Pariah as Patriot: Ratko Mladic

Green Bay to Bosnia LogoTwo years ago Lawrence Eagleburger, then Secretary of State, included Mladic in a list of Serb leaders with “political and command responsibility for crimes against humanity”. Asked point-blank about Serb atrocities committed against Muslims, Mladic responds: “I don’t see it that way. I did what everyone else has done, to defend my own people. That is our patriotic duty.” Unruffled, he continued: “It would be true to say of me that I had horns on my head if I had invaded Vietnam, Cambodia or the Falkland Islands. I did not go to the Gulf or Somalia. I was defending my own home. In fact, my house was one of the first to be burned down.” (In May 1992, a month after Serb rebels declared war on the Bosnian Government by shelling Sarajevo, Mladic watched the house he shared with his brother in Sarajevo go up in flames.)

Gen. Ratko MladicQuestioned about the two-year pounding of Sarajevo by Serb heavy guns and other acts of aggression against Bosnian civilians by Serb forces, Mladic lists brutalities committed by the other side. “Croats in March 1992 began a war of terror against Serb civilians from the Kupres Plateau up to Doboj,” he says. “They began a policy of genocide against Serbs in Samac, Modrica and Denenta, the Neretva valley up to Mostar. In June and July, Muslims burned down more than 100 Serbian villages along the Drina.”

By the time Mladic was made commander of the Serbian army in Bosnia in May 1992, Serbian militias had already conducted a vast “ethnic cleansing” campaign, driving hundreds of thousands of Muslims from their homelands over a seven-week period. Mladic was not given full authority over the widely scattered militias until a year ago, but the “cleansings” have gone on.

Lately, Mladic has been under attack not only in Washington but also in Belgrade. The ‘contact group’ peace plan for Bosnia calls on Mladic and the other Bosnian Serb leaders to give up control of a third of the territory they have seized. The plan has been accepted by the Muslim-dominated Bosnian Government and Bosnia’s Croats, but the Bosnian Serbs have rejected it. In response, in early August the international community issued renewed threats of harsher economic sanctions against Yugoslavia (now comprising Serbia and Montenegro), until then the Bosnian Serbs’ sole supporter. Faced with such threats, Serbian President Milosevic warned Mladic and Bosnian Serb President Karadzic that rejection of the peace plan would result in a severing of political and economic ties. Mladic’s retort was to the point: “If you do that, I’ll bring the war to your doorstep!”

“I was born in what was called Old Herzegovina,” he says, referring to a strip of mostly mountainous territory that was an ancient Serbian dukedom. “Bosnia and Herzegovina was an artificial creation of the Communist system and before that in the Austrian Empire. We Serbs reject the term ‘Bosnia.’ We are Serbs and we know who we are.” Yet being a Serb did not play a critical role in Mladic’s life until he was 48. In the last Yugoslav census before the old federation collapsed, he listed his nationality as Yugoslav, not Serb.

He was in many respects a quintessential Yugoslav, born of parents who had joined the Communist-led partisans to fight German invaders and their Croatian henchmen, the Ustasa. Mladic’s father died fighting the Fascist Croatian Ustasa. Other Serbian partisans died in combat against Muslim Ustasa, still others against Serbian royalists called Chetniks. Of the 1.7 million Yugoslavs killed during World War II, 1 million were victims of the civil war that raged within the larger conflict. Tito constructed his Yugoslavia as a delicately balanced mechanism designed to prevent a resumption of the ethnic slaughter among the South Slavs. Until his death in 1980, the Communist party and the Yugoslav People’s Army held the federation together. After Tito’s death the country gradually unraveled. The party disintegrated in 1990, the army in 1991.

At 15, Mladic completed an army school in Belgrade. He graduated from the military academy in 1965 and joined the Communist Party. His initial postings were in Macedonia, where he commanded a platoon, then a tank battalion, then a brigade. In January 1991, with the clouds of civil war already gathering, he was promoted to deputy commander of the an army corps in Kosovo. Six months later, as Yugoslavia crumbled amid the secessions of Croatia and Slovenia, Mladic was promoted to colonel, and given command of an army corps in Knin, Croatia.

Like many of his fellow officers, Mladic was still devoted to the preservation of a federal and multi-ethnic Yugoslavia. Both Croatia and Slovenia had declared but not yet achieved independence. Bosnia-Herzegovina — a miniature Yugoslavia in its mixture of Slavic Muslims, Serbs and Croats — teetered between continued association with the federation and some degree of independence. “At the time, I never considered that we couldn’t have a common life,” Mladic says. “But a man is formed by the events he undergoes.”

