Ratko Mladic is off. He has eaten his strawberries; watched popular programmes on Serbian television; visited his daughter’s grave in Belgrade; and now it is time to join his mate Radovan Karadzic in Hague to answer a few questions. I wouldn’t have thought General Mladic would have managed to finish the Tolstoy novel (what could it have been? War and Peace?) he requested following his arrest in Serbia. Never mind; he will have plenty of time to read it (or any other classics he might fancy) in Hague; because time is one thing, health permitting, General Mladic will have aplenty.
The ‘psychopath’ has joined the ‘psychiatrist’. The psychiatrist, in Hague for the last 3 years after he was ferreted out of Belgrade in 2008, faces 11 charges including genocide. Mladic is certain to face similar charges for the deaths of more than 7000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995; and without doubt, the 44-month siege of Sarajevo by Mladic’s forces which reportedly resulted in deaths of 10,000 civilians will feature prominently in the charge-sheet against him.
Mladic was on the run for sixteen years since he was first indicted by the War Crimes Tribunal in 1995. During the presidency of Slobodan Milosevic, he appeared openly in public in Belgrade and seemed to almost relish his avatar as the-fugitive-about-the-town. When Milosevic was deposed following the disputed presidential elections in 2000 (and subsequently packed off to Hague to face charges of war crimes), Mladic disappeared from the public view. Europe’s ‘most wanted war criminal’ was eventually captured in the small Serbian village of Lazarvo (conveniently enough) just as the chief prosecutor of the Yugoslav war crime tribunal, Serge Brammertz, was about to deliver a withering verdict on Serbia as the country went about determinedly and diligently not finding Mladic.
The end to the manhunt for General Mladic couldn’t have been more different from that of the other infamous fugitive, Bin Laden, in Abbotabad, Pakistan (probably because the Americans were not overtly keen on capturing Bin Laden alive). ‘Good work,’ Mladic is supposed to have remarked when the Serbian Special forces arrived at the doorsteps of his cousin Branko’s house in Lazarvo, in the early hours of the morning of 26 May. ‘You have found the one you wanted.’ The ‘Butcher of Srebrenica’ was polite to his capturers and allegedly asked his cousin to serve the men ham, cheese and plum brandy.
One wonders whether General Mladic was being ironical (do psychopaths—Serbian psychopaths to be precise—get irony?) when he complimented the arresting force upon their ‘good work’. One wonders because, according to some newspaper reports, the arrest of General Mladic—who still (allegedly)enjoyed considerable support amongst the Serbian army and intelligence service—was the result of a year long negotiations and brokering. What eventually convinced the general to turn himself in was the assurance from the Serbian government that his wife and son would not face an uncertain future and he would get a decent burial.
That’s what it came down to in the end: an old man, his physical health wrecked, wishing for a decent burial and a future for his only surviving child.
In the 1990s Yugoslavia descended into a bloody disintegration as each republic of its motley assemblage, kept tenuously together for thirty odd years by the Communist dictator, Marshall Tito, chose to be free from what they saw as the Serbian dominance and embrace free market; that was the plan. As each republic escaped control of Serbia, the region plunged into increasingly gruesome ethnic conflict, the worst and bloodiest of which was reserved for Bosnia and Hercegovina where Bosinaks (Bosnian Muslims), Croats, and Serbs, for centuries the three ethnic groups of the region that is landlocked on all sides except a narrow strip along the Adriatic coastline, sought to stake their territorial claims. As in Croatia, the Serbs wanted to remain with Serbia while the Bosinaks and Croats (who formed an alliance based on the century-old dictum of ‘enemy’s enemy is my friend) wanted independence.
The three (amongst many) men who played—to put it neutrally—a significant role in these conflicts which saw deaths of tens of thousands (if not more) were: Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Serbia between 1989 and 1997, and, bizarrely—after Serbia lost control of Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia-Hercegovina—the president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from 1997 until his deposal in 2000; Radovan Karadzic, the psychiatrist turned politician and the political leader or the Bosnian Serbs during the multi-ethnic conflict that gripped the region in the 1990s (also the first president of the Republika Srpska, the Serb-controlled region within Bosnia); and Ratko Mladic, the high ranking officer of the Yugoslav People’s Army who became the Chief of Staff of the army of Republika Srpska (Bosnian Serb Army).
