Not a social worker

The Bosnian Serb commander has a claim to be Man of the Year, writes Ro bert Block
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GENERAL Ratko Mladic will certainly have cause to remember 1994. It was the year in which his daughter Ana, a 23-year-old medical student, committed suicide following a spate of press criticism of her father in Belgrade. It was the year in which r elations between Mladic's erstwhile patron, President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, and the Bosnian Serb leadership broke down because the Bosnian Serbs rejected a peace plan that would have forced them to withdraw from land they had conquered.

It was also the year in which the Bosnian Serbs triumphantly defied world opinion, pulling off a string of political and military successes while the direst threats of Nato, the European Union and the United Nations evaporated amid a frenzy of international buck-passing. The credit - or blame - for this belongs largely to Ratko Mladic.

When the leaders of the Western world threatened to rain punishment from the skies, he called their bluff and pounded towns such as Gorazde, Maglaj and Bihac at his leisure and with impunity. Radovan Karadzic may be president and spokesman of the self-declared Bosnian Serb Republic, but Western diplomats and generals who have faced both men across the bargaining table say that Mladic is tougher, and that Karadzic is nervous about agreeing anything before clearing it with his burly, blue-eyed military commander.

A chess player, Mladic likes to use metaphors from the game. He boasted once that the West "will move the pieces the way I want them to move, not the way they want to move them". And in his tactic of signing ceasefires only to break them immediately we can detect the calculated risk of the grandmaster. He understands Western reluctance to get involved in Yugoslavia and he knows that it is forces on the ground that dictate events.

He may horrify us, but for successfully defying all the great powers and international institutions, Ratko Mladic must force himself on to any list of contenders for Man of the Year. How is it that this Bosnian Serb from the wilds of Herzegovina, a windswept land of stones, scrub and rattlesnakes, has managed to run rings around the world? The answer may lie in a remark he made to a US reporter: "A man is formed by the events he undergoes."

The name Ratko is a diminutive of Ratimir, meaning war or peace, or Ratislav, meaning war of the Slavs. These are common names given to boys born in wartime, and Ratko Mladic entered the world in a time of world war. He was born on 12 March 1943 in Kalnovik, Herzegovina, to parents who had joined the partisans to fight the Germans and their Croatian henchmen, the Ustashe. He spent his childhood in a region where fighting between Croats and Serbs was at its most brutal. In interviews he rarely fails to mention that his father, Nedja, was killed by the Ustashe at Bradina, south-west of Sarajevo, on his second birthday.

He went to an army school in Zemun on the outskirts of Belgrade and then to Yugoslavia's military academy, graduating in 1965, the same year that he joined the Communist Party. Posted to Macedonia, he commanded a platoon, then a tank battalion, then a brigade. In 1991, when the clouds of civil war were already gathering, he became deputy commander in Kosovo, where the population is more than 90 per cent ethnic Albanian.

Mladic once said: "I was born in what was old Herzegovina, an ancient Serbian dukedom. Bosnia-Herzegovina was an artifical creation of the Communist system and before that of the Austrian Empire. We Serbs reject the term `Bosnia'. We are Serbs and we know who we are." Yet the truth is that being a Serb did not play any particular part in his life until he was 48 years old. In the 1991 Yugoslav census, the last before the old federation collapsed, he listed his nationality as Yugoslav, not Serb . That was soon to change, as Tito's Yugoslavia began to break apart with the secession of Slovenia and Croatia.

In June 1991, Mladic was called upon by the high command in Belgrade to make his way north to Croatia, where fighting had broken out between Croatian militias and the Yugoslav army. "They asked what I thought. I didn't have to think about it - just aboutthe means to do it," he has said. He left three days later for Knin, the centre of the Serbian uprising in the Krajina region against the breakaway Croatian republic, and was given command of the army there. After ruthlessly consolidating Serbian positions in the region, he was promoted to general in April 1992.

Success in Croatia brought him to the attention of the Bosnian Serb hardliners who were looking for a military leader for the war that they were planning. One of them, Nikola Koljevic, recalled recently: "We didn't know Mladic. But then we read about himin a Croatian newspaper that said `Mladic is no social worker'. We decided, that's the guy we need." In May 1992 he transferred to the newly formed Bosnian Serb army.

On the battlefields of Bosnia-Herzegovina a legend of Ratko Mladic has grown up, repeated and elaborated endlessly in the taverns and trenches where Serbian soldiers chain-smoke harsh cigarettes and sip tarry black coffee and plum brandy. This is a general who eats and sleeps and sometimes goes on patrol with his men, and the mere mention of his name will unleash a flood of toasts and stories.

They recount how in August 1991 he led a group of Yugoslav forces to liberate the Vrlika army barracks from its secessionist Croatian occupiers. The road was blocked by a bus rigged with more than 70 pounds of explosives. An engineering unit had been unable to defuse the bombs and the advance appeared to have stalled until Mladic entered the bus and cut the detonation wires himself.

Another story relates how General Mladic, while travelling to an important meeting on Mount Jahorina in 1993, found his way blocked by a huge boulder that had fallen from a cliff moments before. There was no time to find an alternative route or to wait for a bulldozer to remove the obstacle. The general got out of his car and, like Superman, moved the rock with his bare hands. Unruffled, he arrived at Mt Jahorina in plenty of time to deliver the speech that persuaded the Bosnian Serb parliament to reject the Vance-Owen peace plan and accept international pariah status.

Such tales, which may well be apocryphal, do more than illustrate the devoted loyalty of the Serb soldiers to the man who styles himself the Napoleon of Bosnia. They also faithfully reflect his character: his resourcefulness and his single-minded determination to let nothing and no one stand in the way of his dream of a Greater Serbia.

Mention of his undoubted charm infuriates the Bosnian Muslims. When one senior Muslim officer was asked if he found Mladic a snake or a charmer, he responded with a line from an e e cummings poem about Buffalo Bill Cody: "How do you like your blue-eyed boy mister death."

Through almost four years of war, first in Croatia and then in Bosnia, his strategy has been to secure solid swaths of territory with good communications and supply lines, while crippling his enemies by chopping their holdings into isolated, scattered pockets. His troops have pursued the war in Bosnia with persistent ruthlessness, using their overwhelming superiority in arms to their advantage with often brutal consequences for Muslim communities caught in the line of fire.

Two years ago, the US named Mladic as a war criminal who should be held accountable under international law for his actions, but he seems not to care. His peculiar brand of Balkan chutzpah, combined with his complete dedication to the Serbian nationalistcause, has made him virtually impervious to the world outrage that his forces have stirred. "It is not a crime to defend one's people, it's a holy duty," he has said.

He is capable of breathtaking arrogance. When reports were circulating of the mass rape of Muslim women by Bosnian Serb soldiers, Mladic said he had investigated the claims and had not found one case of a Muslim woman being sexually attacked by one of his soldiers. Confronted later with the further allegation that as many as 30,000 Muslim women had been raped, he declared: "We would all have to be supermen to do this. We would have to be sexual maniacs worthy of an entry in the Guinness Book of Records."

As to the possibility of trading captured territory for peace, he is adamant: "I would never order my units to retreat. I wouldn't do it if I had one million lives and had to lose them all. Only an army that is defeated retreats. Once the Serbian flag isflying, we never take it down."