What Mladic found in Krajina was a military man’s nightmare: Army command was breaking down as senior officers suddenly reverted to their Croatian or Slovenian origin, wavered or went over to the other side. A hastily formed Croatian national guard fought a hastily assembled Serbian militia. Civilians were uprooted amid atrocities in villages of mixed populations. Army garrisons were blockaded. Mladic’s first question was: “Who is the enemy?” His answer to himself and his troops: “First, the enemy is anyone who shoots at our soldiers, cuts off their water and electricity, provokes, blockades.”

In the Croat-Serb fighting of 1991, Mladic moved with a combination of audacity and guile that astonished his opponents. Before new uniforms and insignia made the various sides distinguishable, he traveled across the lines in disguise, using identification papers of Croat officers he had known. Once a Croatian militiaman stopped him, saying, “You’re Col. Ratko Mladic. You’re dangerous. We should liquidate you.” “I was uncomfortable,” Mladic recalls. He flashed Croat ID and persuaded the militiaman he was Croat. “I told him Mladic was really dangerous and ought to be liquidated.”

He was promoted to general in April 1992 after he successfully — and ruthlessly, say his critics — consolidated Serbian positions in Krajina. Soon thereafter, Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence and Bosnian Serb leaders searched for a commander to prosecute their war aims. Nikola Koljevic, Vice President of the Bosnian Serb republic, remembers: “We didn’t know Mladic. But then we read about him in a Croatian newspaper that said, ‘Mladic is no social worker.’ We decided, ‘That’s the guy we need.'”

In May 1992, Mladic transferred from the Yugoslav Army to the newly constituted Bosnian Serb Army (BSA). By his own account, Mladic is a student of Hannibal, Alexander the Great and Carl von Clausewitz. in battle after battle, he has shown his belief in the doctrine of concentrated force espoused by Heinz Guderian, the German panzer general: “Smash! Don’t sprinkle!” Mladic’s commands to his artillery units around Sarajevo have included: “Roast!” and “Pound them senseless!”

“The dominant shape of armed conflict for me is attack,” says Mladic. “I have an offensive character, and that’s acceptable to the high command of the army of the Republic of Serbians.” In mid-June, a Bosnian Government offensive cracked Serbian lines on the southern slopes of Mount Ozren. It was an effort by Bosnian forces to secure a vital road link between Sarajevo and Tuzla, a Muslim-majority enclave. But in a sudden pincer movement the Serbs retook the salient, killing — according to United Nations officials — close to 1,000 Bosnian government troops.

Mladic eats and sleeps among his soldiers, whom he often leads into battle in an armored vehicle. Initially he toured his nearly 800 miles of front lines by helicopter, but that stopped last year in compliance with a flight ban imposed by the United Nations. “I like to go on foot,” he says. “On foot, soldiers are at their best.” In his underground headquarters about 40 miles northeast of Sarajevo, he sleeps on an army cot.

Mladic can be hotheaded. Last year when the United States and the European Community proposed air strikes against Serbian positions, he threatened to unleash terrorist bombers on Washington and London. Radovan Karadzic, president of the Bosnian Serb republic, sharply reprimanded him for his “idiotic and irresponsible statement.”

On March 11, Gajo Petkovic, the retired editor of the monthly magazine People’s Army, wrote a blistering attack on Mladic in a Belgrade magazine. Calling the general “conceited,” a “cynic and a sadist,” and accusing him of being “carried away by rage and brutality,” Petkovic asserted Mladic had “undoubted responsibility for the crimes of members of the army he led.” Mladic called him and threatened him: ‘You’ll get yours soon. You’ll remember who Ratko Mladic is.” Mladic denies having made the threat.

More often than not, Mladic has accepted the political lines laid down initially by his superiors in Belgrade and subsequently by his superiors in Pale. In 1991 he was ordered not to seize the coastal cities of Zadar and Sibenik, which would have split Croatia, although he claims his forces could have done it in a matter of hours then and “in a day or two” now. Similarly, in spring 1993, he bowed to higher authorities fearful of Western military intervention and refrained from seizing the Muslim enclaves of Srebrenica and Zepa along the Drina valley. He stepped back again from Gorazde in April. But cede to the Muslims land his 80,000 troops conquered? “I would never order my units to retreat,” he says emphatically. “I wouldn’t do it if I had one million lives and had to lose them all. Only an army that is defeated retreats.” That same conviction motivated him to defy Karadzic and the entire international community in May 1993 when he opposed the Vance-Owen peace plan for ending the Bosnian conflict. The general’s 45-minute speech persuaded the Bosnian Serbs assembly to reject that plan.

With the Bosnian Serbs unable to accept the latest peace plan, prolonged war is virtually guaranteed. This would almost certainly mean a full scale attack on Sarajevo if Clinton follows through on his threat to lift the arms embargo on the Bosnian government on October 15th, followed by retaliatory NATO air strikes and then the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers. Says Mladic, “We have shown who we are and what we are. We take measures not to be surprised. I’m ready for them anywhere.”

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By David Binder 
New York Times 
September 4, 1994


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