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."
The "war" to which Mladic referred here is World War II, when Bosnia was the scene of several wars rolled into one (an uprising against the Nazis and their local Fascist allies, a civil war, and a political revolution). His first name, Ratko, is derived from the Serbian rat, meaning war. His father, Nedo, fought with Tito's Communist Partisans and was killed in 1945 during a raid on the village of Bradina, birthplace of the Croatian quisling dictator Ante Pavelic, in the neighboring mountain valley.
The video above shows Mladic talking about his birthplace at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, along with video clips of Bozanovici and a brief commentary from me. The videography is very amateurish, I am afraid, but at least it will give you a sense of the place and its remote location.
After wandering around the deserted village (population 20) with my Serbian-speaking daughter, I eventually heard the sound of voices from a ramshackle log hut. The door was open so we peeked inside to find a trio of Mladic relatives drinking shots of rakija, a potent brandy, at one in the afternoon. They were surly at first, claiming that foreigners who came to Bozanovici "twist everything we say," but nevertheless invited us in to taste the home-made moonshine.
"Fifty per cent proof," said Mladic's cousin Dusko proudly. With his massive square head and heavy jowls, Dusko is recognizably a Mladic.
I downed the glass in one swig, as is the custom in Bosnia, and felt a strong burning sensation rising in my chest. From that moment on, we got on fine.
"The Mladices came from across those mountains in the middle of the nineteenth century," said Dusko, pointing southwards, toward the mountain fastnesses of Montenegro. "We were chased out of Montenegro by the Turks." A massive Austrian-Hungarian fortress in the nearby town of Kalinovik, two miles down a winding mountain path, serves as a reminder that Bosnia was once the frontier between Christendom and Islam. (See photo below.) In some ways, I suppose, it still is.
After a few more glasses of rakija, Dusko jokingly suggested to my daughter that she could marry a Mladic and come to live in Bozanovici. He spoke admiringly about his first cousin who, he said, had devoted his military career to "defending the Serbs." Ratko Mladic spent the first 15 years of his life in Bozanovici before going to high school in Sarajevo, and from there, to military academy in Belgrade.
As we were chatting, a television in the corner of the darkened room broadcast a history program accusing the Muslims of plunging Bosnia into war in 1992, complete with dramatic footage of Muslim atrocities against Serbs. The same program is broadcast over and over again on Bosnian Serb television, shaping the views and opinions of the villagers of Bozanovici.
"Everybody did terrible things during the war," said Dusko, "but we Serbs got all the blame."
Prior to the war, Muslims accounted for around 37 percent of the population of Kalinovik municipality, which includes Bozanovici. But the Muslim inhabitants were chased away or killed at the beginning of the war during a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing. The region is now almost exclusively Serb and part of Republika Srpska, the Bosnian-Serb statelet.
My visit to Bozanovici helped me more clearly understand several traits in Mladic's personality that I had not fully grasped beforehand. I was struck by the distance that he traveled from an obscure mountain village to the highest ranks of the Yugoslav People's Army. Mladic owed his ascent to the Yugoslav communist party and the Yugoslav army, and took an oath to defend the Titoist system. When the country fell apart in 1991 and the system came crashing down, Mladic's whole world fell apart.
In another sense, Mladic did not travel very far at all. His entire world outlook was molded by his early life in an isolated mountain community, where attitudes are shaped by ancient myths and propaganda spewing out of a television set. The most successful and energetic of the Mladices, the boy who escaped Bozanovici for a brilliant military career, is very much a product of the war that conceived him and the village that served as his maternal womb.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post referred incorrectly to Kalinovik as part of the Romanija region of Bosnia.
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.