In Still-Fractured Bosnia, Ratko Mladic's Awful Legacy Lives On

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The Serbian war criminal and former general was arrested on Thursday, but the scars he left some 15 years ago have not yet healed

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A Muslim woman mourns by the coffins of 775 newly identified victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. Marko Djurica/Reuters

The shadow of Ratko Mladic and the crimes he committed has hung heavy over the Balkans for more than 15 years. I was a child when the Bosnian war broke out -- only nine when Mladic and his troops of Serbs massacred more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys and forcibly removed some 25,000 women and children from Srebrenica in 1995. But, upon visiting Bosnia as a young journalist 13 years later, the wounds left by Mladic and the war in which he fought seemed barely mended; some still gaped open. And now, while Mladic's arrest might pave the way for a stronger Serbia -- certainly one more welcome in the international community -- Bosnia remains in a precarious state, with much reconciliation yet to be achieved.

At the end of the war in 1995, Bosnia was formally divided into two political entities: Republika Srpska in the north, which is majority Serb, and the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in the south, which is home to many more Bosniaks and Croats. My first stop in Bosnia was in Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska, a region where the legend of Ratko Mladic looms particularly large. In the book They Would Never Hurt a Fly, a series of profiles of Balkans war criminals, author Slavenka Drakulić writes that, in the mid-1990s, "Serbs from Republika Srpska ... saw in [Mladic] a father figure, somebody who protected and sheltered them." She describes Mladic as "brutal and arrogant, convinced of his own military genius" -- and, at the height of his career, as "the most popular person in Republika Srpska."

I arrived in Banja Luka in March 2008, less than a month after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. There were rumblings in Republika Srpska that the region, long a bastion of Serb nationalistic sentiment, should follow suit, seize its autonomy, and break from the south once and for all. Although Mladic might have preferred a different outcome to the war altogether, it seems likely that this is the arrangement he, once the commander of the Army of Republika Srpska, would want for the Bosnian north.

When a local journalist and I met in Banja Luka with leaders of the self-proclaimed independence movement, I sat on a low couch in a small, messy office, my recorder rolling, as Dana Čanković explained vehemently in Serbian why Republika Srpska should stand on its own. "[T]he simple fact [is] that Serbs have the right to do it," said Čanković, the garrulous leader of the secessionist group Choice is Ours, which had hosted rallies and collected tens of thousands of petition signatures.

But the discontent of many Serbs in Republika Srpska stretched beyond the political, and it reflected more than what had just happened in Kosovo. Their ambition, it seemed, was still tied up with the same ethno-religious divisions that had been at the heart of the war in the early 1990s. Signs of this fact were everywhere: The city's mosques had been destroyed in the war, and they were only slowly being rebuilt. The journalist I was working with also pointed out Serb nationalist graffiti sprayed by vandals on the side of one of Banja Luka's few Muslim community centers.

Today, many in Republika Srpska, including some in the region's highest offices, still want secession. What's more, regional officials have accused the Bosnian state of stealing its political powers, and, just this month, they backed a referendum that would challenge the legality of Bosnia's national court, which prosecutes war crimes suspects. The international community's high representative to Bosnia, Valentin Inzko, openly opposed the move, but he also said in an interview that he was "not very optimistic" about the situation. In mid-May, the regional government agreed to hold off on the referendum -- for now.

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Seyward Darby is a freelance writer based in Connecticut and a former online editor for The New Republic. More

Previously, she was an assistant editor and correspondent for Transitions Online, a magazine based in Prague.

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