Europe’s most wanted arrested
This is a guest post by Amila Jasarevic of Amila Bosnae
On the morning of 26 May 2011, the Serbian Security Intelligence Agency arrested General Ratko Mladić. When the news first broke, it said that a man believed to be Mladić had been arrested, and that the authorities were verifying his identity. Nobody really believed it, until the President of Serbia, Boris Tadić, confirmed in a press conference that the arrested man was indeed Mladić.
My news feed on Facebook literally exploded with the news. Articles from the world press were being passed around, the news spreading like a multilingual wildfire. Europe’s Most Wanted criminal finally arrested, after 16 years on the run.
But how much “on the run” was he, really? And why on that day ? What is so different today from the previous sixteen years?
Ratko Mladić was the Chief of Staff in the army of the self-proclaimed Republika Srpska on the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina. He was first indicted with war crimes on 24 July 1995, roughly ten days after occupying the east Bosnian town of Srebrenica and giving orders for the worst massacre in Europe since the Second World War. More than 8,000 civilians, mostly men and boys, were executed under his orders. Before that, he had been in charge of the siege of Sarajevo, the longest siege in recorded history. The siege was merciless and inhumane, and more than 10,000 Sarajevans lost their lives.
Yet, up until 2001, Mladić was living and moving freely in Serbia. He was seen at football matches and dining in fashionable restaurants. He was even drawing an army pension from Belgrade until the end of 2005. More than once the media reported how “special forces” were on his track, but nothing ever happened. That’s why it was so hard to believe the news when it happened.
Shortly after the news of Mladić’s arrest went viral, I saw a status update on Facebook saying that just like Croatia paid for its EU candidature with Gotovina (which also happens to mean “cash”), Serbia is paying with Mladić. Ante Gotovina was a Lieutenant General in the Croatian army, who was extradited to the Hague in 2005. Last month he was sentenced by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia to 24 years in prison for war crimes.
The witty status update is not to be dismissed as merely a conspiracy theory. The notion that the move is motivated by political interests isn’t that far-fetched. Because what is exactly different now than in the previous sixteen years? Has the EU put a stop to any more concessions to Serbia? Is it a coincidence that the arrest came as EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton was in Belgrade to confer with top Serbian officials on their country’s road to the EU? Is it a coincidence it came just a couple of weeks before Chief Hague Prosecutor Serge Brammertz is to address the UN Security Council on Serbia’s cooperation with the court?
Member of the Bosnian collective Presidency, Željko Komšić, said to the news portal Sarajevo-X.com that today’s arrest is proof that the Serbian authorities have always known Mladić’s whereabouts, and that he is simply being traded in for a closer relationship with the EU.
I spoke with Hazim Rizvanović, 41, a survivor of Mladić’s attack on Srebrenica. At the time he was active in the defence of the city. He told me how Colonel Karremans, head of the UN force that was supposed to protect Srebrenica, on 10 July 1995 – the eve of the massacre – told the Bosnian defence not to advance on Mladić’s troops, because international forces were going to air bomb their tanks. The next day, he says, a few bombs were dropped on a little brook well off from any tanks, and Mladić simply marched into town.
When he heard about the arrest, Rizvanović didn’t know whether to believe the report or not, as there have been so many political games involving Mladić and his arrest. “My opinion as an ordinary man is that they’ve always known where he was, all the intelligence agencies. This was just a matter of waiting it out to exchange him for the best possible deal with the EU. Time will tell what they ended up getting for him,” he told me over the phone from Denmark, where he has been residing since 2000. “I don’t expect anything from the court in the Hague, certainly not any new details on who else had their hands in the genocide in Srebrenica or who stopped the defence of the enclave. I haven’t had any expectations since the courts kept records away from the public in the case Bosnia-Herzegovina vs. Serbia, resulting in Bosnia losing the case.”
Marko Attila Hoare, 38, author of three books about Bosnia and long-time observer and commentator on the situation in the Balkans, points out that we don’t know when the planing of today’s operation began and how long the Serbian authorities have known where Mladić was hiding. However, he too wonders why the arrest came when it did. “As I see it”, he wrote to me, “the Serbian establishment has long been divided between those who wanted to see him (Mladić) arrested – particularly among liberal politicians and intellectuals – because they want Serbia to join the EU, and those elements in the army and security services who have protected him, supported by the nationalists. So, the arrest suggests to me that there has been a subtle shift in the balance of forces, in favour of the liberal elements.”
When I asked him what he expected would happen in Serbia and Bosnia in the days that followed, he said “Nothing much… Most ordinary citizens don’t care about Mladić, and aren’t going to protest… There may be the usual protests by the minority of hard-liners, led by the Radicals and other such far-right elements, but this will have no effect on politics. As for Bosnia, nothing will change either; Dodik [President of Republika Srpska] will continue his long-term secessionist drive.”
It is a sad outlook that nothing will change, but probably a realistic one. Many years have passed since Mladić ordered massacres wherever he went, and those years have left a trail of disillusionment.
Sarah Correia, 36, a researcher in Political Science, is currently studying the memory of war in Bosnia and what it tells about the political situation in the country. On the morning of Mladić’s arrest, she went to a commemoration at the concentration camp Trnopolje in the north-west of Bosnia, set up for the non-Serb population. The region has been all but completely ethnically cleansed of non-Serbs. “There I could see in people’s faces the pain,” Correia writes. After returning to the near-by town of Kozarac, she heard the news. “Tears in everyone’s eyes, not so much of joy, but of surprise… a feeling of disbelief, that a moment in which nobody believed had come at last,” she says about that moment. But after the initial disbelief and joy, people just went back to going about their business, like nothing had happened. What could they expect? The very camp they visited this morning is now a school, just like it was before it was used to imprison and murder civilians. There is a monument in front of it, Sarah told me, but it’s not to the victims – it’s for some Serb soldiers who had fallen somewhere else. Memory of war is not just personal, it is a commodity fought over, manipulated and used on the political scene.
Not unlike war criminals, probably.
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