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


  1. What about 380.000 Serbs ethnically cleansed from Croatia?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serbs_of_Croatia#Demographics  –  Take a look at the 1991, and 2001 figures in that table.

    What Mladic did was horrific, and he deserves a bullet between the eyes, not a 3 year trial, but to ones that no nothing about the war in former Yugoslavia, these sort of articles make it look like it was some sort of a good guys/bad guys movie.

    There was no real war there, just maniacs on any side of this conflict using it as an excuse to kill normal, everyday people who wanted to live and let live.  I know that because I was in the middle of it 1991-1995.

  2. what about numbers of the slain? they speak for themselves, equalizing the blame is a crime too, like denying genocides. I know that criminal minds exist everywhere and on all sides, but in this case the picture is rather clear

    1. Svi su klali i masakrirali, i svih njih treba da je sramota. Meni je i rodbine i prijatelja poginulo, a mog profesora biologije, koji nije mogao biti mirniji covjek su sjekli zivoga. Usprkos svemu tome ja znam da se prst ne upire u jednog covjeka i u jedan narod, nego u neznanje i jad koji je te ljude pretvorilo u ovce koje su dozvolile da se isto desi.

      Sve sto nam sad treba je jedna self righteous novinarka da prodaje englezima finu retoriku i emotivnu poeziju o tome sto se tamo desilo, a sama nema pojma kako je to kad ti kuca i imanje gori dok ti bjezis sa svojom familijom da spasis mili zivot.

      ‘picture is rather clear’ – to isprintaj i urami, od toga nisi mogla nize pasti

      1. Oh, man, you must really been talking a whole load of BS for them to disemvowel your whole post. ;> )

      2. hahaha,  you are speaking serbian so that the whole world can understand you!  mislis da ne znam kako je je bezati od bombi i batina, bolje da ti ne pricam, samo sto su mene jurili bas ti kojima se nije svidjao moj “righteous report”! get off my back! and keep the tone down,   or i will ask the moderator to translate your cowardly insults  and erase you…i will not tolerate  here the serbian scum comments!

      3. cinilak, Iam sorry for your losses, many of us lost someone dear in the war, I lost two members of my family. Yet while I understand your pain I do not understand your post, what does your suffering have to do with Srebernica. Yes all sides did crimes but that does not justify anything, does Vukovar justify Operation Storm? No matter who did the crimes they should answer for them and no man should be glorified for spilling the blood of the innocent.

        1.  I was merely pointing out that journalism should be kept objective. The article above wrongly  illustrated the conflict in former yougoslavia as some bad guys/good guys story. I was in no way defending a monster that conducted the slaughter of innocents, was just trying to point out that the article above was painting a somewhat unrealistic picture.

          Observe the above comments of  an “objective” journalist who first assumes that I am of a certain nationality, then proceeds to label me as ‘Serbian scum’.

      4. well, it’s rather clear that Milosevic and Tudjman sealed the destiny of those thousands that you mention and many others. They had a several dozen of secret meetings during the arranged war and agreed on ethnic cleansing and territory exchange. but in a strange Balkan twist those who suffered most still loves two of them and their heritage 

  3. >to live in peace with each other in the region will require an understanding of the past.

    Given the state of denial, how likely is this understanding?

    1.  It’s not likely at all. One reason Germany and Japan were able to rebuild and progress is that they were defeated and forcibly held accountable for their war crimes. Serbs continue to paint themselves as victims, which only means that they’ll continue to start wars. Is it a coindicence that Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo all split from Serbia?

  4. Jasmina- as usually, heartfelt and thoughtful commentary on the situation in the Balkans. 

    Regarding the violence of this period, I believe there is another way to understand what happened.  Some cutting edge scholars are trying to put these events into a context that is not nationalist in nature, while still revealing the damage done…  I just finished this book, about the period before the first world war (this is one of my mentors, BTW):


    It’s an excellent take on the late Ottoman period and supposed “primordial” national identities (hint, not so primordial as we are led to believe).

  5. Another interesting post by Jasmina, but two points bother me.

    1) You don’t actually mention that Serbs killed Bosnians during the war in question. You refer to Bosnians only as “ex-Yugoslav”, and you use the term “Bosnia(n)” only when referring to Bosnian Serbs or the Serbian part of Bosnia.

    2) The Yugoslav army did not defeat “the Nazi genocide”. The Allies halted it. In fact, the Serbian government and the Serbian Orthodox church initially colluded with the Germans, leading to the deaths of the majority of Serbia’s Jews by 1941, far earlier than anywhere else in the Balkans (resistance by Serbian citizens was quickly suppressed). Only later did Serbia become a victim of the Germans, and of course that’s what Serbs remember. This is thoroughly detailed in the book Serbia’s Secret War by Philip Cohen.

    Thanks for acknowledging that most Serbs today are still in denial about the crimes committed in the name of their people.

    1. Poupular uprising against Nazi occupation in Balkans started in July 7th 1941 in Bela Crkva, central Serbia. The Axis occupied Yugoslavia and Serbia April of 1941. First liberated territory in Nazi occupied Europe was Republic of Uzice, in west central Serbia, in autumn of 1941.


      Serbia had a colaborationist goverment in WWII headed by gen. M. Nedić. He commited suicide in 1946 while in jail avaiting the sentance for treason.

  6. As for Serbia, it would be fair to present the actual facts about Serbian current public oppinion on the matter as well as official stance. Mladić is in the Hague, his boss Karadžić as well, both were arrested and shipped off not by some Alied intervention force but by Serbian goverment, elected at democratic elections. Milošević himself was first toppled by a popular uprising of Serbs, and then arrested and extradited to the Hague by Serbian goverment.

    At the moment, after the last recent elections, the only political party publically taking nationalist (patriotic as they claim) stance, DSS, has 7% percent of parliament seets, and 5% of electorate. The strongest opposition party SNS, is led by people who supported Mladić and his bunch in 90ies. However, they managed to get to this position only after making a political U turn and publicly denouncing their own nationalistic past. They too stand at 15% of electorate. Contrast this to public support to far right in EU countries. For example Fides in Hungary, The Finns in Finland, or Marine Le Pen in France.

    Ex party of Milošević SPS, did well in elections indeed, it stands at about 15% of parliament seats and 10% of electorate. They too had to denounce their own policies and involvement in war. Turnout at last elections was 57% to 60% percent.

    President of Serbia publicly appologized to victimes of wars in 90ies.

    What more are Serbs supposed to do exactly?

    Full disclosure. I am a Serb, proud of it. Not proud of people like Mladić or Milošević, certainly not proud of their war crimes or of Serbian involvment in Ex-Yugoslavian wars. I have spent most of my teenage and student days opposing their policy by actively participated in street protests trying to bring Milošević down in 96/97, 99 and 2000. I was simply too young for protests of 91 and 92. I haven’t lost anyone in wars myself.

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