The general who struck fear into Muslim and Croat hearts

Even now the memory of the sweating, pudgy face has the power to move Bosnian Muslims to fury or tears, the image being one of the most enduring of the Bosnian war.

For most people, that memory is of the television footage of Ratko Mladic, the conquering hero of the Bosnian Serbs, entering the Muslim fastness of Srebrenica in mid-July 1995. In front of the cameras, he looks the personification of magnanimity, patting the heads of nonplussed, mop-headed children and dishing out sweets while their silent, terrified mothers gaped on.

When the cameras switched off, the real - or perhaps just the other - Mladic reasserted itself. Patting of heads ceased. Instead, with ruthless efficiency, he had the men parted from women, the latter shunted speedily from the scene to government-held Tuzla, and the men taken away for mass execution. It was no spur-of-the-moment kind of decision, either, for the Srebrenica massacre took days, thousands of men having fled to the forests to reach Tuzla on foot. Mladic had his men lure them down with loudspeakers, falsely promising mercy.

"They were calling to us by megaphone - they got boys to call their fathers to come down and surrender," one traumatised survivor recalled. "They followed us all the way, whooping and yelling, as though on a hunt for animals. People went mad with fear. Many killed themselves, out of fear of being captured."

Experts have long pondered the berserk, shark-feeding frenzy of the Srebrenica slaughter, and wondered why Mladic did it, for it served no strategic interest, stirring an outcry against the Serbs that haunts them even now.

As Mladic never explained his actions, they have had to delve into history for a rationale, locating it in the traumatic circumstances of his childhood in the Bosnia of the 1940s.

Certainly, Mladic grew up in a rough neighbourhood. Born in mountainous Kalinovik in 1943, two years after the Germans invaded Yugoslavia, his fellow Serbs were then suffering badly at the hands of the Germans and their Croatian Fascist allies, known as the Ustashe, who aimed to empty Bosnia of its Serbs by expulsion and murder. Many in Mladic's family suffered in the bloodbath, which pitched Serb royalists against Communist partisans as well as against the Croats and the Muslims. Nevertheless, if Mladic harboured a vendetta against Croats and Muslims, he kept it well hidden over the next decades when, as the ambitious son of a poor family, he was speedily promoted in the Yugoslav army, spending much of his time in the southern republic of Macedonia.

What pitched him into a key role in Yugoslavia's collapse in the early 1990s was his transfer to Knin, Croatia, in 1991, just as Croatia was seceding from a Yugoslavia under Serbia's nationalist leader, Slobodan Milosevic.

The two men bonded fast, Milosevic singling out Mladic as "his man" in an army still dominated by dinosaurs left over from the era of Marshal Josip Tito. Mladic was given the key role in the Croatian conflict, supplying arms to the local Serb rebels and ensuring their success in grabbing as much territory as they could - and with a ruthlessness that should have alerted the world.

For it was here that Mladic stepped into the limelight, slipping off his Yugoslav army uniform and assuming the command of a Bosnian Serb army, which, in theory, had no connection to Belgrade. It was, of course, a fiction, and Mladic retained a hotline to Milosevic that was far more important than his ties to his official commander-in-chief, the Bosnian Serb president, Radovan Karadzic.

As military supremo of the Bosnian Serb army in the spring of 1992, Mladic struck terror into the Muslims and Croats, carving out huge areas of territory in north and north-west Bosnia and turning south also, down the Drina river that separates Bosnia from Serbia, with the aim of hemming the Sarajevo government into a small space. The death toll was staggering. So was the phenomenon of the Serbs' prison camps at Keraterm, Omarska and Trnopolje, names that were to become synonymous with death camps.

Sarajevans had special reason to fear the general, as Mladic's army vainly attempted to blast its way into the city in 1992, raining down shells. His voice was captured on shortwave radio, urging his men to "scorch their brains" with missiles.

The year 1992 was - in his own eyes - his finest hour, with Croats and Bosnians both practically knocked out and the Serbs in possession of vast territories. It was also the start of his decline, as Milosevic began to draw in his horns and abandon his bloodthirsty henchmen to their fate. And, as the Croats and Muslims recovered their nerve, Mladic's gains were steadily rolled back.

After big losses in 1995 culminated in the Dayton peace accord, which ended the Bosnian conflict, he was peremptorily sacked as Bosnian Serb commander and went to ground, now pursued also by The Hague war crimes tribunal. His former patron, Milosevic, of course, is now on trial, having been handed over years ago. If Mladic ends up in a cell beside him in The Hague, it will be a strange reunion.

The author is an expert on the Balkan conflicts and has written, 'Croatia: A nation forged in war'

The charges against Ratko Mladic

Under an indictment last amended in October 2002, the UN war crimes tribunal charged Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic with 15 counts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed between 1992 and 1996.

A summary of the charges:

* Two counts of genocide and complicity in genocide (Srebrenica and elsewhere in Bosnia)

* Seven counts of crimes against humanity: persecutions on political, racial and religious grounds; extermination; murder; deportation; inhumane acts; inhumane acts of forcible transfer (Srebrenica and 27 other towns and villages); inhumane acts and murder (Sarajevo)

* Six counts of violations of the laws or customs of war: two of murder; unlawfully inflicting terror upon civilians; cruel treatment; attacks on civilians; taking hostages (UN and military observers)

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