War Crimes trial for Ratko Mladic begins in The Hague

Photo: Jasmina in a former prison. "Despite the scale of the facility, it was densely crowded once." Shot by Bruce Sterling.


This morning, The Hague tribunal commenced the trial of Ratko Mladic, ex commander of the army of the Serbian republic in Bosnia. Mothers of the slain gathered in front of the court.

Twenty years ago, Mladic started his criminal activities, while still an officer of the army of disintegrating Yugoslavia. A year ago, Mladic was arrested, after years of concealment, mostly within Belgrade. Today Mladic, aged 70, is sitting in the court neatly dressed as a civilian, without his legendary military cap.

As the judge reads the indictment, Mladic cheerily waving to the audience and even applauds certain parts of the recitation. "The wolf loses his hair but not his character," as the Serbian proverb puts it.

The indictment precisely proceeds as a short elementary lesson of the bloody fall of Yugoslavia.

Ratko Mladic is facing 11 charges: ethnic cleansing, genocide, crimes against humanity, torture, sexual violence, the wanton destruction of the urban fabric of Sarajevo, and so forth.

The maps of the indictment are a trail of blood. The borders of these maps were the major outcome of the Dayton peace treaty of 1995, signed a couple of months after the genocide of Srebrenica.

A witness appears to describe the concentration camp where she was systematically raped. I didn't even look at their faces when they would enter the room or go out. They had killed my whole family: I was the only survivor. I was just asking the same question day after day: why?

These people lived together for centuries, and then, in a burst of bloody disaster, some became criminal nationalists when their neighbors, now demonized as Others, had to be annihilated at their hands. There is little going in the Hague courtroom that wasn't described by Hannah Arendt during Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem in 1963.

It outdoes Hollywood, though. Angelina Jolie’s recent movie, "In the Land of Blood and Honey," is a pale replica of this horror reality-show, live from the Hague.

This trial of this soldier is haunted by the conspicuous absence of the late Slobodan Milosevic, the civilian leader. It was Milosevic who transformed General Mladic's Yugoslav army into an instrument of ethnic cleansing.

This much-respected people's army, which had defeated the Nazi genocide and the Fascist occupation, had stabilized Yugoslavia for decades. But, thanks to the machinations of Milosevic, the remnants of this once honorable force, now a micro-state Serbian militia, were liquidating civilians en masse in Srebrenica. Eight thousand ex-Yugoslav men and boys were executed there in three days. The UN protected enclave fell, Mladic raved, lied, and had the Moslems rounded up, confined and shot, while the "international community" turned its attentions elsewhere.

A host of movies, books, and heaps of material evidence didn’t bring justice to that dismal place, which today is a tourist center of crime, but also, still, an ethnic-Serb territory within the Dayton maps. Those who were killed there dwell only within the vast cemetery, so to that extent, Srebrenica was a lasting Mladic victory.

The JNA, once a popular national army, became experts at black operations. Special forces of paramilitary killers, the shadow forces of intelligence services and the mafia, took on themselves the worst burdens of cruelty. Their policy was raiding, arson, robbery, killing, expulsion and rape -- to terrorize all civilian populations that weren't Serbian, leaving a Greater Serbian nation to expand where the victims had fled for their lives.

The capital of this expansionary scheme was Belgrade, but the Bosnian Serb militias headed by Mladic were always formally autonomous and plausibly deniable.

In Belgrade, I lived in the same street with a couple of those notorious criminals: we shopped at the same bakers, and our children went to the same schools. In Belgrade, we were not sniped-at, shot or shelled, we looked peaceful; and the covert war did not touch our streets until it fell from distant jets in the air, in the NATO bombing.

Twenty years later, today, I can ponder the dreadful fates of people I knew, or saw, or lived with, who ripped their country apart to march to power over the bones of their neighbors.

The central mastermind died behind the bars in the Hague. Two major stars are under trial now. A bunch of minor ones are serving sentences. My neighbor, the professor turned war profiteer, committed suicide as a Shakespearean antihero. But there were thousands of others whose activities were just as bloody and sinister, who still live in Belgrade, shopping, sometimes reminiscing over the bad old days.

The Serbian population is still living in denial, and other nations have learned to let this new nation do that. Twenty years have passed, a period longer than the distance between Eichman's Nazi crimes and Eichman's trial. There are other wars nowadays, other covert, armed operations, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, the Sudan, where the lessons of destabilization, pioneered in the Balkans, have been fully modernized.

Even the political party of Milosevic has managed to rehabilitate itself nowadays. They did well in the recent Serbian elections, mostly through ignoring their heritage and talking about Serbia's modern troubles, which are many.

As for me, I follow the trials, and I sometimes write about them.

After twenty years, a new generation has arisen on the bloodily divided ground. They are innocent, but to live in peace with each other in the region will require an understanding of the past.

That past lives in the details of the Hague court's indictment: the snipers in Sarajevo, civilians mortar-blasted in the marketplaces, women raped, children killed, and much of this mayhem cynically described by the killers in their own documents, a host of private conversations and public interviews exposed to the world.

In the dock, Mladic is industriously taking notes as his prosecutor describes his war-crime strategies. I wonder what Mladic has to say to himself? His diaries have been published and translated: his daughter committed suicide during her father's battles. What does this 70 year old have to say to history? One of his favorite quotes is well-known in the record: “Whenever I come to Sarajevo, I kill.”

The word is power and the silence of the dead is loud.

Jasmina Tesanovic