From Srebrenica to The Hague:

From Srebrenica to The Hague: The day justice finally caught up with Ratko Mladic

The damage inflicted by the former Bosnian Serb military commander is more than his trial can repair.

"Thank god you have come," Hasan Djanarovic told me, eyes watering. "We have seen no one in eight months. There are 70,000 of us here – no water, no food – people are dying."

Eighteen years ago, in November 1992, along with a party of journalists I got into Srebrenica, the besieged Muslim enclave in eastern Bosnia that has become synonymous with the savagery of General Ratko Mladic, the self-styled saviour of Serbia whose capture yesterday brings to a close one of the longest manhunts in recent history. Around the world, his arrest and forthcoming trial before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia have been greeted as an event that will hopefully bring "closure" to the bloody Balkan wars of the Nineties.

I doubt Hasan's relatives will feel much "closure" – though what precisely happened to him after 1992 I never knew. General Mladic, whose forces had then been besieging the town for eight months, was furious about the decision of his political superior, Radovan Karadzic, to let reporters into Srebrenica. The place was virtually sealed off from then on until July 1995, when Bosnian Serb troops finally rolled in past a token force of UN Dutch peacekeepers. What happened then has passed into history as by far the worst single atrocity of an otherwise atrocious three-year war between Bosnia's Serbs, Muslims and Croats.

Mladic ordered the systematic execution of every male his men could get hold of – about 7,000 in all. It was no orgy of bloodlust, carried out in a moment of passion. The mass murder of the men, and boys, of Srebrenica took at least six days to accomplish from 13 to 19 July, during which time he sent out decoys into the surroundings, combing the forests, calling for the men hiding there to come down.

Most of these decoys were elderly Muslim captives, marched through the forests with a gun at their heads, parroting lines their captors ordered them to shout out. All the men in hiding had to do was surrender and hand over their weapons, they said. In return, they would be escorted to the Muslim-held Tuzla, further west. Tragically, many took the bait and were shot along with all the rest, their bodies dumped in mass graves or thrown into ravines.

Chilling film footage still survives of Mladic on his victory parade in Srebrenica, looking victorious but somehow avuncular. Portly and sweating in his tight uniform in the summer heat, he can be seen patting Muslim children on the head with pudgy hands, handing out a few sweets and telling the children's terrified-looking parents – milling helplessly round the UN base in Potocari – that they had nothing to fear.

Quite why he then had the men and a good many small boys of Srebrenica killed in such a systematic, indiscriminate fashion is a mystery. It is one of the questions tormenting the members of survivors' groups such as the Women of Srebrenica, who don't just want some belated justice done on behalf of their dead sons, husbands and brothers – they also want to know why.

Srebrenica was a fly in the Serbian ointment, a half-starved, inaccessible and inhospitable place, perched in the mountains. Cut off by miles from the rest of Muslim and Croat-held territory in Bosnia, it posed no military threat to the Bosnian Serb forces that had overrun 70 per cent of the former Yugoslav republic at the start of the Bosnian war in spring 1992.

True, the embattled townsmen, under their commander, Naser Oric, made sorties into the Serb-held countryside and numbers of Serb villagers were killed on these raiding parties conducted primarily in search of food. But by the grim standards of the Bosnian war nothing had happened in and around Srebrenica to merit or explain Mladic's decision, seemingly his alone, to earmark the people of Srebrenica for mass liquidation.

Psychologists in Serbia and Bosnia have since tried to place the massacre in some kind of personal context, sourcing Mladic's desire for revenge on a grand scale in childhood memories of the Second World War, when many members of the Mladic family were killed in Bosnia.

None of these explanations truly convinces. Mladic was born in spring 1942 and was three when the war ended, so those supposedly traumatic memories can have been only second hand, and in any case, the persecutors of his family were Yugoslavia's Nazi German occupiers and their Croat Fascist allies. The Bosnian Muslims were bit players in the war, some supporting the Croats, some backing Tito's Communist partisans, most keeping their heads down.

The irony of Mladic's butchery in Srebrenica is that the result was the polar opposite of what he and his ally in Belgrade, President Slobodan Milosevic, intended – a knockout blow that terrified the Muslims into all-out surrender, so ending Bosnia's war on Serbia's terms.

For three years, the West had dithered, wrung its hands over Bosnia and done little. Srebrenica changed everything. Shocked by the carnage, the US abruptly took its muzzle off Croatia, which within weeks, in early August, launched a massive offensive against Serb positions in Croatia. A simultaneous, combined Croatian-Bosnian Muslim attack in Bosnia itself – coupled with heavy Nato air strikes on Serb positions round Sarajevo – routed Mladic's allegedly invincible army in days. With the Croats poised to march into the main Bosnian Serb city of Banja Luka, the Serbs hurried to the negotiating table they had once scorned. The outcome was the November 1995 Dayton Ohio peace deal, which closed the war in Bosnia and Croatia on terms radically different from those that Mladic and Milosevic had conceived.

The Serbs paid a huge price for Mladic's bloodlust in Srebrenica – the loss of every inch of Serb-held territory in Croatia, and the creation of a mere autonomous Serbian "entity" in 49 per cent of Bosnia. Mladic's great massacre destroyed the nationalist dream of a greater Serbia. Mladic, in that sense, left Serbia smaller than he found it.

Lord Ashdown, who was High Representative to Bosnia from 2002 to 2007, said Mladic's trial would "be a chance for the whole Balkan region to put the past behind them". Would it were that simple. Justice may be done to Ratko Mladic – at last – but the damage he inflicted on so many lives is more than his own belated trial can repair.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Financial Director / FD / Senior Finance Manager

Up to 70k DOE: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Financial Director ...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Luton - £24,000

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst vacancy with a we...

Recruitment Genius: Instructional Training Designer

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic and interes...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse & Stores Supervisor

£16224 - £20280 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Warehouse & Stores Supervisor...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen