By Colin McIntyre
The curtain has come down on one of Europe’s darkest episodes since World War Two as an international tribunal sentenced a former Serbian general — the “Butcher of Bosnia” — to life imprisonment for war crimes including genocide.
Ratko Mladić was convicted last week of orchestrating the murder of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak) men in Srebrenica in 1995, and the deaths of thousands of other civilians in the capital Sarajevo during a 1,500-day siege by Serbian troops.
The trial by the United Nations-backed International Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which heard testimony from nearly 600 witnesses, was regarded as the most significant war crimes case since the Nuremberg trials following World War Two.
After the 530-day trial, during which Mladić was often disruptive and once made a throat-cutting gesture to the mother of one of the victims, Judge Alphons Orie said the crimes “rank among the most heinous known to humankind and include genocide and extermination.”
The verdict for the 74-year-old former armed forces chief of staff came some 18 months after the ICTY handed down a 40-year jail sentence on Radovan Karadžić, the political leader of the Bosnian Serbs in their attempt to carve a Serb state from the newly-independent former Yugoslav republic.
The massacre led to soul-searching in the international community.
The Srebrenica massacre occurred when Serb troops overran a U.N.-declared “safe zone” in Bosnia as lightly-armed Dutch peacekeeping forces looked on helplessly.
It had immediate repercussions as NATO planes bombed Serb military positions in Bosnia, bringing an end to the bloody war in the region that left an estimated 100,000 dead and leading to the 1995 Dayton agreement that divided Bosnia into two mini-states, a Serb and a Bosniak-Croat entity.
It led to the resignation of the entire Dutch cabinet three years later after a Hague district court ruled that the Dutch peace-keepers were responsible for the deaths of some 300 Bosniak men who had sought refuge in their compound in Srebrenica and were handed over to the Serbs.
However, the court ruled that they were not responsible for the slaughter of thousands of Bosniak men who fled the compound for the woods and hills outside, where they were hunted down by Serb troops.
The massacre also led to soul-searching in the international community, particularly at the U.N., about the wisdom of setting up so-called “safe zones” in war zones without authorizing enough troops to guard them and giving them a mandate to use force if required.
Introducing a self-critical report by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 1999, a senior official said:
”Through error, misjudgment and the inability to recognize the scope of evil confronting us, we failed to do our part to save the people of Srebrenica from the Serb campaign of mass murder.
”These failings were in part rooted in a philosophy of neutrality and nonviolence wholly unsuited to the conflict in Bosnia.”
“Mladić’s guilt is his and his alone.”
While the verdicts on Karadžić and Mladić have been welcomed in Bosnia and abroad, there is little indication that they will change attitudes in the region, where the extreme nationalist Bosnian Serb entity threatens to become independent and the Bosniak-Croat one remains an uneasy mix.
In the village of Lazarevo, where Mladić was finally captured in 2011 after 15 years on the run, during which he was often spotted at football games and Belgrade restaurants, he is still regarded as a war hero. In his home village of Božanovići, there is still a street named after him.
Serbia has complained that the vast majority of ICTY decisions have been against Serbs, rather than against Bosniak and Croat military forces, and have accused the tribunal of handing out justice as victors against the vanquished – one of the main complaints against the Nuremberg trials.
Announcing the decision on Mladić, chief prosecutor Serge Grammertz was quick to insist that it was not a verdict against the Serb people. “Mladić’s guilt is his and his alone,” the prosecutor said.
As for where Mladić is likely to serve his sentence, one possibility is the United Kingdom, one of the countries that has signed up to the tribunal’s agreement on enforcement of sentences and which has hosted a number of Serb convicts from the ICTY.
However, he might be aware of the case of Radislav Krstić, sent to the UK in 2004 after becoming the first person to be convicted of genocide by the tribunal. Krstić was attacked by three Muslim inmates in his jail and barely survived.
Colin McIntyre led Reuters coverage of the end of communism in Eastern Europe as chief correspondent in the region in the late 1980s. During 34 years at Reuters, he covered the last days of the Vietnam War and was posted to Indonesia, Ireland and London.