Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic oversaw Srebrenica Massacre, Europe’s worst massacre since the Second World War, in July 1995 when over 8,000 Muslim men and boys were either shot, tortured to death, hanged, or left to die with booby traps
In July 1995, Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic visited one of the six United Nations (UN)-declared protected safe zones in Srebrenica sheltering Muslims forced to flee Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, in the face of his leader Radavon Karadzic’s genocidal campaign.
Mladic assured the inmates they would remain unharmed. He patted a young boy while his guards distributed sweets among kids in the enclave, whose population had swelled from 9,000 in 1991 to 42,000 in 1995.
The Mladic forces besieged Sarajevo for three years, imposed food embargoes, and resorted to sustained shelling, forcing Muslims to seek refuge in Srebrenica since 1992. Mladic had not changed his spots when he visited them in Srebrenica.
As the chief organiser of Karadzic’s genocidal campaign for a racially pure statelet by ridding parts of Bosnia of non-Serbs following Yugoslavia’s collapse in 1992, Mladic was just putting on an act.
Ten days after Mladic’s Srebrenica visit, he oversee the worst massacre in Europe since the Second World War when over 8,000 Muslim men and boys were either shot, tortured to death, hanged, or left to die with booby traps. The piling bodies were heaped on bulldozers and interred in pits from where human remains were quarried for over a decade.
In 2017, the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia [ICTY] found Mladic, 74, guilty of genocide and war crimes against Bosnian Muslims. He was sentenced to life in prison for having ‘significantly contributed’ to the Srebrenica massacre, which was aimed to eliminate ‘every able-bodied male’.
Mladic was the second top Serb leader after Karadzic to be convicted of genocide and war crimes against Bosnian Muslims. His conviction of the Srebrenica massacre was rare and a welcome victory for international justice, but too little, too late.
The Serb campaign for riding parts of Bosnia of non-Serbs has been irreversible. The Serb statelet—Republika Srpska—built on the back of genocide is a reality today, accounting for 49% of the Bosnian territory.
The proponents of the genocide and Greater Serbia have regained prominence in Serbia, which has witnessed a tide of nationalism along with other parts of Europe. They seek the merger of Republika Srpska with Serbia.
Bosnia was divided into semi-autonomous regions—Republika Srpska and Bosniak-Croat Federation—in November 1995 as part of the Dayton Peace Accord that ended the war. But little has changed on the ground.
The ICTY’s verdict over the Srebrenica massacre had no impact on Mladic’s popularity among Serbs. ‘You are our hero!’ read posters put up in Republika Srpska on the day of the verdict.
Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik’s statement after the verdict highlighted the lack of remorse among the Serb leadership. ‘A spot as a hero was reserved for Mladic long ago and this verdict can’t change that,’ said Dodik, a proponent of Republika Srpska’s secession and genocide denier.
The Serbian Chetnik paramilitary group has been threatening to reclaim territory and another war in Bosnia, where war criminals have been lionised by the naming of buildings and streets after them. A memorial was set up in 2014 in Mladic’s honour on the line dividing the autonomous regions in Sarajevo amid growing anti-Bosnian nationalism.
For many, the Dayton agreement legitimised Mladic’s genocidal project: homogenous Republika Srpska built on the ruins of a multi-ethnic society that threatens Bosnia’s territorial unity. Sarajevo is now a far cry from its past. The city had for centuries been an epitome of composite Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Orthodox Christian culture.
Mladic’s conviction and the lack of change on the ground turned the spotlight on the glaring failures of the international community’s failures. In June 2017, The Hague Court of Appeal’s verdict holding the Netherlands ‘partially liable’ for the slaughter of about 300 men and boys at a UN peacekeepers unit in Bosnia reinforced it.
A Dutch UN peacekeeping contingent fled in the face of a Serb attack on their base in Potocari, where the Bosnian Muslims had sought refuge. The UN ignored pleas for air support from the Dutch peacekeepers, who were found to be ill-equipped and without ‘strong leadership’.
The Hague court’s presiding judge Gepke Dulek-Schermers said they ‘knew or should have known that the men [taken away from the unit] were not only being screened’. The judge added that they were in real danger of being subjected to torture or execution.
‘… by having the men leave the compound unreservedly, they were deprived of a chance of survival.’ The judge added that the Dutch soldiers had facilitated the separation of the men and the boys.
The international community failed to respond to Mladic’s declared intention of erasing the Bosniak Muslims completely. It failed to read signs that perhaps forewarned the genocide. Non-Serbs in Celinac for instance were prohibited from moving around after 4pm in July 1992. They were not allowed to swim, fish, assemble in groups and exchange or sell apartments, etc.
Soon concentration camps emerged; mass rapes and killings followed. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims and largely Roman Catholics were uprooted. Boys and men were tortured to death in concentration camps while women were raped and forced into sex slavery.
A judge in The Hague called the Srebrenica massacre mind-numbing ‘scenes from hell’ written on ‘the darkest pages of history’. The ICTY found the Bosnian Serb forces used rape ‘as an instrument of terror’ and that a ‘hellish orgy of persecution’ occurred in Bosnia’s Omarska, Keraterm, and Trnopolje camps.
The Observer’s Ed Vulliamy, who witnessed the horrors in concentration camps first, saw bones of men there ‘protrude like pieces of jagged stone from the pencil-thin stalks to which their arms have been reduced’. ‘Their skin is putrefied, the complexions … have corroded. [They] are alive but decomposed, debased, degraded, and utterly subservient, and yet they fix their huge hollow eyes on us with [what] looks like blades of knives,’ Vulliamy wrote.
Mladic, whom the ICTY called the genocidal campaign’s chief military organiser, was brazen about what he did. He left a trail of evidence in the form of a recording that was found behind a false wall at his residence.
The recordings included his telephonic conversations and meetings with even foreign envoys. In one of the 18 diaries recovered from Mladic, he recorded the Prijedor police chief’s request for help in removing around 5,000 bodies in Tomasic. The chief sought to burn or grind them or to get rid of them ‘in any other way’. ‘You killed them, you bury them,’ the New York Times quoted Mladic as writing.