Serbs idolise Bosnia's bloodstained warlord

Robert Block in Bijeljina, Bosnia, talked to the secretive general who is mesmerised by parallels with a fateful battle that was fought 600 years ago

The Serbian Orthodox church in the Bosnian Serb border town of Bijeljina is a modest, dark-grey building. It is neither ornate nor large. But on Wednesday 28 June it was the centre of attention in the self-declared Bosnian Serb mini-state.

People, mainly peasants and Bosnian Serb refugees from Tuzla and Zenica, packed the building to celebrate a battle that their ancestors gloriously lost six centuries ago.

The 28th of June is one of the holiest days of the Serbian Orthodox calendar. It is St Vitus Day, the feast of earthly defeat and heavenly triumph. It marks the day in 1389 when Serbia's Prince Lazar and his forces were crushed by the Ottoman Turks in the battle of Kosovo. The Balkans succumbed to 500 years of Muslim rule.

This was not the real reason why the people thronged the church on Wednesday. They came to catch a glimpse of their modern warrior prince, General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serbs' military commander.

The rest of the Bosnian Serb leadership, Radovan Karadzic, Nikola Koljevic and Momcilo Krajisnik, also were there, but they were sideshows.

As General Mladic left the church, he was mobbed by adoring fans. "He is a god," swooned one well-dressed middle-aged woman. "I would follow him anywhere, through the woods or across rivers. He is our saviour and the greatest man in the world," she added, clasping her breast and looking up at the sky.

The stories that have sprung up around General Mladic have reached such proportions that upon meeting him, one is struck by the fact that he is not a big man. The enormous head and broad face pictured in newspapers and magazines over the years gave the impression of a towering, barrel- chested man. But he is of average height and build, with piercing blue eyes and a pleasant manner.

He is a difficult man to contact. This is a general who eats, sleeps and goes on patrol with his men. What dragged him off the battlefield into public view at this time of Bosnian Muslim offensives was St Vitus Day, which is also the national day of the Bosnian Serb army.

The symbolism for General Mladic is important. For him, the battle of Kosovo has never ended: ''St Vitus Day: That Serbian historic milestone has an epic significance today as well. Around it a veil of legends was spun. It symbolises Serbian tragedy and Serbian glory. Glory because of the unsurpassed heroism of Serbian knights, who, although they fell, stopped the powerful Arabic sea which threatened to drown Europe."

There is no difference between past and present for General Mladic. He talks about both in the same breath. For him time is a seamless continuum.The Serbs are still fighting to turn an Islamic tide away from Europe. At the same time, Germany has never abandoned its expansionist aims and now, for reasons which completely escape him, the Americans also want a slice of the Balkan pie.

"In this area there are several conflicting interests from all over the world,'' he said.

''The Balkans and Europe as a whole are very much in danger of being Germanised. No lesser is the threat of Islamisation of this area. There is also a big and quite openly expressed wish to have this area Americanised. All of this runs contrary to peace [prospects] and the real interest of the nations inhabiting this area. This land belongs to the nations living here, to Europe.''

General Mladic appears to see himself as a solitary knight on the ramparts of European civilisation, fighting to save an ungrateful world.

His vocabulary and manner of speech are that of a simple man who had acquired higher education and was impressed by it. He remains firm in his belief that his army was only responding to war imposed on the Serbian people by its traditional enemies.

"The Serbian people did not want this war but it was thrust upon them like all previous wars," he said.

This appears to explain why he shows no concern for the fate of his adversaries. To him,they are not Muslims or Croats, fighting for self-determination, or a multi-cultural society, or to revenge the injustices inflicted on them by General Mladic's own soldiers.

For the general, there is a diabolical plan behind every action of his enemy. Therefore, the Bosnian Muslims are not fighting to take back some God-forsaken hill in order to control the goat path beneath. They are acting under the instructions of their powerful and obscure masters in Tehran, Washington, and especially Bonn.

"Germany sponsored the war. It turned the Croats and the Muslims against the Serbs and set them in motion to achieve the German aim to Germanise the Balkans,'' he asserted.

The news that Germany may contribute planes and a hospital to support a multinational rapid reaction force in Bosnia confirms his prejudices and he called the decision "a grave historical stupidity of the sort that, unfortunately, we have become accustomed to in the last few years. I can't understand how there are people who can even consider something like that.''

In interviews, General Mladic rarely fails to mention that his father, Nedja, was killed by the Nazi-backed quisling Croatian forces at Bradina, central Bosnia, on his second birthday.

The firmness of his beliefs makes General Mladic intransigent. The end of the war is not in his hands, he insists. Therefore, he cannot and will not do anything to abandon the war while his enemies refuse to admit they are defeated.

"As far as we Serbs are concerned, we are close to the end of the war, but the duration of this conflict does not depend on my will or your will, or the will of my people. It depends on the world potentates who want to impose their interest by the force of arms.''

The absolute conviction in the justice of his cause, and that he is waging a righteous war, makes him certain that he will prevail. Although he is not completely unconcerned about the prospect of international military intervention, he makes light of the possibility.

At the height of the UN hostage crisis, a international friend warned him that he might have caught a tiger by the tail. "Don't you worry," he replied. "Besides, to me it doesn't look much like a tiger. More like an old nag.''

The only enemy that he really fears are the rogues within his own ranks. He is hesitant, however, to name the names of his enemies within the Bosnian Serb leadership or to speak openly of an internal rift with Mr Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb ''president'', with whom his relations are said to be very cool. He instead rails against "marginal persons", "informers" and "highly rated advisers". He has also complained about nepotism and official corruption. Singling out Mr Karadzic's now disbanded personal secret police, known as the "Typhoon", General Mladic said that it was shameful that the disgraced members of that organisation had been rewarded with businesses and restaurants.

He saved most of his venom, however, for the paramilitary warlords, whom he accused of enriching themselves on the backs of the people.

"They concerned themselves with running around to jewellery stores, banks and well-supplied supermarkets. There is not a single hill that they kept or liberated. On the other hand, our soldiers and officers in the army lead modest lives".

But he insists that he has no interest in politics. "Many times as a man I pointed out that I have no political ambitions, because I was never interest in politics except when it concerns the army and the unity of the people.''

The threat of disunity is the most serious one for General Mladic. He only has to look back to history, as he often does, to see the danger of cracks within the Serbian ranks. Six centuries ago, on that fateful day at Kosovo, the nobleman Vuk Brankovic withdrew from the battle, thus ensuring that the Serbs were defeated. For General Mladic, the battle of Kosovo could be lost again.

RATKO MLADIC

Born 12 March 1943 in Kalnovik, Herzegovina. On his second birthday his father, Nedja, died fighting the Ustashe - Croatians allied with the German occupation forces.

Ratko is a diminutive of Ratimir, meaning "war and peace", or Ratislav, meaning "war of the Slavs".

Graduated from Yugoslavia's military academy in 1965, joined the Communist Party the same year and rose through successive commands in the Yugoslav army. In June 1991, he was sent to the Knin region of Croatia, where he consolidated Serb rebel gains. Promoted to general in April 1992.

Last year Mladic's 23-year-old daughter Ana, a theological student, committed suicide after a spate

of criticism of her father in Belgrade newspapers.

Named as a war criminal by the US, he says: "It is

not a crime to defend one's people, it's a holy duty."

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