One of the worst war criminals in Europe since Hitler and Mussolini was finally sentenced today. Ratko Mladic, commander of the Bosnian Serbian forces during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, was sentenced to life in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity. He shouted and abused the judges and the public so much that he was removed from the courtroom and the sentencing was completed in his absence.
Bosnia and Herzegovina was a section of Yugoslavia that contained all three major ethno-religious groups of the former communist country: Bosniaks, who were Muslim; Croats, who were Catholic; and Serbs, who were Orthodox. After Croatia and the Serbian Republic seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991, Bosnia and Herzegovina followed suit in early 1992. Bosniaks, had been a small minority in the former Yugoslavia, but were a dominant plurality of the new country of Bosnia-Herzegovina, with about 44 per cent of the population. Serbs constituted about a third, and Croats 17 per cent.
Ratko Mladic and the Serbian Advantage
The Bosnian Serbs had no desire to live in a country dominated by a coalition between Muslims and Croats, who also had been minorities in Yugoslavia. The Croats had allied with the Nazis during World War II, and the communist Yugoslavs had never let them forget it. Bosnian Serbs were not prepared to subject themselves to a new government dominated by the former minorities. They rejected the referendum for independence, and prepared for war.
Ratko Mladic commanded about 180,000 soldiers and had the best equipped and fiercest fighters of all the Bosnian forces. He also had the strong backing of the Serbian army, which moved swiftly to occupy important positions. He had another key advantage because of Serbia’s robust military industrial base. When the incoming Clinton Administration called for an international arms embargo, it had the effect of ensuring a decisive qualitative advantage for the Serbs, since they did not need to import weapons or ammunition.
The resulting Bosnian war was the bloodiest and most brutal of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. It gave rise to the term “ethnic cleansing,” as the Serbian forces drove out Bosniaks and Croats from traditionally Serbian-majority areas. Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs had lived side by side, even intermarried, before 1992, but that harmony came to a bloody end.
Bin Laden’s Rise to Prominence
Before the war, the Bosniaks had never been particularly devout in their observance of Islam. I remember a long-time diplomat quipping that they liked red wine with a pork roast and a glass of beer with their ham. But they were mercilessly massacred by Ratko Mladic’s forces, and the arms embargo crippled their ability to defend themselves while the Serbs were well armed. After the massacre of Srebenica and the ghastly shelling of Sarajevo, Muslims worldwide came to their aid – and only Muslims.
A bright young American Muslim Fulbright scholar I knew saved nearly all of his scholarship stipend to donate to relief efforts for the Bosnian Muslims. Other aid came from much less benign sources, and was accompanied by jihadist elements from the Middle East, Iran and Afghanistan. It was the plight of Bosnian Muslims that really inflamed public opinion throughout the Islamic world, and brought fame to a formerly obscure Saudi millionaire named Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden rallied support for the Muslims in Bosnia, and his efforts thrust him into the forefront of international Islamic action.
Ratko Mladic stepped into this maelstrom of conflict with a ferocity fueled by hate.
Ratko Mladic stepped into this maelstrom of conflict with a ferocity fueled by hate. He hated Muslims and blamed them for the Turkish conquest of southern Europe five centuries earlier – he frequently called the Bosniaks Turks as an insult – and he hated the Croats for the Nazi ties of their ancestors several decades ago. During the Bosnian war, his daughter committed suicide with his gun, an act rumored to have been precipitated by her learning of atrocities his troops had committed. Her death preceded the massacre at Srebenica by just a few months.
Srebenica Massacre and Shelling of Sarajevo
Bosniak refugees had fled to Srebenica to ask UN troops from the Netherlands for protection. Mladic promised that if the Bosniaks disarmed, they would be guaranteed safe passage. When they refused, his men kidnapped 14 Dutch peacekeepers, and released them only after the Dutch expelled the Bosniaks from their camp. Over the course of the next four days, Mladic’s troops systematically killed over 8,000 men and boys, by machine gunning them in groups of ten and burying them with bulldozers in mass graves.
Previously, at the outbreak of the war in 1992, Mladic had ordered the shelling of Sarajevo, the ancient regional capital. “As his gunners pounded the city of Sarajevo in early 1992, mercilessly killing civilians, he would yell ‘Burn their brains!’ to encourage them, and ‘Shell them until they’re on the edge of madness!’ The siege laid waste to parts of central Sarajevo, hollowing out houses and charring cars. A long stretch of road leading into the city became known as ‘sniper’s alley,’ after the Serb marksmen who would fire at anything that moved: car, man, woman or child.”
Ratko Mladic evaded capture for 16 years, living in obscurity but comfort with a relative and protected by the Serbian security forces. He has spent another 6 years waiting to be sentenced. He is not likely to live long, or well, and will certainly die in prison. Prison is not his punishment, however, but only a holding place; the earth has no way to punish him justly. He will receive true justice only after death.