Soft on Mladic?

'Never again,' right Europe?

Thursday I was excited to see the photo of none other than Ratko Mladic on the cover of the IHT at the newsstand; “he’s been caught,” I thought, “just like Karadzic a few years ago.”  Of course, he hasn’t, and the article spends far too much time on summarizing the case against the general, although there are a few intriguing (and I mean that very literally) details, such as how his men communicated:

As the former protector described the process as it worked in 2006, they discarded mobile telephones and SIM cards 4 kilometers, or 2.5 miles, from their gatherings in crowded places where they could easily blend in. Meeting face to face, they hardly spoke, discussing protection logistics by exchanging written messages that they burned.

But the meat of the matter is up in the lede:

But a softening by several European countries on whether his arrest should be a prerequisite for Serbia’s admission to the European Union is raising questions about whether he will ever face justice.

The idea that Europe would soften their stance on Serbia is repugnant not only to any idea of human rights, but also to the survivors of Srebrenica (and Sarajevo, Visegrad and any other campaign in the Bosnian War). If you don’t believe me, go watch the excellent BBC documentary A Cry from the Grave and its follow-up, Srebrenica: Never Again? I challenge anyone who feels like Mladic is “yesterday’s news” to sit through the whole documentary — particularly the segments in which former UN interpreter Hasan Nuhanovic describes being separated from his family by the Dutch with a quiet, incandescent anger —  and then argue that relenting on the search for Mladic is justifiable under any circumstances.

If that fails to convince, let me allow the Bosnian Serbs to sum up their own position in their own words, through a remarkable interview that Croatian-American New York Times reporter Chuck Sudetic relates in his book Blood Vengeance. The New York Review of Books review is archived on reviewer Mark Danner’s website.

It merits a full quote here.  The narration is Danner’s; the interview Sudetic’s.

Those Serbs that survived, now homeless, penniless, unable even to bury their mutilated dead, made their way to Bratunac. It was there, in 1996, that Sudetic interviewed Mihailo Eric, a remarkable Serb from Kravica:

“After the Christmas attack, when the people from Kravica were refugees in Bratunac, the menfolk were bitter, weren’t they?”

“They were angry…”

“What did they say?”

“Revenge…. They said, ‘Kad tad. Kad tad, sooner or later our five minutes will come.'”

“…And the opportunity finally came.”



“Yes, blood vengeance.”

“Did they come for you?” [He nodded.] “They were excited?”

“Yes. Yes.”

“What did they say?”

“They said, ‘Grab your gun and come down to the soccer field.'”

The soccer field at Bratunac, that is, whence the Dutch hostages heard “a great deal of shooting.” Much of that firing was done by men like Mihailo Eric. As it happens, though, Mihailo himself, a war hero, a man who had been gravely wounded, shot through the forehead earlier in the fighting, refused to take part in the massacre. As he tells Sudetic,

“It’s one thing to kill someone in battle, and it’s something else to kill prisoners, men who’ve surrendered and have no guns.”

“And have their hands tied?”


Mihailo’s attitude, of course, was unusual; had it not been, the war would have been fought very differently. During Sudetic’s interview he and Mihailo were interrupted:

The door behind me swung open. A man with a construction worker’s beer belly stumbled in. He had a ruddy complexion, light eyes, and light hair. It was Mihailo’s father, Zoran; he had been a member of an “obligatory work brigade” called to Bratunac on the day the killings began. We stood up… The father sat down in Mihailo’s chair, and Mihailo stood behind him leaning against a wall.

“Was it honorable to kill them all?” I asked the father.

“Absolutely,” he said. “It was a fair fight.”

Mihailo stared at me from behind him with a forlorn look in his eye.

“Absolutely,” the older man said again, and he turned to the woman: “Get some more brandy.”

In Bratunac, in Kravica, one suspects that the father’s view would be the accepted one. For him, Mladic’s victory over Srebrenica offered an opportunity, a chance to end the cycle of attack and retribution. Having finally conquered the enclave, would one then hand back to the Muslim leaders seven thousand men of military age (who, even if they weren’t soldiers, could easily take up arms) so they could then, or at some point in the future, rejoin the fight—the fight, that is, to regain the homes they had just lost? What, after all, had losing his home done to Zoran Eric and the other survivors of the Muslim attack on Kravica?

No, the moment must be seized, for future survival’s sake; and even Mihailo, though he stood aloof from the killing, freely admits he understands the feelings that lay behind it.

