The contrasting responses of Serbs and Bosniaks to the Mladić case have again exposed Bosnia’s unbridgeable divide.
For some, the executioner was finally being brought to justice. For others, a leader was being sacrificed for pragmatic reasons. For others still, a hero of the Serbian people was being unjustly persecuted.
In ethnically divided Bosnia, the May 2011 arrest of Ratko Mladić in neighbouring Serbia split politicians and the media along familiar lines.
In both of the country’s autonomous entities, the mainly Bosniak and Croatian Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the mainly Serbian Republika Srpska, newspapers filled their front pages with statements by politicians, analysts and victims.
But while political leaders in the federation hailed the arrest as an act of belated justice for which they had waited 16 years, the mood was decidedly different in the mainly Serb entity.
Newspapers in the federation hurried to carry reactions from victims’ associations and recollections of how they had suffered at the hands of forces led by Mladić.
Bosnian Serb officials on the other side of the divide, spoke of the arrest as a pragmatic obligation that had to be fulfilled, however reluctantly.
Indictment changed four times
In 1995, Ratko Mladić, former Chief of Staff of the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS), was indicted by the Office of the Prosecution of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, violations of the laws and customs of war, and of taking international staff as hostages between 1992 and 1995.
The indictment against Mladić was changed four times. The last change in December 2011 cut the number of charges from 186 to 106. The number of municipalities in which the crimes were allegedly committed also fell from 23 to 15.
After disrupting the trial session, Mladić was found in contempt of court and dismissed from the hearing when he was supposed to deliver his plea, after which Judge Alphons Orie noted a plea of not guilty. Mladić’s trial started on May 16, 2012.
Reviews of the bloody events with which Mladić’s name was associated were all but absent in the Republika Srpska, where some opposition parties went further, voicing patriotic fury and condemning the unjust sacrifice of a national hero.
Against a background of Bosnian Serb protests against the arrest in towns and cities, the headlines clearly indicated in which entity each newspaper was printed.
“Mladić is no war criminal but a hero,” was the headline in the Banja Luka Nezavisne novine, while the Sarajevo-based Dnevni Avaz went with: “Banja Luka is also with the executioner”.
At the start of his trial in the Hague, most media in both entities gave over considerable space to Mladić’s health.
The print media in both entitiesalso covered other events related to court proceedings, such as status conferences and procedural issues.
But while newspapers in the Serbian entity analysed Mladić’s defence team, the media in the federation paid less attention to such issues, some continuing to concentrate on the fury of victims concerning the man they call “butcher”, “criminal”, “monster” and “executioner”.
Bosniak leaders delighted
Reactions in Bosnia and Herzegovina were immediately reported after Serbia’s then president, Boris Tadić, on May 26, 2011 confirmed Mladić’s arrest in Lazarevo, in northern Serbia.
There was no doubt in the federation entity regarding the guilt of the former commander of the Republika Srpska Army (VRS) for the crimes with which he had been charged.
Bakir Izetbegović, the Bosniak member of Bosnia’s tripartite State Presidency, described the arrest as important for all victims of the military campaigns Mladić commanded and for future of Bosnia and the region as a whole.
“Justice in this case has been too slow but inevitable,” remarked this senior member of the Bosniak-led Party of Democratic Action (SDA).
Another leading politician, Zlatko Lagumdžija, head of the mainly Bosniak Social Democratic Party (SDP), hailed the event as a major step towards the fulfilment of justice for victims.
The main Croatian party, the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HDZ BiH), also described the arrest as a major step for international justice.
Haris Silajdžić, Bosnia’s wartime foreign minister and former leader of the Party for Bosnia and Herzegovina (SBiH), hailed the arrest as good news for the families of the victims of genocide, ethnic cleansing and other crimes.
Others were less euphoric. Željko Komsić, the Croatian member of the State Presidency, claimed that the Serbian government had “known all the time where Mladić was [hiding]”.
And Fahrudin Radončić, president of the Alliance for a Better Future of Bosnia and Herzegovina (SBBBiH), was distinctly downbeat.
“Unfortunately... Srebrenica’s executioner Ratko Mladić is facing justice too late,” he said, describing the arrest as “first and foremost a consequence of European pressure and Serbia’s interest in opening the door to Europe”.
