Ratko Mladić will die in jail. But go to Bosnia: you’ll see that he won

The Guardian, 23.11.2017
Edward ("Ed") S. Vulliamy, periodista y escritor anglo-irlandés
  • I revealed the camps where mass-murder and rape took place. But the Serbian warlord is still adored in the statelet from which non-Serbs were banished

General Ratko Mladić, the most bloodthirsty warlord to strut European soil since the Third Reich, will die in jail. Any other outcome after today’s verdict in The Hague would have been preposterous.

The mothers of the more than 8,000 men and boys mass-murdered in Srebrenica, over five days in the summer of 1995, have every reason to welcome the sentence of life imprisonment, and Mladić’s conviction for genocide: the only judicial standard by which that crime can be rightly measured.

But for all the back-slapping by human rights organisations and lawyers, there is a dark cloud under which the majority of those who survived Mladić’s hurricane of violence etch out their lives, and that shrouds the memory of those killed, or are still “missing”.

I testified against Mladić, as well as his political counterpart Radovan Karadžić and seven other defendants, at The Hague: mostly to give evidence on the network of concentration camps I revealed in this newspaper in 1992 – along with an ITN crew – and the litany of mass murder, ethnic “cleansing”, rape and destruction that followed over three bloody years.

Today I spent time on the phone to survivors. Beyond those bereaved by Srebrenica, not one shared in the celebration of Mladić’s conviction.

Prisoners at Trnopolje camp in Bosnia, one of the camps Ed Vulliamy and ITN revealed in 1992. (ITN)

He faced two counts of genocide: one for Srebrenica, the other for what happened in the “municipalities” elsewhere in Bosnia. Here serial atrocities were committed by troops under Mladić’s direct command over those years, while the international community dithered, and worse. The whole idea of the Hague tribunal was as much an act of contrition for that failure as it was ambition for international justice. Mladić’s pogroms included more mass-murder, torture, mutilation and rape, in the camps at Omarska, Trnopolje and Keretem in north-west Bosnia. To the east, in Višegrad, civilians – including babies – were herded alive into houses for incineration, or down to a bridge to be shot, or chopped into pieces, and hurled into the river Drina. Then there was the wholesale demolition of countless towns and villages, and the “cleansing” of all non-Serbs, by death or deportation; the razing of mosques and Catholic churches; the gathering of women and girls into camps for violation all night, every night. And the rest.

None of this, apparently, is genocide. Mladić was acquitted on that count. This raises the question: then what is?

Among those in The Hague to hear the verdict was Kelima Dautović, who survived the Trnopolje camp while her husband was in one at Omarska, and lost many of her extended family and neighbours in the levelling of her home town of Kozarac in 1992. “It’s so disappointing, but hardly surprising,” she says. “Maybe they didn’t want to call it genocide because it happened under the eyes of the international community that was there, supposedly protecting us. Whatever, I hope the historians do a better job than the judges.”

Among the more outrageous farces along the tribunal’s long and winding road was the  incarceration in 2015 of one its former senior officers, Florence Hartmann, for her subsequent journalistic coverage of Srebrenica, with reference to material sealed by the court. Hartmann, who from her cell could see Mladić taking daily exercise, observes today that “no genocide in history happened over five days in summer. Genocide is a process.”

She notes that unlike in other verdicts, the role of Serbia itself has been entirely omitted: “The verdict has stripped genocide of ideology, history and international context.”

It’s a good point. Human Rights Watch celebrates the fact that the verdict sends “a message to those in power around the world who are committing brutal atrocities, whether in Burma, North Korea, or Syria”, as preparations begin for prosecutions of war crimes in Syria.

But who exactly will be brought to justice? Mladić is a warlord, and better jailed than free. But, as archbishop Desmond Tutu has rightly asked: where was Tony Blair when it came to justice for the ruins of Iraq, to which one might add the names Cheney, Rumsfeld et al? Will justice in Syria be similarly “stripped” to exclude Assad and Putin, and whoever in the regime of our ally Saudi Arabia is arming Islamic State and bombing Yemen? Should that former darling of the human rights movement, Aung San Suu Kyi, be expecting an indictment?

The Hague tribunal’s remit was in part judicial, but also to “promote reconciliation” in the Balkans. Well, there is none. Mladić got largely what he wanted: a Bosnian Serb statelet from which almost every non-Serb was banished in 1995, to which only a bold few precariously return. He is adored, his portrait adorns bars and office walls in Bosnia and Serbia, his name sung at football matches.

Even the chief prosecutor at The Hague, Serge Brammertz, acknowledged that “conflict and atrocities can gain a logic of their own”, and life in Bosnia is more sectarian now than at any time since the war, all sides settling into the comfort zone of mutual hatred – which is, incidentally, financially lucrative to the political class leading all of them. Mladić is no doubt a furious man, but he can start his sentence with the satisfaction of a mission in no small part accomplished.

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