Ratko Mladic: career officer infamous for the Srebrenica massacre

Military mastermind of Bosnia's destruction repeatedly claimed he was on a mission of vengeance

The capture of Ratko Mladic, the military mastermind of the destruction of Bosnia, closes more than a decade of deceit for many parties in the Balkans and beyond.

Serbia's post-Slobodan Milosevic democracy remained stigmatised and isolated for as long as its military, security structures and gangsters sheltered the general.

The United Nations, the Nato alliance, the Dutch state, the French Republic, and the world's mightiest spy services were all tainted by their appeasement of Mladic and by the long failure or reluctance to apprehend the man said to be the most infamous mass murderer in Europe.

For the prosecutors and investigators in The Hague, finally getting Mladic in the dock will represent the climax to 16 years of often thankless toil among the mass graves, government filing cabinets, video archives, and questioning of witnesses in the Balkans.

Mladic and his partner-in-crime, Radovan Karadzic, were the military and political leaders, dubbed the psychopath and the psychiatrist, of the Bosnian Serbs in the 1992-95 war. The men, both of whom are now in custody – Karadzic was seized by Serbian intelligence in 2008 – were, at least initially, the creatures of the Milosevic regime in Belgrade.

Mladic is most infamous for the biggest single massacre of the Bosnian war at Srebrenica towards the war's end in 1995.

But for the previous four years he was the most ruthless and determined instrument of Milosevic's disastrous strategy to hijack Yugoslavia and carve a Greater Serbia out of the ruins of Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo.

It was a project that failed spectacularly. Kosovo is now an independent state carved out of Serbia while Croatia and Slovenia next month will be celebrating 20 years since they declared their independence from Yugoslavia.

In June 1991, weeks before the Yugoslav wars opened with the skirmishing in Slovenia, Mladic – a career Yugoslav army officer and graduate of Belgrade military academies – was made military commander of the Yugoslav army garrison in Knin, a dusty provincial centre in south-west Croatia that was the seat of the Serb insurgency in Croatia.

Within six months he had helped Milosevic partition Croatia, seizing control of a quarter of the country and in the process pulverising the Danube town of Vukovar, which became the scariest symbol of that campaign. Those gains were then consolidated behind a UN peace plan in January 1992, devised by Cyrus Vance, the former US secretary of state who became UN special envoy to the region.

Two months after that plan came into effect, Milosevic, aware of Mladic's unruly and Bonapartist displays, pulled his henchman out of Croatia into his native Bosnia, where he rallied his devotees. According to his army file obtained by investigators in The Hague, he was made commander of the Bosnian Serb military in May 1992 when Milosevic purged the high command in Belgrade and formally separated the Bosnian from the Yugoslav military.

What followed the Mladic appointment was a whirlwind of murder, pogrom, siege, and destruction giving birth to the term "ethnic cleansing".

A senior UN official, who spent hours haggling with Mladic from the early days in Knin, characterised him as "a psychopath – highly intelligent and profoundly violent".

Mladic liked nothing better than to parade as a proud Serbian military officer, mixing with and confronting French brigadiers, British generals and US commanders on equal terms.

His war in Bosnia, however, was that of both the bully and the coward – a war against defenceless civilians. Within a few months of the start of the Bosnian war, by the end of 1992, Mladic's blitzkrieg had left tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims dead, put two million to flight, their homes looted and torched, their cemeteries and mosques bulldozed into oblivion.

His forces already controlled 70% of Bosnia and instituted a Nazi-style racist reign of terror aimed at the expulsion of almost all non-Serbs.

The 15 counts of genocide, murder, extermination, hostage-taking, and persecution he now faces in The Hague were the means, according to the chargesheet, to "the elimination or permanent removal, by force or other means of Bosnian Muslim, Bosnian Croat or other non-Serb inhabitants from large areas of Bosnia".

The Srebrenica massacre – he entered the enclave in July 1995 with the sinister assurance, "Don't worry, no one will be harmed" – was the terrible climax of the Serbian project in Bosnia.

By the end of the same year he had been indicted for genocide at Srebrenica, while already facing a host of other charges over ethnic cleansing and the three-year siege of Sarajevo imposed by his forces.

If that was the cost of the professional, military, and career victories Mladic believes he chalked up in Bosnia, the three-and-a-half-year war there also inflicted crushing personal losses on a man who clearly relished the macho male culture of the Balkan military caste but who grew up in the company of women – his mother, sister, wife, and daughter.

Mladic was born into another bloodbath – the Serb-Croat war and Serbian civil war that ran in tandem with the second world war in Yugoslavia. Mladic was born in the village of Bozinovici, near the town of Kalinovik in eastern Herzegovina in March 1942. It is stark mountain territory on the western fringes of Serbdom, home to the kind of frontier folk that make the most fanatical breed of nationalists. Several Serbian nationalist leaders of the 1990s in Belgrade are from the same region.

When Mladic was three years old at the end of the war, his father, a partisan fighting with Tito's forces, was killed during an assault on the Bosnian village of Bradina, home to Ante Pavelic, the fascist leader of the wartime Croatian Ustasha state.

In the 90s Mladic repeatedly claimed to have been traumatised by his father's death and to always have been on a mission of vengeance, although the greater family tragedy came in 1994 when Mladic's adored daughter, Ana, a 23-year-old Belgrade medical student, killed herself at the height of the Bosnian war.

Mladic and his sister were reared by his mother. A colleague who spent hours with Mladic on Mount Igman overlooking Sarajevo in the mid-90s recounted how the general dwelt obsessively and at length on his mother, daughter and sister.

When Ana killed herself, a distraught Mladic went to the mortuary in Belgrade where a senior Yugoslav Muslim doctor was on duty. According to Mirko Klarin, an authority on Yugoslav war crimes, Mladic bellowed at the doctor, ordering him out on ethnic grounds. He then proceeded to apply make-up to his daughter's face.

Whatever the impact of family tragedy and tension on the general, amateur psychologists speculated that the suicide unhinged Mladic, contributing to eruptions of rage and violence in Gorazde in 1994 when he faced down and bested Britain's General Sir Michael Rose, at Bihac in 1995 when he responded to Nato air strikes by taking 200 UN troops hostage, and finally at Srebrenica.

Since then, in the early days of life as a fugitive he lived reasonably openly, clearly feeling he had nothing to fear. He was frequently sighted in the better suburbs of Belgrade, in city restaurants, at football games, going to weddings. Only after 2002 did Mladic perform a disappearing trick, fearing that his impunity was eroding.

Over the past few years, after a long period of doing nothing to address the toxic issue of war crimes and atrocities, the Serbian government started coaxing senior police and military figures into surrendering to The Hague tribunal.

Karadzic, Mladic's peer, partner and sometime rival, was seized by Serbian intelligence in July 2008 while riding on a Belgrade bus. He had been living under a false name in the Serbian capital, working as a spiritual healer.

Given the volume of evidence against Mladic and the sentences already handed down to many of his subordinates, it now appears inevitable that Mladic will spend all of his old age behind bars.


Ian Traynor

The GuardianTramp

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