“And they killed all of them [Sudetic asks him], everyone they could?”


“And the Muslims in the column who escaped across the road? They held them up…as long as they could so that they could get some men together and have one more crack at them, didn’t they?”

“They came around looking for volunteers.”

“Did guys from Kravica go?”

“They wanted to kill as many of them as they could.”

“So they could never come back? So there would not be enough military-age men left to fight their way back?”

“Never,” Mihailo said.

The raw motives for ethnic cleansing laid bare: never come back.  Never.  Going ‘soft’ on the hunt for Mladic is letting Zoran Eric’s idea of justice to permeate 21st-century Europe. For many policymakers, the morass of the Balkans sows confusion and there’s always a tendency to do the easy thing, which is so rarely the right thing. Serbia will never be able to rehabilitate properly if Mladic’s capture doesn’t remain a priority, and throwing EU euros at it won’t change that. In fact, I’ll argue that it will enrich and empower the substantial portion of the population who think like Zoran Eric. Many of these young men were on display last week in Genoa and Belgrade. What is their vision of a future Serbia, and does the EU want to condone it?

If France, Germany, Belgium, and Greece cave in on considering EU membership for Serbia in Luxembourg on Monday, they will continue to make a shameful mockery of the lives lost in the Balkans from 1990 to 1999, and do a modern democratic Serbia no favors — Tadic himself says that Serbia (or at least the Serbia that his Democratic party represents) will continue to hunt for Mladic.  Will the EU insist on a lower standard than the present leadership of Serbia?  One hopes not.  Stand up for something, Europe.  At least Srebrenica succeeded in shaming the Dutch into not being pusillanimous.

Greece, of course, would like nothing better for Mladic and Srebrenica to be swept under the rug.  But perhaps this is because Greeks themselves participated in the taking of Srebrenica.  Takis Michas, a Greek journalist with outstanding credentials, has written about that and is now being sued for speaking the truth, by none other than the same reactionary core who wish to rob Macedonia of a name.  Keep reading for more about that.

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5 Responses to Soft on Mladic?

  1. You know me—no fan of international justice. The thing about Zoran Eric’s argument, such as it is, is that it makes perfect military sense. These are the realities of modern warfare: that to win you must commit atrocities.

    This is not to say that Mladic is not a war criminal and that Srebrenica was not a genocidal massacre. It’s to say that to deal with this through the institutions available to us is grossly inadequate. The chance to have justice served was lost when the war was prematurely halted and Serbia was allowed to snatch a sort of victory from the jaws of defeat at Dayton. Only through the complete and utter destruction of the Republika Srpska and the reintegration of the Serbs as a constitutive people of Bosnia could the the massacre of those in Srebrenica in any way be relegated to the past. As it stands, even if Mladic is caught and hung by his testicles in the center of Sarajevo, it will mean precious little as Bosnia continues to fester and deteriorate.

  2. HNB says:

    In some aspects I agree with you. On the savagery of war: one thing so many modern writers about the Balkans miss is that “ethnic cleansing” was very much a feature of the “Europeanization” of the Balkans as the Ottoman Empire fell apart, most notably in the total Hellenization of Thessaloniki (formerly host to one of Southern Europe’s largest Jewish communities, as well as a sizable Slavic community, which the Greeks will never admit) and massive population transfers between Greece and Turkey. And of course such things happened routinely in early modern Western Europe.

    But it’s not enough so say “war is hell.” That’s irreconcilable with “never again.” If this is going to be a 21st century European problem, it has to be solved in a 21st century European way, which is to say very slowly, through a lot of painful consensus and compromise, and no shortage of bureaucracy. After yesterday – with the Dutch having a veto right at every step of the process – this seems to be underway. As long as they don’t get bored with it some years down the line. Given the humiliation they suffered at Srebrenica, they could ironically end up being the Bosnian Muslim’s best friends in the near future.

    I agree with you that, as you’ve written elsewhere, that the existence of the Republika Srpska is a monstrous monument to the violation of human rights. But you can’t go back to 1995 and re-start Operation Storm. I honestly don’t know if the Bosnian Serbs will ever consider themselves more Bosnian than Serbian. I doubt it. But for now it looks like they’re choosing to keep both sides at bay, since obviously Dodik will not ever shut up.