(Partners in Crime: Mladic and Karadzic)
Milosevic was sent to Hague in 2001 where five years later he died, allegedly of a heart attack, a few months before the judgement would have been passed on him; in other words, before he was convicted.
Karadzic was arrested on a bus in Belgrade 2008 and is currently in Hague trying, as he says, to blow away the myths of Bosnia.
Now General Mladic, the last of the key-player in the Balkan conflict of the 1990s, is nabbed.
With the arrest of General Mladic, the last of the triumvirate, Serbia, at any rate the Serbian government, will be hoping to finally move on. Upon learning that his erstwhile Chief of Staff (with whom he had had an uneasy relationship through the Bosnian war) was arrested in Belgrade, Karadzic issued a statement from his cell in Belgrade: he was sorry to hear that General Mladic was caught but now that he was arrested, he (Karadzic) was hoping that the two of them would bring out the truth of what really happened in Bosnia.
The European media (including the UK) has taken a great deal of interest in General Mladic’s arrest. BBC described him, in one of its news bulletins, as a ‘man without a conscience’—the archetypical psychopath. Such epithets, besides being (probably) inaccurate serve no purpose other than demonising the man. Whether Mladic is a demon (figuratively speaking) is a matter of opinion. This post is not about either defending or dissing Mladic, about whom, at any rate, I knew not a great deal till recently. Neither had I taken a great deal of interest in the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s (till NATO started bombing Belgrade), which, as a friend put it—no doubt paraphrasing a certain American right-wing comic writer—, was all about people whose names you couldn’t pronounce fighting with people whose names you couldn’t spell.
I was however curious about the use of the phrase ‘having no conscience’.
I also wondered (no doubt an after-effect of having read a book about the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir-apparent to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in Sarajevo in 1914, by a group of Bosnian Serbs (but not only them), which triggered the catastrophic (and largely pointless) First World War) whether the actions of Mladic, Karadzic, and the late (and unlamented) Milosevic, couldn’t be better understood as an extreme (and unpalatable) form of Nationalism rather than putative sinister bends in their character make-ups.
Let’s look at the first issue. Mladic (as were Karadzic and Milosevic) was married, for all outward purposes, happily, for a long time; and his wife (and his son) are standing by him when, one imagines, the pressure on them to denounce him must have been considerable, seeing as Mladic has become persona non grata with the current political establishment in Serbia. Indeed, according to newspaper reports, it was the future of his family that was foremost on Mladic’s mind when his surrender was negotiated (allegedly).
Mladic also had a daughter, named Anna, who was a medical student in Belgrade. This daughter, the apple of Mladic’s eye, killed herself in Belgrade at the age of 23, at the height of the Bosnian war. Mladic was reported to be distraught at her death. It is not clear why the daughter killed herself, but according to some reports she became increasingly distressed by the rumours floating about in Belgrade that her father was going to be indicted as a war criminal. This was a year before the Srebrenica massacre, but the infamous siege of Sarajevo, by that time, had entered its third year.
All of this suggests that Mladic is a family man who cares deeply for his family. Can psychopaths have genuine tender emotions?
But then Mladic has attracted epithets such as ‘monster’ (although in his first court appearance in Hague he described the charges against him as ‘monstrous’) and ‘psychopath’ not because of domestic violence but because of violence the forces he commanded are alleged to have unleashed on the civilians in the Bosnian war.
A non-violent war is a contradiction in terms, but the rules of engagement dictate that ‘laws and customs’ of the war should be respected. This means that acts such as destruction of undefended cities, towns, properties and violent acts against civilians (I think this probably qualifies for crimes against humanity) etc. are ill countenanced. (This is a rough guess; I haven’t read the Geneva Convention due to demands on my time, so have referred to a BBC article instead.)
What General Mladic is certain to be charged with (amongst other things) is genocide—the most severe of the war crimes: ‘act(s) committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.’
The concepts of ‘war crimes’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ are relatively recent, post Second World War, when the horrors of the Holocaust and the Japanese prison camps came to light. This was originally a European concept, developed by the victorious allies of the Second World War (although I should guess that Uncle Jo Stalin wouldn't have had anything to do with it).
As I understand it, at the heart of these concepts is the rejection of the idea that individuals can't be held responsible for the action of the nation’s soldiers during the war.
