Revered as a hero by nationalist Serbs, it took a long time to track him down to his hiding place in a farmhouse in Northern Serbia. Finally, on the 16th of May, a year after the finding of Ratko Mladic, the trial of the ‘Butcher of Bosnia’ began. Yet it is already to be delayed as the prosecution has forgotten to upload and hand over to the defence approximately 7000 documents for evidence. The 16 year wait to put on trial the ‘Butcher of Bosnia’ is going to have to wait a little longer.
The biggest fear for victims is that Mladic, believed to have suffered from strokes and reportedly being in an ill-condition, may die before his trial ends. Milosevic’s trial carried on for 5 years and only ended when he died in his cell. So for the survivors of the war, it is life as usual. This trial is met with hope by some who will avidly watch every day, whilst for some it means little, as their lives will not change and waiting for so many years for a verdict means that justice is still a long way off.
To try to speed up the trial the prosecution has actually cut back on the number of charges it is bringing. The main charge is that of genocide, particularly that of orchestrating the ethnic cleansing of 8000 men and boys in the Bosnian Muslim enclave of Srebrenica. The charge is that Mladic ordered this killing because the men were Bosnian Muslims and he wanted to purge the region of them. The other regular tactics perpetrated by the Bosnian Serb army were those of mass rape, targeting civilians when there was no military need to do so, targeting key intellectuals and professionals and the mass appropriation, plunder and destruction of property. These tactics combined destroy the morale and livelihoods of an entire community, they force them to live elsewhere or destroy them altogether and make it difficult for them to ever return to the Balkans. This, the prosecution will argue, was not down to the individual, random actions of groups of soldiers but a well thought-out strategy devised and directed by Ratko Mladic to purge Bosnia of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats.
Another atrocity is that of the Siege of Sarajevo where Bosnian Serb snipers hid amongst the hills enclosing Sarajevo and held the city hostage for many years. Mladic, it is alleged, directed the siege too.
There is video evidence of Mladic’s attitude throughout the war. In one, he tells a bus load of civilians that he is giving them their lives ‘as a present’, a phrase which the prosecution argues indicates he believes their lives are his to do with what he likes. In a radio excerpt he talks of turning the city of Sarajevo into a mousetrap, having blocked it in with snipers on all sides.
The defence has not let on much of its strategy; their tactic is not to reveal their tactic, they say. It is imagined the defense will argue that Mladic didn’t intend genocide or ethnic cleansing, that he was merely trying to win a war and these actions were perpetrated by individual troops and the consequence of an out of control, often drunk, army. Mladic, it is known, refuses to acknowledge that genocide took place, at one point in the pre-trial refusing to listen to the judge and ripping away his translation headphones. He enters court and plays to the crowd, reportedly sliding his finger across his throat, a gesture aimed at a Srebrenica survivor in the audience. He smirks and laughs when listening to the evidence. It is likely that he, like Karadzic and Milosevic before him, does not respect the authority and jurisdiction of the court, does not recognize its judges, seeing it as a knee-jerk reaction by an international community that feels it ought to be seen to be doing something.
Does this trial mean peace for the victims of the worst atrocities since World War II? It is doubtful. For entire generations, their day-to-day lives are run by the war. Time is defined by the phrases ‘prije rata’ and ‘poslije rata’ – before and after the war. Meanwhile, in Serbia, Mladic is still seen by swathes of the population as a hero and on the 20th May, the Serbian people elected a nationalist president, Tomislav Nikolic. The reality of instability still rules the Balkans.