The man who had his finger on the trigger of Europe’s worst massacre since the Holocaust is finally arrested – Why it matters
The wars that ravaged the former Yugoslavia from 1991 to 1995 have once again seized the world’s attention following the capture of the “Butcher of Srebrencia” General Mladic after 16 years of freedom. Emily Moore reports on Mladic’s crimes and argues that his arrest matters.
The infamy of Yugoslavia’s wars of succession was in part due to timing: with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, the West proclaimed its liberal values triumphant: an optimistic assumption which was irrevocably shattered by Yugoslavia’s violent disintegration. This was all the more galling since Yugoslavia had been considered a symbol of tolerance, the “shining star of Eastern Europe” and a prime candidate for EC membership. Yugoslavia’s central European location moreover made certain that the West could not ignore the rapidly deepening crisis, no matter how ardently it strove to. It was the ferocity of violence however, which, when coupled with the concurrently occurring Rwandan genocide, secured global media coverage and ensured that interest in the Yugoslav wars has endured. Whole cities such as Vukovar were razed while countless villages disappeared from the map. In Bosnia it has been estimated that between 2.2 and 2.7 million people were displaced, which amounts to more than half the pre-war population. More than 200,000 people died, the majority of them civilians. That the phrase ‘ethnic cleansing’ entered the English lexicon, a translation from Serbo-Croat (etničko čišćenje), as a result of the 1990s wars gives some indication of the level of violence, suffering and horror experienced.
Ethnic cleansing took on two forms during the 1990s war. First there was a cultural dimension as Serb forces attempted to expunge all traces of non-Serb culture and aimed to destroy multicultural society. Historians Shoup and Burg note that they were “guilty of a complete eradication of Muslim cultural monuments, mosques, libraries and the like in territories under their control.” The second dimension was the physical and violent eradication of those who did not fit into nationalist’s homogeneous vision. To this end Omarska, Trnopolje, Manjaca, and Kereterm were built. These four detention camps carried out ethnic cleansing in an ordered and systematic way. In Witness to Genocide reporter Roy Gutman described his horror at the conditions for detainees: “prisoners were held in metal cages without sanitation, exercise or adequate food… there were no toilets and the prisoners had to live in their own filth which dripped through the grates.” Another strategy was to besiege a town, sever links and subject it to sniper fire and bombardment. Sarajevo serves as the archetype example. Mladic was the architect of the longest siege in modern warfare, and for 44 months ordered indiscriminate bombing which targeted hospitals and schools, ordering his troops to “shell them until they are at the point of madness.” One shocked journalist reported “gunners target water queues, they know exactly where they are and that people have to stand, quietly, patiently but terrified”; snipers even targeted mourners at the freshly dug graves. The siege technique was also employed in enclaves such as Mostar and Gorazde, but most famously in the UN-protected “safe area” Srebrencia where the single greatest atrocity of the war was carried out before a contingent of hapless Dutch peacekeepers.
In July 1995 Mladic oversaw the Srebrencia massacre. His forces drove out 40,000 people and he sanctioned the rape and torture of women, and capture of 8,000 Muslim men and boys. Under Mladic’s orders they were herded to the town square where he patted the boys’ heads assuring them that they were in no danger and handed out sweets, minutes before ordering his soldiers to open fire. Judge Rouad Riad who indicted Mladic in his absence in a war crimes tribunal, described the events as “scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history.”
The level of violence is perplexing however when the positive condition of ethnic relations before the war erupted is considered. In a poll held in June 1990 90% of respondents rated ethnic relations in their community as very good or good, only 4% rated them as poor. In the same year 16.8% of marriages in Bosnia were mixed; given the average household size one demographer has estimated that half the population of Bosnia had inter-ethnic family relations. Most neighbourhoods were ethnically diverse; Serbs, Muslims and Croats grew up, lived and worked together.
