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. But he shook my hand vigorously, and agreed to chat over the ubiquitous glasses of slivovitz, plum brandy, and coffee. He described how his branch of the family were given land in the rich agricultural region of Vojvodina after the war in recognition for their services to Tito's communist partisans in World War II, settling in the village of Lazarevo, which is where Mladic was captured. Click on the top icon in the map below.
View The Mladic migration in a larger map
Brane, who is actually Mladic's second cousin (their grandfathers were brothers, both from the Bosnian village of Bozanovici), is an engaging, no-nonsense kind of person. Like many Serbs, he fell on hard times after the collapse of communism, losing his job at a state-run factory, and making ends meet by looking after a few pigs and cows.
Having his celebrated cousin-general live across the farmhouse courtyard for nearly five years cannot have been easy for Brane, although he is not one to complain. Already indicted by the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, Mladic spent much of the time watching television and reminiscing at great length about various battles that he fought in Bosnia. The subject of the Srebenica massacres did not come up.
Under Serbian law, relatives cannot be prosecuted for harboring fugitives from justice, a tradition that reflects the importance of family in Serbian life. I tended to believe Brane when he insisted that Mladic's presence in Lazarevo was a closely guarded secret, known to no one else in the village. It must be said, however, that many of my Serbian friends are skeptical of this story, and believe that the Serbian secret police knew exactly where Mladic was.
I will be writing more about the importance of Lazarevo in the Mladic family saga in subsequent posts. In the meantime, please read my Foreign Policy piece for the story of how Ratko Mladic made his way from Bozanovici to The Hague, by way of Srebrenica and Lazarevo.
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.