Ratko Mladic Capture Helps Balkans Move Forward
It surprised almost no one that Ratko Mladic, the most wanted man in Europe, turned up Thursday living in a quiet Serbian village an hour’s drive from Belgrade. But the very fact that the army general accused of ordering the massacre of thousands of civilians was captured and will stand trial for war crimes should warn mass murderers around the world that they will not go unpunished.
And maybe now my homeland can finally start to move forward.
Mladic ordered the 1995 slaughter at Srebrenica, the largest genocide in Europe since World War II. The ruthless speed and efficiency with which Mladic’s troops rounded up and killed innocent men and boys, then raped their wives and sisters, shocked the world into finally ending a war that forced me to flee my home as a refugee and cost my brother his life.
For much of the world, the Dayton Peace Accords ended the war — and their interest in the Balkans. Yet 16 years later the region remains the poorest region in Europe. In my hometown of Sarajevo, entire neighborhoods are still pock-marked and bomb-damaged. Ethnic hatreds fester. People lost for years have yet to be found; it’s unlikely they ever will be.
The absence of war in Bosnia is hardly peace.
One by one over the years, the men who ordered and organized the murder of women and children have been caught and brought to justice. Mladic was the last of the major wartime leaders still at large and his cold-blooded reputation earned him the nickname “Butcher of Bosnia.” Hours before mass executions in Srebrenica, Mladic handed out candy to the town’s children and promised them everything was going to be fine.
People cannot simply be expected to forget that. Mladic’s years of freedom mocked survivors.
When I was in Srebrenica with Bosnian President Haris Silajdzic to mark last summer’s 15th anniversary of the killings, the fact that Mladic remained at large added an unsettled air to an already solemn occasion. For those with loved ones buried in the massive cemetery — or still undiscovered in some forest grave — the lack of justice chewed at them even as Serbia and Bosnia took steps toward reconciliation.
Mothers of Srebrenica told me then that there could be no reconciliation for them until Mladic was made to answer for his crimes. Serbian President Boris Tadic assured me that his country was searching tirelessly for a man many Serbian hard-liners held up as a hero. Serbia was under intense international pressure to deliver Mladic as a condition to the country’s membership in the European Union.
On Thursday, President Tadic kept his promise — to me, to the countless thousands who lost loved ones in the war, and to the world. This is a hopeful historical moment, one that demonstrates the international community’s commitment to justice. It is fitting that Mladic’s arrest fell just before Memorial Day; as we in this country remember those who are gone, we must never forget the thousands wiped out in mere days by the orders of a single man — or how easy it remains for others elsewhere to follow his brutal example.
My homeland has a long and difficult journey ahead. The legacy of ethnic hatred in the Balkans stretches back to the Ottoman Empire. As he sent innocents to their death in Srebrenica, Mladic referred to his victims as “Turks,” an insult that dates to the 15th century. The capture of one man won’t erase that history or magically fix Bosnia. Thousands of lower-level war criminals remain at large. Most of the trigger-men — including the men who killed my brother — remain free and walk the streets of Belgrade, Banja Luka and other cities.
True reconciliation requires bringing them to justice as well. The expectation is that state courts in the former Yugoslavia will take over justice efforts after Mladic’s trial. Yet those courts need continued assistance from the international community — not only with sorting through mountains of evidence, but also with training prosecutors more accustomed to trying thieves and drunk drivers.
So while the arrest of Mladic is a reason to be thankful, and an opportunity to look forward, it cannot be the end of the story. The Dayton Accords stopped armed conflict in the Balkans, but for many, the war won’t be over until there is justice.