Of all the war criminals and mass murderers I have encountered in 40 years of reporting in conflict zones, Ratko Mladic is the most chilling.
The verdict brings back memories that even a hard-bitten war reporter finds hard to erase. Dead children’s graves – one that stands out has a football engraved on it, of a boy of 10 hit by a shell in Sarajevo. A boy playing with two friends in a wrecked car when a shell obliterated their lives – I met his grieving father, sister, and pet parrot.
A boy hit in the arm and side by a Serb sniper yards from me – I rushed him in my bullet-holed rented car to a nearby hospital. He survived, but I had focused so much on the boy’s plight that I had failed in my duty as a filmmaker, to record this scene. I recall filming Joan Baez singing peace-songs to a young woman paralysed by a sniper’s bullet through her spine as she sat on her balcony.
There were murders on all three sides – I saw Serb and Croat women and children, lying dead, too. And scenes of slaughter in conflicts in Lebanon, Romania, Gaza, and so on.
But Mladic was distinguished from most other war criminals I have met by his complete lack of emotion or empathy. I saw it in his cold expressionless blue eyes, and his obsession with victimhood. He was the archetypical psychopath – except, I suppose, that some psychopaths are quite engaging.
For example, Idi Amin, killer of many thousands of Ugandans, had some wit. Shaking hands with me, a young average-height bearded BBC reporter, the former heavyweight boxing champion told me after a BBC interview in Kampala in 1978: “I see the people of Great Britain are getting smaller and smaller – and hairier and hairier!”
Only minutes before he had asked: “Are you not afraid to be talking to the Conqueror of the British Empire?” Yes I was.
But back to Mladic. I last came face to face with him on top of a mountain that, in violation of a supposed ceasefire, he and his armed militiamen had just captured from Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) fighters.
Standing with an air of triumph on his large round face, he was handing over the mountain, near the city of Sarajevo, to British military peacekeepers from the somewhat ironically-named United Nations Protection Force (Unprofor).
Alongside two cable cars, a bizarre Serb-imposed ceremony on a ski slope that had been a venue for the 1984 Winter Olympic Games, had just ended.
After Gen Mladic had given us our long-promised interview, pledging he would conquer all of Sarajevo soon, he walked over to a helicopter camouflaged nearby.
“Oh,” I said to him, “I thought all three sides signed an agreement with the United Nations banning any form of aircraft in this war.”
The general stared at me with his expressionless blue eyes and his thick-set jaw got even thicker.
“The commander of the Bosnian Serb armed forces does not,” he said, “ride on a donkey!” And seconds later he was airborne.
Gen Mladic could hardly hide his contempt for the international figures whose jobs were to keep this war from getting even worse.
He would deliberately mispronounce the name of the European Union’s chief envoy, for example. He called Britain’s former foreign secretary David Owen “David O-van”, which in Serbo-Croat means David the Sheep.
He would insist on taking any visitor on a trip – including that day, the British Unprofor commanders in their Land Rovers – around his home village in Bosnia. There he show them locations where 101 people from his own extended family were, he told them, slaughtered by a pro-Nazi band of Muslim fighters during the Second World War.
Yes, this war was deeply personal. In several ways.
Gen Mladic had served in the Yugoslav army so long he knew many of the commanders on the opposing Bosnian Muslim and Croat sides. He would even radio them – their ex-Yugoslav army walkie-talkies all had the same frequency – and ask about their health, their wives, their children, then inform them: “In 10 minutes we’re gonna knock you guys to hell and back,” or some such wording.
His relationship with the political leader of the Bosnian Serbs, the psychiatrist Radovan Karadzic, was somewhat uneasy. I once asked, as the two men stood together, who took orders from whom. “I report to him,” said Gen Mladic. “But I am in command of fighting this war.”
Karadzic gave the impression he found the fighting somewhat distasteful. I once heard him screaming for silence from a group of drunken Serb fighters as they sang war songs and let off volleys of gunfire from the back of their armoured vehicle as it pulled up near his headquarters in Pale, another former ski resort overlooking besieged Sarajevo.
Karadzic was obsessed by the rule of the Turkish Ottoman empire, which he thought was being re-imposed, and cursed the Americans for supporting the side of the Muslims.
One day he insisted we fly with him by helicopter to see what he called a massacre of Serb villagers by marauding Muslim fighters.
The helicopter ducked and dived to avoid potential ground fire. When we landed we found 28 Serb bodies, all men of fighting age, laid out in Vlasenica’s town square. Karadzic turned to our camera and said: “If this goes on, I think there will not be many Muslims left in Bosnia.” A foretaste of the ethnic cleansing that was to become the grim hallmark of the war.
The war officially ended in November 1995, with over 100,000 dead. In 2002, the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic was put on trial in The Hague for orchestrating the Bosnian war. His chief executioner was, however, still at large.
I went on a month-long reporting mission to find the fugitive general, who had been protected and hidden by former fellow-generals from his Bosnian army and from the Serbian state.
Eventually, I closed in on a two-storey villa in a leafy suburb of Belgrade, convinced that the house was sheltering Eastern Europe’s most notorious indicted war criminal. A lady told me she would often see General Mladic strolling in a park, close to a big military base, with his sweet little dog.
Thick-set guards with walkie-talkies and body armour blocked the way to the front gate. “This is diplomatic property,” said one of the guards in good English, as he thrust me hard up against a jeep. After a few messages his walkie-talkie crackled again and the armed men released me, with a warning that next time I would not be so lucky.
Soon after my visit he disappeared again – presumably still protected by elements of the Serb military, still regarded as a patriotic hero. He was only caught and taken to The Hague when the new Serbian government decided he was an international liability.
Both Karadzic, sentenced to 40 years in 2016, and Mladic will now almost certainly spend all the remainder of their lives in prison.
No doubt Mladic, like millions of Serbs, sees the verdict as yet another example of international conspiracies hatched against his much-maligned nation. In reality, it’s his own disturbed mass-murdering self-pitying psyche that is so lethal – yet, sadly, by no means unique.
Paul Martin is editor-in-chief of MediaZones
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