic for a period of nearly five years up until his arrest in May 2011, his cousin Brane. I describe my meeting with Brane in an extended profile of Mladic in this month's Foreign Policy magazine, which has been posted on the website here.
I was introduced to Brane through his kum, a uniquely Serbian institution that is a combination of neighbor, trusted friend, and godfather. The Serbs have a saying "God in heaven and kum on earth." Truth be told, my relationship with the kum was somewhat tenuous, through the friend of a friend. I met the kum an hour before I met Brane. No matter. If the kum vouches for you, that means you are ok.
"An American has come to see you," I told Brane in the now-rusty Serbian that I learned while working as a reporter in Belgrade in the late 70s, waiting for the legendary Marshal Tito to die. "I hope you have nothing against Americans."
It may not have been the most felicitous of introductions, as Brane emitted a stream of curses about the country that bombed Serbia in 1999 and the Bosnian Serb army in 1995.
As Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell might say, losing track of your legal documents on one occasion can be considered a misfortune. Repeating the same mistake a second time is beginning to look very much like carelessness.
The hapless prosecution team in the trial of Ratko Mladic have now conceded that they have failed a second time to make available thousands of documents to the defense that they are required to release under the disclosure rules of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal. That left the judges no alternative but to suspend the trial indefinitely while they sort out the bureaucratic mess.
It now seems virtually certain that the long-awaited Mladic trial, which opened on May 16 in the Hague with a two-day presentation by the prosecution, will not resume until after the court's annual recess over the summer. The trial was originally scheduled to resume on May 29, but the date was pushed back until June 25 after the prosecution first acknowledged disclosure problems.
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 waved in our direction when he entered the courtroom this morning, flashing a defiant thumbs-up sign. Seated near me in the spectator section of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal were a couple of Muslim refugees from Bosnia, Jasmina Mujkanovic and Satko Mujagic. Caught by surprise by Mladic's greeting, they waved back, with smiles on their faces.
Like many of the spectators at today's proceedings, Satko and Jasmina suffered grievously at the hands of Mladic, during the three and a half year war in Bosnia. Jasmina lost her father in the infamous Omarska concentration camp. Satko was beaten and tortured at the same camp before eventually being released following a wave of international outrage over Bosnian Serb brutality. So why did he smile at his tormentor?
"I felt good that he was there," the former prisoner explained. (Watch the video above.) He wanted to send a message to Mladic that "I am glad that I can watch you from this side as a free man while you sit there defending yourself for what you did."
Now living in Holland, both Satko and Jasmina are originally from the town of Kozarac in northwestern Bosnia, which was taken over by the Serbs soon after the outbreak of war in March 1992. Several thousand Kozarac residents were killed in the first few weeks of the war, as Serbian paramilitaries terrorized the Muslim inhabitants, forcing many to flee and interning others in camps like Omarska.
Nearly seventeen years after he was first indicted, former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic went on trial today for crimes against humanity that culminated in Europe's worst massacre since World War II in July 1995.
In a courtroom packed with relatives of victims of the three-and-a half year Bosnia war, prosecutor Dermot Groome read out a catalog of crimes allegedly committed by Mladic's men, ranging from the taking of hostages and shelling of civilians to rapes and mass killing. The 69-year old general is accused of double genocide, stemming from a massive ethnic cleansing campaign at the beginning of the war and the killing of 7,000 Muslim prisoners in Srebrenica at the end.
Dressed in a dark suit, Mladic waved and gave the thumbs-up sign to spectators in the public gallery at the start of a trial that is expected to take at least two years. He also held up a book emblazoned with the image of King Peter II of Yugoslavia, who was overthrown by the Nazis at the beginning of World War II.
"Mladic wanted to send a message to us that he, too, is some kind of king," said Munira Subasic, who lost 22 members of her extended family in the Srebrenica killings, including her husband and son. "But I am happy because he is finally in jail. God will punish him."
I will be in the Hague on Wednesday for the long-awaited start of the Mladic trial, almost seventeen years after he was first indicted by the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal. While we wait to hear the prosecutor's opening statement, let's take a look at some more "roads not taken" during the run-up to the Srebrenica tragedy of July 1995, which features prominently in the Mladic indictment.
While primary responsibility for the Srebrenica massacre certainly rests with the Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Mladic, the international community also played a role through a series of diplomatic missteps. Here are three more key moments, selected by the former United Nations civil affairs official, David Harland, that led directly to Europe's worst massacre since World War II.
For three earlier decision points, click here.
Key Moment 4. The Bosnian government's decision to block the evacuation of Srebrenica in April 1993. On April 2, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees reported to the Security Council that non-combatants were "desperate to escape to safety because they see no other prospect than death if they remain where they are." On instructions from the Bosnian government, the Muslim commander in Sarajevo, Nasir Oric, prevented the evacuation of refugees on the grounds that it would pave the way for the takeover of Srebrenica by the Bosnian Serbs, and would facilitate their policy of "ethnic cleansing." A convoy of United Nations trucks was forced to leave the enclave without any refugees on board. Ironically, Oric himself left Srebrenica in April 1995, three months before the town fell.
PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images
One of the first witnesses in the Mladic trial, which opens in the Hague next Wednesday, will be David Harland, who was chief of United Nations civil affairs in Bosnia at the time of the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995. A New Zealander who now heads the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva, Harland was also the principal author of the 1999 United Nations report on Srebrenica, which painted a devastating picture of bungling by the international community.
Harland has thought a lot about the political and diplomatic missteps that led to the fall of the former United Nations "safe area" and has frequently lectured about the subject. He provided me with a list of key "decision points" dating back to 1991, when different actions by the international community might have saved tens of thousands of lives.
Several of the fateful "decision points" cited by Harland relate to the chaotic final days prior to the fall of Srebrenica on July 11, 1995. I have reviewed several of these missed opportunities in previous posts looking at the failure of United Nations commanders to approve requests from the beleaguered Dutch peacekeeping battalion for close air support. Here I will go back to the early days of the conflict, which obviously represented the best chance for western governments to prevent the downward spiral into violence.
Harland comments that it is probable that "many more people would be alive today" had any of the following decisions "gone the other way."
GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images
And now for something completely different that has nothing to do with Ratko Mladic, war criminals, or Srebrenica! My post today does, however, involve an issue that is familiar to anyone following international war crimes trials, namely historical veracity and the contradictory testimony of different eyewitnesses. So please indulge me.
As a former Washington Post reporter turned historian, I am intrigued by a spat involving two people I greatly respect, Bob Woodward and Ben Bradlee. A new book by a former Woodward researcher named Jeff Himmelman claims that the legendary Post editor once expressed doubts about some minor details in the reporting of his even more legendary Watergate sleuth. To be specific, Bradlee privately questioned Woodward's account of his meetings with his super-secret source, known as "Deep Throat," subsequently revealed as deputy FBI director, Mark Felt.
An unpublished 1990 interview unearthed by Himmelman reveals that Bradlee was unconvinced by Woodward's description of how he communicated with Deep Throat. Woodward has long claimed that he set up meetings with his source by moving a flower pot around on his balcony in downtown Washington, D.C. They would then meet in an underground parking garage. This was a cumbersome method of communication since it required Deep Throat to keep Woodward's balcony under constant observation.
We now learn that Bradlee (at least in 1990) expressed "a residual fear in my soul" that something about Woodward's story was "not quite straight."
Brad Barket/Getty Images
There is an interesting back story to Barack Obama's call today for stronger action to prevent genocide that directly relates to the subject of this blog. The president's speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum announcing new sanctions against perpetrators of mass atrocities was shaped in large part by senior aides with first-hand experience in places like Bosnia and Rwanda.
The key person here is Samantha Power, now a senior foreign policy advisor to Obama, who was a young reporter in Bosnia in July 1995 at the time of the Srebrenica massacre, seething in frustration at the failure of the international community to take effective action against the likes of Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. As the author of the Pulitzer prize-winning A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, Power provided much of the intellectual heft for a growing genocide prevention movement that has sought to pressure the United States government to live up to the slogan "Never Again."
In her book, Power states that she returned from Bosnia "haunted by the murder of Srebenica's Muslim men and boys, my own failure to sound a proper early warning, and the outside world's refusal to intervene even once the men's peril had become obvious." She noted pointedly that the United States "had never in its history intervened to stop genocide and had in fact rarely even made a point of condemning it as it occurred."
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
It is almost axiomatic in warfare that the first reports are always wrong. Researching the Cuban missile crisis, I was startled by the erroneous intelligence reaching President Kennedy about Soviet actions and intentions. Fortunately, the former U.S. Navy lieutenant had a skeptical, questioning mind ("the military always screws up" was a favorite expression), or we might have ended up in a nuclear war.
Lyndon Johnson ordered his fateful escalation of the Vietnam war in August 1964 on the basis of mistaken reports claiming that North Vietnam had attacked U.S. Navy destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. More recently, we all know what happened when George W. Bush acted upon deeply flawed intelligence claims of weapons of mass destruction supposedly possessed by Saddam Hussein.
When it comes to genocide and mass atrocities, policy-makers often believe what they want to believe -- using erroneous intelligence either to build a case for military intervention or to justify a passive, hands-off approach. Let me illustrate what I mean by focusing on the false reporting of a single incident immediately prior to the capture of Srebrenica on July 11, 1995 by Bosnian Serb forces under the command of Ratko Mladic. In this case, the faulty intel was to have deadly consequences for the Muslim population of the so-called "safe area."
Shortly after dawn on July 10, a United Nations armored personnel carrier protecting the approaches to the "safe area" came under fire., causing it to skid off the mountain road. A Dutchbat officer, Captain Peter Hageman, reported at 0713 that he had been attacked by the Muslim defenders of Srebrenica who were in the area. He filed a report which went all the way up the UNPROFOR chain of command, first to Zagreb and then to New York.
Mario Tama/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.