What Mladic's Arrest Means for Bosnia and the World

For years, the Serbian general killed and terrorized whole swathes of Southern Europe with impunity. What does his capture mean for those still haunted by his crimes against humanity?


Dzugas Hanifa poses at the graves of her two sons, daughter and husband in Memorial center in Potocari near Srebrenica. Dado Ruvic/Reuters

In many ways, Ratko Mladic puts other war criminals and wanted fugitives - even terrorist masterminds like Osama bin Laden - to shame. The Bosnian Serb general has committed the worst kind of genocide and ethnic cleansing on the continent since the Holocaust, killing thousands and terrorizing a whole segment of southern Europe's population. He represents European and American inability to stop mass murder: it was not his massacre of over 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica that triggered the eventual NATO intervention, but rather a subsequent market attack in Sarajevo and a car accident that killed three American officials on Mount Igman. Why did the world react to one kind of violence but tolerate another? As the late Richard Holbrooke wrote at the time: "[M]y mind drifted back over the many failures of Western leadership over the last few years and I hoped -- and prayed -- that this time it would be different."

The rest, as they say, is history. Mladic and his co-conspirator Radovan Karadzic evaded capture for well over a decade, a travesty of international justice even as it was widely known they had help from their Serbian backers and lived among the population in disguise -- Karadzic became a mystic healer donning a Rasputin-like beard. The Serbs, in that sense, are the Pakistanis of the Balkans in their hear-no-evil-see-no-evil-like stance towards Western peacekeepers. So what does Mladic's capture mean for the thousands of displaced Bosnian Muslim victims still haunted by his crimes against humanity? To understand Bosnia better, a few years back I volunteered at a summer camp in Brcko, a polyglot city in northern Bosnia. Some analysts called it "Bosnia's Kirkuk," not because of its oil, but because of how disputed it once was between Bosnian Croats and Serbs. Mass graves were found not far from the town's center. The nearly dried-up riverbed that runs through town is rumored to still be pockmarked with unexploded ordnance. And rows of squat brick housing -- makeshift homes for Bosnian families still internally displaced from the war -- still line the city's outskirts.

Before the 1990s, Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks regularly intermingled and intermarried. When fighting broke out, because of its strategic location near the border, Brcko became a prized possession given special status after the 1995 Dayton Accords ended the war. It remains the only place in the region whose political institutions are ethnically mixed by decree. The experiment has worked, though only up to a point. A local policeman and fingerprint specialist I spoke to said that because of Brcko's strict hiring quotas, government ministers are often unqualified or incompetent.

Trying to stamp out ethno-nationalism, even somewhere as harmless as summer camp, has proved daunting. Most campfire songs were rock tunes from the communist era, not the Gypsy-tinged folk songs one might expect. I remember singing "The Whole of Yugoslavia Was Playing Rock 'n' Roll," a song that brings new meaning to the term "campy." Even while Bosnian teenagers remained mostly oblivious to the ethnic divisions that divided their parents, sensitivities persist. When the cook (an ethnic Croat) asked the no-pork table at the cafeteria if it was the "Muslim table", one of the campers took offense and snapped that they were not all Muslims. Boys learned about the heroism of their fathers who fought and as a result found their own lives to be devoid of meaning and patriotism. At camp, it was prohibited to talk about war, but the issue of identity kept creeping up. To flirt with a pretty French girl, a Bosnian Muslim teenager shouted at her, "Allah is great!" Yet for many younger Bosnians, the role of religion seemed to owe itself more to nationalism than to faith. After the war, mosques and churches damaged in the war were rebuilt less to provide places of worship than to serve as political symbols and territory markers.

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Indeed, the legacy of Mladic is the artificiality of ethnic divisions, or what the political scientist John Mueller called "the banality of ethnic war." Politicians intensify these cleavages for political gain, not because of any longstanding or ancient hatred, a myth whipped up by some Western observers who preferred inaction to intervention (George H.W. Bush's Secretary of State James Baker famously said that Washington did "not have a dog in this fight"). The effects are still felt today. Mladic and his genocidaires were instrumental in making the responsibility-to-protect a bedrock principle of customary international law. A case could also be made it was the guilt from NATO members' inaction, even as they knew Mladic was massacring Muslim men by the thousands, which motivated the NATO bombing of Tripoli sixteen years later. The West would not pay witness to an "Arab Srebrenica."

Of course, this may be wishful thinking. There will be future massacres and war crimes that go unpunished. And tensions in the Balkans are hardly a thing of the past. As one Bosnian woman told me at the time: "We don't love each other, but we tolerate each other." But multi-ethnic cities like Brcko hold out signs of hope that ethnic reconciliation is not out of reach. Just over a decade after this area lied in ruins, teenagers from warring ethnic factions now toss water balloons at each other, not grenades. Young Bosnians sip espresso, chain smoke and nibble on chevapi (mince meat) in the town's cafes. And a glassy new mall swells with shoppers. Sure, most bars and restaurants are still segregated by sect, but the local courts, schools, and government institutions are by law intermixed among Bosniaks (Muslims), Serbs and Croats. When Karadzic was nabbed a few summers back, no angry mobs took to the streets in protest. Unlike in Belgrade, in Brcko I saw no graffiti comparing pro-EU Serbian leaders to Judas. Even the Old Bridge in Mostar - Bosnia's crown jewel, destroyed by Croat forces in the early 1990s - has been rebuilt and again throngs with tourists and high-divers.

Like Bin Laden's death for Americans shaped by 9/11, Mladic's capture poses an existential question for Bosnians: does this event mark the end of the war? Even though his arrest may not mean as much today among younger generations, Mladic had become the symbolic face of ethnic cleansing, of evil, and of the war, his ability to elude arrest a slap in the face of European values and justice. Similar to the aftermath of Kadadzic's arrest, do not expect widespread protests, only silent vigils for the victims of Srebrenica and other massacres. Yet for the international community, Mladic's arrest is a reminder of the lessons taken from Bosnia: even the calmest of countries can devolve into an ethnic tinderbox seemingly overnight and that tensions are stoked by political and military operatives, not the product of age-old hatreds. As former ambassador Warren Zimmerman observed in his 1996 memoir, "Many people in the Balkans may be weak or even bigoted, but in Yugoslavia it is their leaders who have been criminal." As such, it is the responsibility of Western powers to prosecute and punish those who use ethnicity as a tool of subjugation and violence, in Belgrade as well as in Benghazi.

That Mladic is finally headed for The Hague is a reason to cheer. Let's hope be will be joined soon by Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, Sudan's Omar al-Bashir and other wanted war criminals.