Serbian leaders – on the defensive
In Republika Srpska, leaders of Milorad Dodik’s ruling Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), were temperate in their responses, interpreting the arrest as an international obligation while at the same time cautioning that only a fair trial could establish whether Mladić was guilty of the crimes for which he was indicted. Crimes committed against Serbs also need investigating, they added.
‘He wouldn’t hurt a fly’
“‘A nice man, naturally intelligent, the best scholar and attendant of the military academy, a man who would not hurt a fly, a Serbian hero, an honourable soldier, a protector of Muslims’; that is how the inhabitants of the village of Božanović, near Kalinovik, have described Mladić.”
(Description of Mladić, Nezavisne novine, May 28/29, 2011).
‘A criminal seeking attention’
“The criminal loves attention and wants to give an impression about who’s the boss. He knows the mentality of people very well and plays on the fact that we are merciful, even towards felons. He does not want to give the impression of a wretch. He thinks he did everything according to the law. He is someone who wants to kill.”
(Profile of Mladić, Dnevni avaz, June 4, 2011)
‘A human zero’
“In fact, he is a zero of a man. God punished him, but still did not punish him enough. His punishment would be to never die. I want that curse to reach him, in Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian, because during three years of the Srebrenica siege we were dying in the town from his shells. And that is being slowly forgotten.”
(Victim of Srebrenica, Slobodna Bosna, May 27, 2011)
Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, said all those who had committed war crimes needed to answer for them.
“The institutions of the RS have never stood… in defence of anyone who committed war crimes, regardless of their religion or nationality,” Dodik said, adding that he hoped that politicians and generals of the Bosniak-led Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina would also be made to answer for crimes against Serbs.
Igor Radojičić, president of the entity’s assembly, also from the SNSD, said he hoped that the trial would “provide an opportunity to present a number of facts from the previous war, and that it will be organised in a fair and impartial manner”.
Nebojša Radmanović, the Serbian member of Bosnia’s State Presidency, also from the SNSD, said the arrest marked the fulfilment of international obligations towards The Hague tribunal.
“We appeal to all those in Bosnia and Herzegovina, who, for calculated or any other reasons, prevented or hindered the prosecution of indictees for war crimes in the previous war against members of any nations, to stop this immediately and unconditionally,” he added.
Ten days after the arrest, Radmanović told Radio and Television Republika Srpska that the arrest had been an emotional experience for Serbs who saw him primarily as a soldier and commander.
“Personally, I belong to all these people who feel and experience the arrest of General Mladić in this way, but political reality is completely different and politicians cannot rely on emotions,” he said.
Petar Djokić, leader of the Socialist Party in the entity, said that the arrest might not please those who had fought for Serbian freedom, but the court in The Hague was a reality that could not be ignored.
Mladen Bosić, president of the opposition Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), which governed the Serbian entity during the war - several of whose former leaders, such as Radovan Karadžić, Biljana Plavšić and Momčilo Krajišnik, later ended up in The Hague - said the arrest was to be deplored.
“The Serbian authorities had previously proved their willingness to do whatever The Hague tribunal requested,” he complained.
“They handed over the complete military and political leadership of the Serbs,” he said, adding: “The euphoria that this event has aroused in Sarajevo worries me.”
Mladen Blagojević, president of the Serbian Radical Party Dr Vojislav Šešelj, whose leader, Šeselj, is currently on trial in The Hague, said that a fair trial was the least likely outcome.
“It is clear that Mladić will face injustice in The Hague and will not have a fair trial because this tribunal never afforded such a thing to a single Serb,” he said.
“In The Hague, Mladić will have no opportunity to tell the truth about Srebrenica, nor will he have an adequate defence, as lawyers will be forced on him by The Hague tribunal,” he added.
Federation media – focusing on victims
Generally, Bosniak victims and survivors of Mladić-led military actions were less euphoric about the arrest than their political representatives – and this coolness was reflected in the reactions published by the media in the federation.
Many declared that the arrest had come too late because Mladić was now sick and old. For all that, they hoped that he would live to face justice.
Many of those interviewed were survivors of the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995, who recalled the appalling events they had experienced.
Reactions also came from victims of the war in Sarajevo, Prijedor, Sanski Most, Foča, in eastern Bosnia, and from other areas where crimes for which Mladić has been indicted took place.
