Three Reasons Mladic’s Trial Matters

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Why should you care that former Serbian military commander Ratko Mladic has been extradited to The Hague, Netherlands, to be tried for war crimes that he and his troops allegedly committed more than 15 years ago?

First, the slaughter. As they arrived at a refugee camp in northern Bosnia in July 1995, Muslim survivors of the fall of Srebrenica described to me one of the attacks that had taken place during their flight:

At the town of Konjevic Polje, the first group [of Muslim men and boys] was crossing a road to get to a bridge over the river Jadar when they were ambushed again by [Mladic’s forces]. At least two Serb Armored Personnel Carriers opened fire on the group. The groups following broke into the hills surrounding the town from where witnesses said they saw at least 2,000 dead (others from the first group said 3,000 had been killed or captured and that some of the bodies had been mutilated).

In total, some 8,000 men and boys were killed. The survivors delivered the news to the families of the dead at the refugee camp:

As they embrace each other, they weep. The reunited weep to be with each other, but others weep as they learn that their husband or brother or father did not make it through the 50 kilometer, 7 day exodus of as many as 15,000 fighting-age men from Srebrenica across Serb-held territory to safety behind government lines. One young man tries to cope at once with the joy of holding his family again, and the agony of telling relatives who burst into tortured wails of sorrow that their men have disappeared. His face covered with tears and his mouth filled with foamed saliva he shouts out, ‘The world betrayed us. We didn’t have any weapons. They just left us there, left us to be butchered.’

A second reason to care about Mladic’s trial is that he is European. In recent years Americans have oriented their idea of ethnic and religious brutality along the crescent of majority-Muslim countries that run from North Africa to Afghanistan. Popular religious figures and politicians argue that an inherently brutal Islam threatens to overrun an inherently civilized western culture. But in the early 1990s, before Rwanda or the al-Qaeda attacks of 9/11, brutality in the news was about white Christians killing white Muslims in a multi-ethnic corner of Europe. It shouldn’t be necessary to remind people that white Europeans have generated more than their share of atrocities in supposed defense of a supposedly threatened culture, but Mladic is a recent example of a European doing just that. When I interviewed Mladic in northern Bosnia in August 1995, a month after Srebrenica, as his forces were being routed, the general said:

Now we see an Islamic push through southern Bulgaria, Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania and Bosnia. Where will it lead? That journey can only be finished in Paris. Ask people there how many mosques they were able to see in their childhood and how many they can see now. The danger is very real because by this demographic explosion Muslims are overflowing not only the cradle of Christianity in the Balkans but have left their tracks even in the Pyrenees.

The biggest reason for caring about Mladic’s trial, though, is that it provides a warning, not so much to other war criminals as to all of us. The international community’s record of bringing war criminals to justice is not exactly intimidating and Mladic’s 16 successful years on the run don’t make it any more so. But Mladic’s crimes remind the rest of us that the fabric of society is weaker than we think.

After Srebrenica fell, the U.S. and western Europe were finally compelled to take military action against Mladic and his forces. In early 1996, Bosnia’s besieged capital, Sarajevo, was liberated and those parts that had been held by Mladic’s forces were freed. As the city reunited, I met a multi-ethnic family that had lived in hiding in Serb-held Sarajevo for more than three years because the mother was from an old Muslim family. I interviewed the family about their experiences and none of them could explain exactly how they’d ended up stuck on the Serb side of the front line as tensions had mounted in the spring of 1992 before the war started. I kept asking until finally the father burst out with fury and despair:

“How could I know that on Tuesday I would walk into town and go to the market and on Wednesday some asshole would park a tank outside my house and start shelling my home town?”

Yugoslavia had been as successful as many other European countries in suppressing ethnic hatred after World War II. 50 years later, it didn’t take much to tear the country apart.