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

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


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.

Then there's Sarajevo. Unlike in Republika Srpska, Mladic was anything but popular here during his bloody career. "Mladic was the person who kept Sarajevo besieged for three years," Drakulić wrote. "Twelve thousand people were killed in Sarajevo before he withdrew his forces." She added, "In Sarajevo, people who know him told me that he is a frightful person."

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I first arrived in Sarajevo early one gray March day at the bus stop on the outskirts of the city. I decided to walk into town, past the famous Holiday Inn that had housed international journalists during the war. It was still riddled with the pockmarks of bullets, like so many other walls and buildings in the city. The sidewalks bore holes from shells, later filled in with red resin and termed "roses." A few days later, I stood near the end of the Sarajevo tunnel, which had been used to transport supplies during the siege, above a spot where a grenade had ripped through a concrete floor, killing several people. The carcass of the explosive was still lodged in the ground next to my feet. I also snapped a photo of a message, an older scar left in the war's aftermath, that had been scrawled on the wall of an apartment complex: "Bog je ljut na Sarajevo" -- God is angry at Sarajevo.

In the city, I met with two Bosniak journalists -- women who were as young as I during the war, and whose families had suffered both during the conflict and after, when ethnic prejudices continued to plague Bosnia and Serbia. One of the women said there was a bureau in her apartment that still bore the marks of grenade or shell shards -- I can't remember which -- from sometime during the siege of Sarajevo. The other, who fled Kosovo in 1999 when Belgrade turned its war-waging there, said her mother, who at the time was in the hospital with an infection, was forced out by Serbian troops simply because she was Muslim. When the daughter, my journalist acquaintance, returned later, she became ill after drinking from a tap. It was contaminated, she was told, by dead bodies left in the nearby water source. She called it "death soup."

I happened to be in Sarajevo on Easter Sunday that year, and, because the two journalists were writing a story about an interreligious choir that practiced at a Catholic church, we attended mass. It was the first time either of the women had seen the ritual. For an outsider like myself, the choir and the presence of two Muslims in a Catholic space provided a heartening moment -- a hint, admittedly small, of a better Bosnian future. But in the years since that trip, the country has been wracked by one political crisis after another. Today, months after the most recent elections, the country has yet to form a central government, in large part because of wrangling among Bosnia's three main ethnic groups. "Further erosion of the state, its institutions and the rule of law will push Bosnia and Herzegovina into deeper crisis and instability. This could also have negative consequences for the entire region," Valentin Inzko, the international envoy to Bosnia, said in early May.

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In many ways, the challenges of a fractured Bosnia, struggling to reconcile the rifts torn wide in the 1990s, were encapsulated Thursday in people's responses to Mladic's capture. Many Bosniaks expressed joy or relief -- though often noting that it took far too long to find him, and that it might take years more for him to be brought to justice. Some Bosnian Serbs, however, were angry. "I feel sorry for Mladic, he was a real Serb," one told The Guardian. "He will be a Serb forever."

To be sure, Mladic is solely responsible for neither the Bosnian war nor the ethno-religious tensions in the region. Nor is every disagreement in the country today a direct result of what happened in the 1990s. Yet Mladic, along with the forces he commanded, played a singularly powerful and cruel role in seeking to permanently entrench hatreds and divisions in Bosnia's national psyche and geography. The country still reels from that violent effort today -- and it's not clear when it will be fully healed.