(PHOTOS / REUTERS. At left, in 1993: Bosnian Serb army Commander General Ratko Mladic (L) salutes.)
The self-proclaimed "God of genocide" in Srebrenica, the Serbian ethnic general Ratko Mladic was arrested today in a small village eighty kilometers from Belgrade.
Mladic sheltered there with a relative, and lived under a false name. For years on end he hid like a house-mouse, and was arrested with a similar meekness.
Old, docile, with one hand crippled, the formerly ferocious warlord lived peaceably and invisibly in a house that had been searched repeatedly by the Serbian police. This long-wanted war criminal and exceedingly successful fugitive from justice had a 10 million euro award on his head.
And yet, recent polls say that, despite the suffering and ignominy he brought them, 51 percent of Serbian citizens would not have given him up to the international war tribunal in the Hague. No, not for any money. Serbian stubbornness has gone beyond the period of Mladic's bloodstained hero-worship. Nowadays the Serbs have grown indifferent to Mladic while actively resenting the European Union, whose economic disorders have made Serbian life miserable.
And yet it appears that somebody did betray Mladic for the reward: someone among his circle of close friends. Some years ago, an entire group of people, who were all accused of actively sheltering Mladic, were released from a Serbian court through lack of evidence.
(Above, Mladic (C) arrives at special court in Belgrad, May 26, 2011. Bosnian Serb wartime general Mladic was arrested in Lazarevo in the early hours on Thursday after years on the run from international genocide charges.)
After his arrest, only a few drunken people gathered before his hideout, and also in downtown Belgrade: the usual hooligan nationalist bands. Mladic was taken to the special court of war crimes in Belgrade to be interrogated. But this effort was interrupted because of the former general's "difficult psychological and physical condition."
Mladic seems to have been babbling, but he managed to say, according to his lawyer, that he does not recognize the war tribunal in Hague, and will not plead guilty or innocent. He was armed with two pistols when he was arrested, but he gave himself peacefully.
Who will pick up the 10 million euro reward? How much prosperity did Ratko Mladic cost Serbia over these 16 years? These money issues are the big questions in Serbian press. Although the police said they will not take a penny, they did their regular job.
As a further financial twist, the state still owes the general his regular pension, which he never received (as a fugitive). Handsome lump-sums have paid by and to the other citizens of the state — mainly, blood money for his victims.
And what about the dead? Do they have a price? Gone without a name, many of them still without graves since their bodies, dismembered and scattered all over the territory are still being sought. The silence of the ghosts is loud as ever in this moment of joy and victory.
More recently, European pressure has intensified from the Hague tribunal; on June 6 the Serbian government faced a grim report from Serbia by Serge Brammertz, citing them for non-cooperation with the United Nations. Europe is experiencing many difficulties, but Serbia, like a tin can tied to a cat's tail, suffers them even more so.
The primary obstacle to Serbia's European harmonization is and was, of course, the genocidal war criminal Ratko Mladic.
We citizens of Serbia all knew that Mladic was hiding among us in Serbia; don't ask me why, but we never believed the many tales spread about his death or his exile. Given his modest rural circumstances, he was concealed more discreetly than the Pakistanis hid Osama bin Laden — but the parallels there are obvious. Mladic had his protectors in the covert wing of the government, and the Serbian government is traditionally an enterprise in which everything is covert, and yet everybody knows. Ask them not why they turned him in, but why they delayed until today.
A couple of years ago, Radovan Karadzic, the mastermind of the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, was arrested in downtown Belgrade. Dr. Karadzic had been hiding under a long beard as a New Age quack guru. Witnessing this travesty on television, my aged father said: Ratko Mkadic is a soldier! He will never do a thing like that! He will rather commit suicide than humiliate himself in that manner or get arrested by police! Mladic will never go to The Hague!
The same myth of fearless valor was running for the late president of Serbia, Milosevic who actually was arrested and died in The Hague. Milosevic was a close collaborator with the Bosnian Serb warlords, Karadzic and Mladic, in surpressing the Muslim population of Bosnia.
This demon dream team of Balkan genocide: Milosevic, Mladic and Karadzic, were all destined for The Hague. They were playing chess with one another in the anteroom of justice, waiting for a sentence longer than their lives. Only death could bring them peace and liberation. Radovan Karadzic sent immediately from the Hague a message to arrested Mladic: I am sorry this happened, but I will help you out, we will work together for the truth!
Some years ago I wrote a book on genocide in Srebrenica, the largest single war crime in Europe after World War II. My first question, after analyzing the design of crime was: how did they manage to exterminate eight thousand people in a couple of days? How could they hide thousands of bodies from the international community, from the people present there, from the bereaved families?
After the recent capture of Osama Bin Laden, Ratko Mladic was the fugitive number one in the world. The US president Obama said he was happy Serbia perfomed its duty. The world press is giving all the credits to the pro-European government of president Boris Tadic, and his determined policy to pull Serbia away from the criminal past.
Today in Serbia even the radical right wing opposition is officially pro-European. No one in or near power aspires to dirty their hands with the Balkan wars; that brings no benefit. Modern Serbia has a cult of tennis stars rather than warlords. These Millennial adults have won some credibility, since they impress the outside world, without any taint of the distant 1990s.
The mothers of Srebrenica victims declared themselves contented with this turn of events. They expected it many years ago; but better later than never. These women have learned to be deeply suspicious of the tribunal in The Hague; the international lawyers there declared their prize mementos and personal evidence to be bulky and useless; unfit for a modern court proceeding. So much for their cherished mementos of their dead, their hoarded proofs that the vanished dead had really lived, that they were murdered.
A moment of justice is commonly liberating for the offended as well as the criminals. But the moment of truth even more so. There is no justice without truth. The arrest of Ratko Mladic and his adamant transfer to the Hague tribunal will be a litmus test for this universal and ancient motto. And for our globalized world of crime and punishment.