Today’s statistics are thus extremely troubling. In a poll collated just two weeks ago 78% of Serbians said that they would not report Mladic’s location to the authorities if they knew where he was hiding, despite his crimes and the 10 million euro reward. Polls show that over 50% of Serbs oppose Mladic’s extradition, and thousands have attended demonstrations against it. Chanting Mladic’s name they carry posters adorned with his picture. On Tuesday 10,000 people held a peaceful protest, calling Serbian President Boris Tadic a traitor for ordering Mladic’s arrest. One demonstrator shouted “We love our general, Ratko Mladic, and we love freedom. We came here to support our hero.” Others in Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia have stated they are happy and relieved.
Tadic’s claims that Mladic’s arrest had “closed a chapter of our recent history that will bring us one step closer to full reconciliation in the region” is therefore out of touch with the reality of mixed popular feeling. Images from the demonstrations however are more likely to re-open wounds in the volatile region than lead to reconciliation, and show that for Serbs at least, memories of the war still hold power. Understanding the enduring support for a war criminal like Mladic in Serbia is difficult for Western observers. In part it stems from the resentment of the West’s tendency to view the wars of succession as a black and white case of “Bad Serbs” attacking “Good Croats and Muslims”. That the accusation of genocidal intent has been levied exclusively at Serbs reinforces this image. Such a simplistic outlook should be avoided because it encourages neglect of the complex internal dynamics of the former Yugoslavia, but more importantly is also inaccurate. Although Serbs such as Mladic merit opprobrium and should be brought to justice, and numerically speaking Bosnian Muslims and Croats suffered more, atrocities were also committed against Croat civilians by Muslim forces in places like Miletici. Serb civilians were also clear victims in Sarajevo and throughout Serbia in ruthless reprisal attacks. Hence all factions are guilty of partaking in violence as well as being victims. Mladic’s capture is therefore significant in that it highlights the enduring tensions over the memories of the war.
The significance of Mladic’s arrest is not confined to Serbia or even the Balkan region but has implications for Britain. It serves as a reminder that Britain’s foreign policy has been defined by the Yugoslavian wars for over a decade, and that memories of atrocities carried out at Mladic’s command continues to shape our foreign commitments. The international community’s impotency and its failure to prevent ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia and Rwanda traumatised the West, particularly Britain, into adopting a new doctrine of liberal interventionism. It established the principle of “responsibility to protect” that entails military intervention if a sovereign state fails to protect its own population from genocide and war crimes.
In 1999 when Serbia threatened to use the techniques of ethnic cleansing developed in Bosnia in Kosovo, Tony Blair hence argued for intervention calling it “not a battle for territory…a battle for humanity.” In 2000 the same principle justified intervention in Sierra Leone. In 2003 Blair used Srebenica as an example of the consequences of inaction to persuade a reluctant British public and tentative European allies of the merit of now largely discredited intervention in Iraq. Cameron has equally mobilised memories and guilt of genocide to push for intervention in Libya.
The timing of Mladic’s arrest is also extremely expedient given current international events. It provides an unparalleled opportunity to serve as an example of how true justice can be achieved through the courts rather than through the barrel of a gun. With America sanctioning the extra-judicial killing of Osama Bin Laden just a month ago this is an important message. Given that Karadzic’s trial continues after three years and Milosevic died in his cell at Le Hague before a verdict was passed it is also extremely important for the courts to prove that they can bring justice in a more appropriate time scale. It also sends an important message to Gaddafi and other war criminals that justice will be done.
Finally, Mladic’s capture has the potential to act as a watershed moment for Serbia in its relations with the EU. Regardless of the suspiciously convenient timing of Mladic’s arrest it brings down the last major barrier to its membership. José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission called it a “very positive development for the EU” and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France praised Tadic stating “It’s one more step towards Serbia’s integration one day into the EU.” President Tadic echoed these hopes saying the arrest “will increase Serbia’s moral credibility in the international arena. I believe all doors to our EU membership have been opened now.”
That Mladic is brought to justice is therefore of crucial importance. It not only delivers justice to the thousands whose lives were torn apart by his ruthless leadership of the Serb Army, but sends an important message to the international community.