Haris Halilović, who was born in Srebrenica and lost several members of his family in 1995, when the Republika Srpska Army under Mladić overran the town, wrote in the weeklyDani that he had learned of the arrest on the other side of the world in Australia.
“That name, that face, these images and these infamous words that Mladić said 16 years ago were too long associated with the tragedy of my family for us ever to associate it with anything cheerful - even in the context of the arrest of the creator of this tragedy,” he wrote in the magazine’s June 17, 2011 edition.
Mevludin Orić, from Srebrenica, recalled for Dnevni avaz on June 4, 2011, that he had been one of four survivors of a mass shooting in Orahovac, in the municipality of Zvornik in eastern Bosnia, in July 1995. “After Mladić left, they started to execute us,” Orić said.
Senad Hasanović, chairman of the board of the football club Jadar, told the June 6, 2011 edition of the daily Oslobodjenje that it was not easy for the team to play in the stadium at Nova Kasaba, in Bratunac municipality, where a massacre of Bosniaks had taken place in 1995.
“In 1995, that stadium was full of people who were later taken to the scaffold and executed,” he was reported as saying.
“That remains in our memory and we will never forget it. We will try to convey that to young people, so they don’t forget it either,” he said.
In most cases, journalists whose media outlets had their head offices in the federation closely followed Mladić’s plea and the opening of his trial on May 16, 2012.
“We urge The Hague tribunal that the trial of Ratko Mladić be fair, quick and efficient, so that all victims of the war may welcome the verdict,” Fikret Grabovica, president of the Parents of Children Killed in Besieged Sarajevo association was quoted as saying in Dnevni list, on July 4, 2011.
The weekly Slobodna Bosna, in its May 17, 2011 edition, covered the presence at the start of the trial of Jasmina Mujkanović, from Prijedor, who lost her father in the Bosnian Serb-run detention camp at Omarska.
“I am glad to see him there in the accused’s chair,” the newspaper reported her as saying. “I am pleased to be here today, and that he saw me and all of us who survived,” she added.
Dnevni avaz carried the reactions of victims from a rally held in Sarajevo on the occasion of a hearing at which Mladić appeared.
“The executioner laughed when he was killing our children.... You got what you deserve, butcher ... Why doesn’t he clearly admit that he is guilty?” Dnevni avaz, in its edition of July 5, 2011, reported some of the protesters as shouting: “He learned to be strong with an army and weapons, why isn’t he brave now?”
RS media - focusing on Mladić’s defence
The print media in the RS ignored such statements, or kept them to a minimum, paying more attention to the problems of appointing a lawyer, preparing Mladić’s defence, the conditions for the trial and suchlike.
The weekly Reporter, based is in the RS, in its July 13, 2011 edition, analysed how Mladić might defend himself and who his lawyers might be. “For now, it is most likely that Mladić will not defend himself as his health does not allow it,” it observed.
“As one might have noticed at his last appearance in The Hague courtroom, the judges are not at all fond of him, and it seems that Mladić himself has no difficulty in being provoked, even from the gallery, where representatives from several associations of Bosniak victims from Srebrenica were sitting,” it added.
The print media in the RS also gave over space to former colleagues and friends of the arrested general who believe in his innocence.
Rajko Petrov Nogo, Serbian poet and essayist, told Nezavisne novine in its June 6, 2011 edition that the arrest marked “the punch-line of decades of Serbian humiliation. It is the humiliation of the whole nation”.
What was common to all media was sensational interest in the health of the general, who was said to be suffering from various diseases, from water in the lungs and lymph node tumours to the consequences of a stroke.
In reporting the arrest of Mladić, and the rest of the court proceedings in The Hague, the media response again illustrated the depth of the country’s ethnic divisions remain, once again revealing that the scars of the 1992 war remain unhealed.
This article has been produced as a part of BIRN's book "Spotlight on Mladic: Villain or Celebrity"
In July 1995 Srebrenica was shelled and occupied by the Army of Republic of Srpska,VRS, despite being declared a protected area by the United Nations. More than 7,000 people were killed, the victims of genocide.
Key dates and events in the Bosnia war.
The Bosnian Serb commander’s role in the genocide committed in Srebrenica is described in detail in many indictments and verdicts pronounced before local and international judicial institutions.