So the War Crimes tribunal came into existence in the middle of the twentieth century, when a bunch of European countries fought a cruel war and decided that such cruelties should not be carried out in future wars, anywhere in the world. (We have done it; we know how bad it is; and we do not want any nation in the world to do it.) A concept perhaps not appreciated in those parts of the world where the traditional meaning of the word ‘war’ is embraced: it is in the nature of wars to have horrors.
There was an article published in the Guardian in which the author—who also let it be known, by the bye, that he was in the process of writing a book based on the experiences of the survivors of the Bosnian war (presumably Bosinaks)—was a hollow victory because Serbian society does not feel apologetic about what happened in Bosnia (even though Serbian parliament passed a resolution apologizing for the Srebrenica massacre), the implication being Serbia is in some sort of collective denial about the heinous crimes of its army. Indeed, after reading the article you’d be excused for thinking that the whole of Serbia was afflicted by ‘psychopathy’.
Which, of course, is nonsense; however, there is no point denying that in certain sections of the Serbian society, Mladic is a hero, as was apparent by the demonstrations organized by the Serbian Radical Party when the Serbian government went ahead with his extradition to Hague, which was attended by thousands.
Maybe in the eyes of some in Serbia, Mladic is a hero, not a war criminal. Why might this be? There could be several reasons. Let’s list them. (1) They do not know of Mladic’s alleged war-crimes. (Very unlikely, this. It is inconceivable that there is even a single Serbian who has not heard of ‘Europe’s most wanted war-criminal’ and why he was on the run.) (2) They have heard of Mladic’s alleged war crimes, but choose not to believe them. ‘The kind-hearted Ratko Mladic? Nah,’ they might say (shaking their heads), ‘he wouldn’t hurt a fly.’ (3) They feel mightily miffed that the Serbian has been deliberately targeted for (alleged) war crimes. This argument may go something like this: all sides involved in the conflict committed atrocities, not just the Serbs (shorthand for Serbian forces). Why are we being singled out? As they say, you are not really paranoid when they are really after you. (4) They believe that Mladic was protecting / defending / safeguarding—whatever words you prefer—the Serbian interests in the region. It was a civil war situation, and it is hardly surprising that Mladic and his forces showed no mercy to the enemy; because the enemy, had he got half a chance, wouldn’t have shown mercy to them. The civilians on the side of the identified enemy (the argument might go) were fair game, because they had after all voted for independence thereby directly harming Serbia’s interests. (5) They are all (like Mladic) psychopaths who suffer from congenital conscience deficit and take pleasure in killing people.
After reading one of the Guardian articles you may end up with the making the following equations: Serbs = biggest baddies, the Nazis of the Balkans; everyone else = victims; Bosnian Muslims = biggest victims. (I am not necessarily saying that such equations are always misleading but they are more likely to be misleading for no other reasons than that centuries-old conflicts, which erupt (like one of those volcanoes in Iceland) can never be captured in broad brush-strokes.)
The truth is likely to be contained somewhere between reasons listed under 2, 3 and 4. (and let’s not forget that despite the official arms embargo by the West on all the warring factions, it has been alleged that the American intelligence first secretly aided Croatia it its ‘war of independence’ against Serbia and, later, supplied arms to the Bosinak army by making a pact with –hold your breath!—Iran. With the weapons came the radical jihadist philosophy and the Western Intelligence began sweating about the radicalisation of the Bosnian army in Sarajevo.)
The message that surely comes through from the Balkan conflict, as from the Iraq invasion (and from Belgrade bombing, and from the Second World War, and from the First World War) is that there is no such thing as a kind war (despite the repeated assurances of Toni Blair prior to illegal Iraq invasion). When countries go to war, bad things happen to the civilians who get caught in the conflict.
I have never read or heard about a war that I thought was a civilised war.
This is not to defend or justify (or deny) what Mladic’s forces are accused of having done, but stating the obvious. In Europe we like to think that we are somehow superior and more civilized than, say, the Africans, where various tribes wreak unspeakable havoc on other tribes during the civil war situations. We feel uneasy when we read about similar atrocities taking place in our midst. There is then an unquenchable thirst—almost as unquenchable as the thirst of the perpetrators of crimes—to show to the rest of the world that despite what happened in the wars, we are a civilised continent, and we shall prove it by relentlessly hunting down the Karadzics and Mladics of this world and won’t stop our hand-wringing until justice is seen to be prevailed. Only then can the righteous can sleep easily.
