The world is full of killing. As I write this, one thousand people die violent deaths every day in wars in Afghanistan, in Iraq, the Mexican drug war, Sudanese nomadic conflicts, the South Yemen insurgency.
But the reasons for the arrest of former Serbian leader Ratko Mladic last week were different from the killing described above. The massacres ordered by the Serb leader were not the result of one hostile force being pitted against another in a struggle of endurance and wills. Instead, the campaigns of the Serb were the deliberate actions of a national group that had taken upon itself the extinction of its rival neighbors. Such a group moves with industrialized precision, and acts with no pity, no imagination, no soul, and no regret. One immediately thinks of Hitler’s slaughter of the Jews or his wholesale murder of Soviet soldiers and prisoners.
In such cases it’s murder done for the degraded relish of murder. Ratko Mladic was thus the creature of pillage, rape and slaughter. He was a man without tenderness, without honor, without scruples or remorse. He was an engine for the infliction of pain. You cannot turn away from such a man because he is too terrible to forgive. Such a man has to be looked at and condemned in hatred for what he has done.
The crimes of Ratko Mladic unfolded in this way. In 1994, Clinton had just been defeated in major congressional elections, dogged by disgrace, when a fresh disaster was beginning to build up in the Balkans. As I wrote in my book, Clinton’s Secret Wars, in that month, a new destructive fury had begun again to sweep through the region. Within the allied alliance, all was still drift and appeasement. Even the United States had declared that NATO unity was more important than the rights and safety of Bosnia, and former State Dept. official Tony Lake had said in a draft memo that “since the stick of military pressure is no longer viable, it should be abandoned.”
Now, thanks to Ratko Mladic, the month of May saw Sarajevo experience its bloodiest fighting in 15 months. Messages of alarm began to arrive at the White House Situation room. Day by day, hour by hour, affairs grew worse. NATO and the United Nations exhibited their usual withdrawal into paralyzed indecision. They looked on while the Bosnian Serbs, who had a year before been forced by the United Nations to withdraw their tanks and cannons and mortars from the mountains and ridges surrounding the city, stood helplessly by when the Serbs suddenly came and took them back.
On May 24, Mladic used his new arsenal to unleash a merciless barrage, smashing the city with over 3,000 shells in violation of a ban the year before. In Sarajevo, a Serb shell had careened into a crowded café packed solidly with students, killing 71 people, most of whom were under 25, and wounding 250.
The UN was not only impotent, it was cowardly, and unfortunately the Serb war against the Bosnian Muslims had reached a new turning point. Mladic knew he did not have enough resources to fight a long and indefinite war and he knew he needed to conquer the Croats and Bosnian Muslims in the spring of 1995. At the top of his list of targets were the six Muslim enclaves.
By July Mladic’s forces had thrown a noose around the city of Srebrenica. The city fell on July 11, with one Dutch outpost after another taken by the Serbs. The International Red Cross (INRC) had coordinated the deportation of refugees from the city by convoy on July 12 and 13. As these had arrived, the INRC had noticed that 90 percent of the arrivals were women, children and elderly men. This was disconcerting and puzzling since this meant roughly between 10,000 to 20,000 people, mainly young males, were missing from the roles.
There was a stiffening gale of disquieting reports of mass atrocity, but there was no evidence. Then there was initial corroboration of mass executions, thanks to a man who had barely escaped being killed himself. At Tuzla in Bosnia, there were teams of U.N. workers interviewing Srebrenica refugees, and among them was a young Norwegian woman, Tune Bringa, who was taking down reported incidents of rape, stories of transport buses being stopped and young women being taken off and violated. Suddenly a man in his early forties with a bloody head appeared, shouting frantically, “I need to speak to the United Nations! I need to speak to the United Nations!” An excited crowd formed around him instantly asking, “Have you seen my brother?” Or, “Have you seen my husband?” The man shouldered them aside and yelled again, “I need to speak to the United Nations!” Bringa responded immediately. She took the man aside, and saw that a bullet had grazed his head. Speaking fluent Bosnian, she took down his story.
He had been in the stadium at Potocari when he heard Mladic taunting the Muslim men, “Where is your Alija now?” referring to the Bosnian president. He had then been taken to a school where he spent a horrific night watching Serb soldiers as they kept pulling men off trucks. He described hearing gunfire followed by screams. He was then taken by a truck to a field near Konjevic Polje where he was forced off and watched in horror as a line of men ahead of him were machine-gunned in front of an open pit of raw earth. He was next in line, and as the Serbs opened fire, he fell on top of the dead bodies in the pit. Rushing to complete their work, the soldiers ordered another line of captives forward. They were shot and their corpses covered the body of the survivor. He lay still until dark, rigid with terror at the thought that Serb bulldozers might rumble in and bury him alive in the corpse-filled pit. When the Serbs finally left, he cried out, “Is anyone still alive?” Someone was. A 17-year-old boy answered, and together they fled through the woods to Tuzla.
The man with the bullet graze on his temple showed Bringa the burn marks where his wrists had been tied with rope.
Bringa immediately understood the significance of the man’s account. In a distraught voice, she described what she had heard and asked a State Dept. official what to do, “This doesn’t belong in some drawer somewhere!” she said.
The assembled accounts were horrifying. At a place called Nova Kasaba, northwest of the city, Muslim males ranging from teenagers to men in their 60s and 70s, had had their hands bounds behind their backs, were lined up and then shot. Serbs moved among them putting bullets into anybody they thought might harbor life. One of the Serb executioners had handed his rifle to the horrified driver of a bus. “You kill one,” he ordered. Everyone was to be implicated.
For hours and hours, as more and more buses arrived, Muslim men were slaughtered like deer.
That is Ratko Mladic’s legacy written in blood and murder. I hope he likes the smell of it.
By Richard Sale, author of Clinton’s Secret Wars
(Thanks to Tune Bringa and former U.S. Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith.)