Echoes of Mladic's cruelty felt in wounded Bosnia

May 26, 2011 - 4:58 PM
Bosnia Ratko  Mladic reax

Bosnian Muslim woman Hatidza Mehmedovic says her prayer in front of the wall written with names of victimes of Srebrenica masacre at the memorial center Potocari near Srebrenica, 170 kms north east from Sarajevo, Bosnia, on Thursday May 26 2011. Gen. Ratko Mladic, the brutal Bosnian Serb general suspected of leading the bloody massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys, was arrested in an early morning raid Thursday May 26, 2011 in Serbia after more than a decade hiding from genocide charges, the country's president said.(AP Photo/Amel Emric)

The shadow Ratko Mladic cast over Bosnia persists nearly 20 years after he led Serb military forces in Europe's bloodiest conflict since World War II. Bosnia's Serbs revere him for his devotion to their failed cause, its Muslims are repulsed by his cruelty, and the soul of the capital they once shared peacefully has been scorched forever.

Sarajevo and all of Bosnia are a sadder place — dysfunctional, rent by hatreds sown during the war that will last for generations. Mladic, who was arrested Thursday after 16 years as a fugitive, has loomed large from the first artillery barrage his forces directed at Sarajevo's citizens from the hills above the city, on a sunny day in April 1992.

Before the war, Sarajevo's live-and-let-live attitude had exemplified the ideal of what was then Yugoslavia. Serb, Croat and Bosniak interacted from cradle to grave. They intermarried — according to the 1991 census a year before the war began, 51 percent of Sarajevo's marriages were mixed.

They celebrated each others' birthdays and jointly mourned at funerals, No place was off limits to anyone, and the city was abuzz with multiethnic art, music and literature that made it the cultural capital of Yugoslavia.

The city remained tolerant even as the country began to fray along ethnic lines, but by early 1992, both Bosnia, one of Yugoslavia's former republics, and its capital were pulled into the vortex.

Sarajevo's civilians huddled in basements to escape Mladic's artillery as he reveled in his power. "Burn their brains," he bellowed as his men targeted the nearly defenseless city from the hills above.

At war's end three years later, Sarajevo was a burned-out shell.

For most Muslim Bosniaks, Mladic shares the blame along with Slobodan Milosevic, the late Yugoslav strongman, and Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader now being tried by the U.N. war crimes tribunal at The Hague.

Bakir Izetbegovic, the son of wartime Bosniak leader Alija Izetbegovic, described Mladic as a coward who massacred thousands but had "no courage to face charges."

Many Bosnian Serbs, however, were dismayed by the capture of Mladic, the man they once hoped would accomplish their dream of secession from Bosnia and union with neighboring Serbia. Now Bosnia is split into a Serb republic that still seeks independence — a goal that helped spark the war — and a Bosniak-Croat entity opposed to a split.

"Most of the (Bosnian) Serbs support Mladic and perhaps half of Serbia does too," declared Tijo Mladic, Mladic's first cousin from the village of Bozanovici in eastern Bosnia where Mladic was born.

"I'm furious," said a resident of Lazarevo, Serbia — the village where Mladic was arrested. He identified himself only as Zoran for fear of retaliation.

"They arrested our hero," Zoran said, though he and other villagers insisted they had no idea Mladic had been living in their midst.

Backed by the government in Belgrade, and supported internationally by Russia out of a sense of historical grievance, Bosnian Serbs often were more aggressively nationalist than their cousins in Serbia itself. At the same time, they played a cynical game of talking about peace, lifting and then reimposing the blockage of Muslim towns, and acting the victim.

Many Bosnian Serb leaders saw the war as a harsh but necessary means to achieve their goals. But the barrel-chested Mladic, a former Yugoslav army officer, appeared to relish in using the conflict as a stage for bloody excesses — including, most infamously, the taking of Srebrenica.

Just hours before ordering the massacre of thousands of men, women and children at the Bosnian town in July 1995, Mladic handed out candy to the town's children. He even patted one on the head. Television images of that scene documented his cynicism to the world.

Mladic's arrest was "too long coming," said retired Adm. Leighton Smith, who as commander of Allied Forces Southern Europe led implementation of the NATO no-fly zone over Bosnia and the bombing campaign.

"I never met him, and I never referred to him as 'general' because I thought he was a butcher and an animal," Smith said from his home in Pinehurst, N.C.

But Mladic was idolized by his troops — and Bosnian Serbs in general who feted him as a hero born to save the Serbs from Bosniak domination.

Reporters crisscrossing front lines and venturing into Serb-held Bosnian villages were challenged to down a glass of burning plum brandy to Mladic's health, regardless of the time of day. Refusing was not advisable.

For outsiders, Mladic was a popinjay; arrogant, cold and dismissive. In his olive fatigues and stiff campaign cap, he delighted in insulting and keeping waiting European and international peace negotiators.

To his Bosniak victims, he showed no compassion, referring to them as Turks because of their Muslim heritage. Under his command, villages were "cleansed" of Croats and Muslims. Rape became a weapon of war. Neighbors burned neighbors' houses and farms. Internment camps that recalled the concentration camps of the Nazis reappeared on the European landscape.

Serbs, too suffered. Their villages were also ethnically cleansed, and their women raped by an enemy that was sometimes Bosniak, sometimes Bosnian Croat.

Still, in terms of numbers in a war that left 110,000 dead and 10,000 still missing, the main victims were the Bosniaks targeted in Sarajevo, Srebrenica and elsewhere by Mladic and his loyalists with a criminal energy that sometimes defied description.

Many of his soldiers pledged to follow him to the death. In a macabre pilgrimage, young men from Serbia drove for hours from Belgrade on the weekend to man guns commanded by Mladic on a mountain redoubt in Pale. They would see a cloud of smoke, hear the boom of their shell exploding below, and shout with glee.

In the valley under those hills, Sarajevans suffered for days, weeks — then months and years. Food became scarce, then drinking water and gasoline. Anesthetics ran out, and the hospital began amputating limbs mangled by shrapnel without them.

Old women bent by the load of water canisters on their backs were easy pickings for Mladic's snipers. Journalists, aid workers and other outsiders caught up in the war by their jobs also became targets.

Daily trips became normal on "Sniper Alley" — a main thoroughfare easily reached by a Serb rifleman's bullet that was the fastest path from Sarajevo's east to the west. Reporters made white-knuckled drives in and out of Sarajevo over those hills controlled by Mladic, their cars sometimes just ahead of the machine gun bullets throwing up dust behind them.

Once, Sarajevans rushed a helicopter painted in U.N. peacekeeper white thinking it was bringing food in — only to be scattered by a hail of hand grenades thrown from the chopper. It was a Serb chopper, painted white.

The joy sparked by Mladic's capture Thursday was tempered by the memories of the horrors that sit deep in the psyches of those who suffered because of him.

Architect Safet Basic spoke of "a boy who picked up a loaf of bread as it was distributed, then sat on the sidewalk and told me he has to share the loaf with five more people in his household — but he keeps daydreaming of opening his mouth and stuffing the whole loaf into it at once."

Basic shuddered as he recalled "the rotten biscuits" distributed by local and U.N. aid organization.

"The expiration date was years ago, but we ate them. They stunk. And the fish from that can. Every day the same meal. That ugly canned fish.

"I ate it, but it also ate me."

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George Jahn, who covered the Bosnian war, can be reached at http://twitter.com/georgejahn

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Associated Press writers John Daniszewski in New York, Aida Cerkez in Sarajevo and Andrej Cukic in Lazarevo, Serbia, contributed to this report.