PHOTO: Bosnian Muslim woman Alic Mina cries near the grave of her son Mihrudin before a mass funeral in the village of Memici, about 30 kilometres from Zvornik, June 1, 2011. The remains of eight people, victims of an "ethnic cleansing" campaign that former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic is accused of instigating, were retrieved from mass graves in Zvornik and buried during the mass funeral on Wednesday. Mladic, extradited to the Netherlands from Serbia on Tuesday after 16 years on the run, will appear in court on Friday, according to a statement issued by the court on Wednesday. Mladic was indicted over the 43-month siege of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo and the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica, close to the border with Serbia, during the 1992-95 Bosnian war. (REUTERS/Dado Ruvic)
Now that the Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic is safely behind the bars in the Hague international war tribunal, some questions are becoming more urgent.
Where was Mladic hiding all these years? Who helped him evade justice? Why did his protectors stay silent and unpunished? Will there be a investigation and a punishment for them, too? In Serbia, in the Hague, in hell?
In 2008, Radovan Karadzic, Mladic's best-known ally and also a highly wanted war criminal, was arrested in Belgrade while posing as a New Age medical guru. Karadzic had been living undercover for years, with a semi-public persona as a quack medical expert. He often appeared in conferences and wrote for fringe medical papers.
I interviewed some people who worked or spent time with Karadzic.
Somehow I believed those rather simple-minded devotees, who burned candles to cure cancer. Surely people this gullible could not imagine that Dragan 'David' Dabic, this hoarse-voiced impostor with his gloves, long beard and white topknot, was actually Radovan Karadzic. After all, Karadzic was a blustering politician who was always clean-shaven and in dark suits.
But at one point, one of my informants from the clinic became conspiratorial. He pulled out his cellphone showing me a snapshot of the worn, thin face of an elderly man.
Do you recognize him? he asked me. At the time I had no clue, but a week ago, when Mladic was arrested with his new look as a gaunt, reclusive rural villager, I thought I recognized his face. There was also surprising news that Mladic had been seeking treatment for lymph cancer.
It's a strange addition to the Mladic legend, because, for years, most everybody in Serbia has glimpsed Mladic somewhere or other. Mladic was a mountain warrior hiding armed in the caves. Mladic was in drag as a peasant woman selling eggs in the Belgrade downtown market. He was working for peanuts as a common construction worker. He was hiding in an Orthodox nunnery after suffering a stroke. He was dead and buried in various tombs.
There also remains a tragic mystery of two young Serbian soldiers killed on duty -- they allegedly had seen Mladic and had to be eliminated. That story itself has many suspicious twists and turns, and is still pending without a plausible and honest explanation to the parents of the dead.
In the days between May 26, when Mladic was arrested, and June 1 when he was extradited to the Hague, the pace of these stories accelerated. The official stand is that Mladic was simply on the run, continually changing places and finding new circles of comrades to help him with money and shelter. In short, he just plain outsmarted the authorities, which clearly is nobody's fault!
The Serbian mainstream press has excelled in its pathological interest in the broken heart and soul of Mladic, who is clearly one of the cruelest people in contemporary history. Not only did Mladic methodically liquidate eight thousand Muslim men and boys in three days of machine-gun fire, he was particularly clever and cold-blooded about this crime. He bullied the helpless prisoners, tricked their families into collaborating in their own death program, and methodically lied to the UN officers who were there to protect the Muslim enclave. The famous picture of Ratko Mladic feeding the children with chocolates before executing their fathers has become his lasting icon.
There's also the repugnant fact that Mladic was a pious holy warrior. Pictures of the general and his soldiers being blessed by the priests of the Serbian Orthodox church were broadcast widely by the national Serbian TV in the nineties.
In my book: "Scorpions, the Design of Crime," I followed the trial of a paramilitary troop from Serbia which participated in the Srebrenica massacre. The infamous six paramilitary marauders arrested because of a movie they made, in which they executed captive civilians. This underground movie circulated as a boost to the killers and their ideology during the war. Then it surfaced in 2005 as damning evidence against the Scorpions.
Now that Mladic is old and sick and jailed, the bells of mercy and tolerance are ringing as if Srebrenica never happened. The people's hero and militant demigod is re-branded as a martyr and object of pity.
Mladic expressed a regret before going to the Hague: that he would never return alive to Serbia was to visit the grave of his daughter. This daughter committed suicide in 1994 shooting herself with his favorite gun. At the time Mladic and his allies blamed the opposition press for his daughter's despair of life. I remember journalists threatened because of texts they wrote detailing the cruelty of General Ratko Mladic. It never occurred to him, then or now, that hordes of innocent people including his daughter had died from his demonic activities.
Mladic's lawyer has already announced that he will not plead guilty. His son who visited him in the Belgrade jail with his wife announced that his father was a patriot who had diligently performed his duty.
Mladic, in prison, asked for strawberries and a doctor. Not just any doctor, but the President of a the Serbian Parliament, who is a woman from the Milosevic party, presiding over Parliament due to the bizarre power diplomacy of the pro-European Tadic government. She duly attended the prisoner and gave him a medical examination. Mladic was treated with maximum compassion and humanity, which, of course, made relatives of his victims rage with disbelief.
He also asked to visit his daughter's grave -- or, failing that, that they disinter her coffin and bring her corpse to his prison cell. This bizarre demand was a typical Karadzic-Mladic blood-and-soil declaration -- but why not bring Mladic all the coffins that he hammered shut?
Outside his prison and in the Belgrade major square, thousand Mladic supporters violently demonstrated, doing a good business with their now-standard commemorative books and T-shirts. More than a hundred would-be rioters were arrested, despite the prisoner's meek request that they keep quiet and stay out of trouble. The Serbian police seem determined to clear the streets and the path toward United Europe.
Efforts to thwart and repress Serbian war criminals have always come with a heavy cost in Serbia itself. In 2003, Zoran Djindjic delivered Slobodan Milosevic to the Hague tribunal. This bold act meant the end of criminal dominance in Serbia, but it also cost Djindjic his life. Djindjic was gunned down by a radical nationalist gang who declared themselves to be patriots killing a traitor.
How much have things changed since then in Serbia? They have changed a great deal, and never more than lately, but for every strawberry there has been a bloody coffin nail.