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  4. I don’t know why you’re at all sanguine about the European way. The Balkan wars of the 90s so confounded a Europe up its own ass about having transcended petty national squabbles that it took the United States to put them on a workable course. The European way was a colossal failure of understanding and action which did much to exacerbate an already brutal conflict. Since the Americans have been diverted elsewhere, the European way has done absolutely nothing good for the region. The European way has indeed allowed Bosnia to get to the sorry state it’s in today, given as Europeans are legalistic pedants and think that Dayton is somehow holy writ. They can’t even conceive of a world in which the leadership of Bosnia’s Serbs—and very likely Tadic himself—are hostile to the spirit and the letter of the Dayton Accords and are actively looking to undermine it.

    No, you can’t roll back the clock and start a war again. But Serbia is fucked and its only way out of fuckdom is eventual integration in the EU. The EU has the upper hand here and they can turn the thumbscrews on the Serbs with impunity. They can declare Dayton to be a farce, declare RS to be an abhorrent cancer on the region, scrap the Bosnian constitution and call a new convention of all the peoples to design a centralized, proper state. Yes, the Serbs would scream bloody murder and the Russians would join the chorus, but believe me war would not erupt.

    This is what the EU-as-legitimate-global-power would look like, how an actor with a sensible plan for a messed up aftermath would boldly proceed. But we all know the EU is a fucking sad, pathetic joke—a senescent, gelded, mildly retarded non-actor.

  5. HNB says:

    I’m not sanguine about it; just somewhat resigned. The US, with global commitments elsewhere, will not be taking the lead in this, as Hilary’s trip just showed us.

    But don’t cast me as some kind of Euro-optimist: the whole point of this post was to draw attention to the fact that Monday European leaders would meet to discuss possible EU accession for Serbia, and whether Ratko Mladic’s capture should be insisted upon. As I thought, most of Europe was ready — wrongly — to try and put the ugly past behind them. Part of this is probably fueled by mere apathy; perhaps it is also fueled by a wish to put their own shameful role in the carnage that resulted as the result of the breakup of Yugoslavia in the past as well. I’m cautious of trusting the Europeans on this — that’s why I crowned the post with a photo of what for me (and probably many others) symbolizes perfectly Europe’s blindly and willingly playing into the hands of monsters: Dutch Col. Thom Karremens toasting General Mladic after handing over all the boys and men of Srebrenica to Bosnian Serb forces.

    My hope about any kind of “European way” would be that a very slow approach, combined with a constant military presence, would turn Bosnia into a place more like Cyprus, in which Serbia would have so little to gain from partnering with Bosnian Serbs that they would stand to gain more interacting with other Bosnians. You could say that much the same has happened with the more virulent Croats in Bosnia’s Federation — yes, there are some political groups in Hercegovina that might welcome union with Croatia proper, but their voices will not be heard in Zagreb anytime soon. Croatia has too much to gain to listen to them from EU membership — or so they think — to listen to them.

    Like in Croatia, the carrots and sticks of EU membership were, and remain, a powerful driving force in Macedonia, which came to brink of Bosnia-style violence and partition in 2001. NATO and the US did indeed take the lead role in disarming rebels and implementing the Ohrid Accords soon thereafter, and there was much griping on both sides. A popular referendum was held on a part of the accords that called for devolving some state authority to local authorities in fall 2004, and it failed miserably. Earlier that same year — knowing, I’m sure, that the referendum was on the table — NATO’s mandate was given over to the EU. (In many cases the actual troops remained the same.) Now, it wasn’t pretty, and there was the occasional provocation to violence or extreme political misbehavior, but to date Ohrid has held strong and fighting has not resumed. I realize Bosnians’ wounds are far deeper and the situation more complicated, but what’s to say it wouldn’t work there as well? Given even that Tadic and Serbia proper are much better organized and connected than the Kosovar leadership in Pristina is to Western Macedonia’s?

    I don’t dispute that America took the lead role in the Balkans after shameful European dithering and international malfeasance. But I’d caution you against saying simply “Europe bad, America good.” It did, after all, take America some eight years to actually bomb Belgrade, and there was no small amount of hand-wringing about whether we should commit ground forces to a fight that we famously didn’t have a dog in, to paraphrase then-Secretary of State James Baker.

    Bosnia will need eventual radical political reform. Will the EU take the lead in it? It would be interesting to see. You’re right: they probably don’t have the appetite to take on the Russians. But with US backing? I don’t know. We’ll see.

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