‘Butcher of Bosnia’: why war criminal Ratko Mladic still has hero status at home

Bizar Male

Convicted war criminals including Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic are being heralded as heroes in their home countries amid a growing culture of genocide denial, the UN prosecutor for the former Yugoslavia has warned. 

As a UN court prepares to deliver a ruling tomorrow on Mladic’s appeal against war crimes charges, Serge Brammertz cautioned that “nationalist politicians across the former Yugoslavia” are “trying to erase from history” acts of genocide committed during the 1990s, The Times reports.

“Glorification and denial of genocide are very much stronger than five or ten years ago – and I have been in this job for 13 years,” Brammertz said, adding that “the underlying attitudes are still present with many politicians and will be over many years to come”.

“Today they are not ashamed any more to put out their lies publicly. There is a populist trend to distract attention from all the other problems in their societies. Many politicians are still today trying to use ethnic hatred to justify their existence.”

Divided nation

In 2017 Mladic, who led the Bosnian Serb army during the Bosnian War, was convicted of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide and multiple charges of extermination, murder, deportation, forcible transfers, terror, hostage taking and attacks on civilians.

However, “diametrically opposing views” of Mladic’s legacy “reflect deep ethnic divisions that still exist in Bosnia” almost three decades after the brutal civil war, Euronews says. 

For Bosniaks, the mainly Muslim targets of his wartime ethnic cleansing campaign, “he is a villain and war criminal” known as the “Butcher of Bosnia”, the broadcaster adds, while Bosnian Serbs still “worship their wartime commander as a martyr and hero”.

Captured in 2011 after almost a decade on the run from UN prosecutors, Mladic is considered by many Bosnian Serbs to have been a “defender of the nation”, Reuters reports, with his home village naming a street in his honour following the 1992 to 1995 war.

Serb ultra-nationalists wave flags showing Mladic at a rally in 2011

Serbia also still “refuses to recognise” the Srebrenica massacre as genocide, The Times says, while senior figures, including Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, “regularly deny” that the mass murder of 8,000 Muslim men and boys took place.

Milorad Dodik, the leader of Republika Srpska (the Serb enclave in Bosnia), a few days ago said the genocide “did not happen”, while Serbian Defence Minister Aleksandar Vulin “has appointed convicted war criminals to teach in the military academy”, the paper adds.

Ahead of the final judgment on Mladic’s appeal against his charges tomorrow, hopes are high that the case will “bring closure for the victims’ families and drive home the message that there is no impunity for war crimes”, Euronews says. But some Bosnian Serbs have already rejected the court’s findings, with veteran Milije Radovic describing Mladic as “an icon” and telling the broadcaster he “cannot accept any verdict”.

“Nobody can convict him of anything, especially not The Hague tribunal,” Radovic said. “He is one of us. He is the victim of an international conspiracy by mafioso politicians. He is our man, a man from here, who respected the rules of war.”

Culture of denial

Warning of efforts to erase the history of genocide, Brammertz cited a special commission formed by the administration in Republika Srpska to establish the “truth” about the massacre at Srebrenica and the siege of Sarajevo.

“As expected they concluded that there was no genocide in Srebrenica and no terrorising of the civilian population in Sarajevo, obviously ignoring all evidence and findings,” he said. “There is a new phase, even worse than genocide denial, to try to create a new historical reality.”

Describing Mladic as “the most important war criminal convicted of crimes committed in the middle of Europe in the 1990s”, Brammertz continued that his conviction would “make people think a little bit more about the wrongdoing during the war and what it really meant”.

Survivors are hoping Mladic will be found guilty of additional charges relating to “genocide in five Bosnian municipalities in 1992 as well as in Srebrenica in 1995”, Balkan Insight reports. However the “outlook for a conviction appears unpromising” as “political leader Radovan Karadzic has already been acquitted of committing genocide in 1992”.

Karadzic was convicted in 2016 of genocide and war crimes relating to the siege of Sarajevo and is serving his life sentence in Wakefield prison. However, even if Mladic follows Karadzic tomorrow, many Bosnian Serbs will continue to celebrate his legacy. 

“If the law is to be respected, he should be set free to return home,” Darko Mladic, his son, told Euronews. “I never doubted him because I know him so well, I know his character.”

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