Only the naives would think that such procedures, however noble their aims, would prevent another ‘atrocity’ happening. That is because the definition of ‘war atrocity’ is different in different parts of the world, and not everyone subscribes to the European definition. The tribunal is ‘international’ only in the loose sense of the word. Its authority is not recognized by many countries: for example, the USA, which has refused to sign the treaty, claiming that the tribunal can be used for politically motivated prosecution. (Interestingly, in his five year trial, which ended without a verdict—because he died—Slobodan Milosevic had repeatedly made the same argument: his trial was politically motivated. What Milosevic was implying was the only reason he was facing the charges was his country lost the Balkan war and his (political) enemies won.) India, the biggest democracy in the world, has refused to sign the treaty; as has China, the emerging superpower of the twenty-first century; as has Russia.
There is also the case that in certain parts of the world, for reasons that are too many and complex to go into here, the International War Crime Tribunals in Hague has little to no credibility. If ‘wanton destruction of cities, towns and villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity’ or ‘attacks or bombardment of undefended towns, villages, dwellings and buildings’ or ‘destruction or wilful damage done to institutions, historic monuments, works of art and science’ are considered as war crimes, then I can’t see how what happened to Belgrade in 1999, Iraq in 2003, and Libya in 2011 cannot be considered as war crimes? Why is deliberate bombing of ‘enemy’s’ television stations or bombing in areas where you know civilians are known to be living not considered a war crime? Almost all aspects of a state’s infrastructure are considered as legitimate military targets, and their ‘wanton destruction’ is not considered a war crime. Why? How does one differentiate between ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘collateral damage’? Slobodan Milosevic went in front of Hague, even though he personally probably did not kill a single Bosnian, because as the President of Serbia he was held accountable for the actions of the Serbian army and forces in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Fair enough. Will Toni Blair and George W Bush ever be made to face their crimes in Hague? Will rats venture out of sewers?
It is also interesting to see the tone of the media. In their eyes Mladic is guilty, as is Karadzic, as was Milosevic, although, technically, he must be assumed innocent until proven guilty; that is, you might say, the difference between the civilized nations and the uncivilized ones. (Dehumanising of Mladic has already begun. He was reported as belligerent, defiant, unrepentant, and even smirking towards the Srebrenica women—present in the gallery—during his first court appearance. When asked to confirm his name he apparently puffed up his chest and said he was Ratko Mladic. What else was he supposed to do? Cower under the table and whisper that he was war criminal Mladic? The buffoonish BBC correspondent, John Simpson—who is about as subtle as a belch and who has insatiable craving for giving himself a role in any drama he is covering—reported that Mladic gave him an ‘unpleasant salute’ (as if Mladic remembered who the fat-arse was). All of this serves, I think, the important purpose of insulating us from the horrors some of us can’t quite believe humans are capable of.) Many believe that Mladic is guilty. And there is no doubt that thousands died in Srebrenica and in the three year siege of Sarajevo. Denying these things is on par with denying Holocaust.
Ratko Mladic has a case to answer, and, unless he shuffles off this mortal coil (like Milosevic), he will be found guilty and spend the remainder of his life in prison. But is he a psychopath? Is he a monster? I don’t know. (Radovan Karadzic might be able to throw some light on the matter by giving Mladic the ‘Psychopath Test’. Before he rose to prominence as the political leader of Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic was a psychiatrist, having obtained his medical degree from the University of Sarajevo and having had experience in Columbia University. His special interest was apparently neurotic disorder and depression. But then can one depend on the report of a man, who, when he was working in the Sarajevo hospital, was known to issue false certificates to the hospital employees who wanted to take early retirement on grounds of poor mental health? Also, it might be argued that there is a conflict of interest here seeing as Karadzic is a psychopath himself.)
Mladic was the chief of the Bosnian Serb army during the multi-ethnic conflict in Bosnia and Hercegovina. They were extraordinary times in the Balkans and his country; his people were in the thick of it; he was, as he saw it, protecting his country’s interest; he was defending his own country; he wasn’t bombing or invading a country that had done nothing to harm his country in order to get his grubby hands on the oil reserves, mouthing wholly mendacious platitudes about democracy and civil liberties. He was prepared to go to any length to further the interests of his country. In the process the forces under his command did terrible things (that’s the accusation), considered as ‘war crimes’ by the Geneva Convention. But that is not the reason why he is in Hague. The reason Mladic is in the dock is that Serbia lost the war.
Mladic is a sufferer and incurable case of malignant Balkan nationalism; but that is for another post.