Feature 15 Nov 17

In Ratko Mladic’s Village, He’s an Innocent Man

The former Bosnian Serb commander’s relatives still live in the rural village where he was born and where a street is named after him - and they insist that he was not a murderer.

Dzana Brkanic, Admir Muslimovic BIRN Bozanovici
 A road sign in the village says 'General Mladic Street'. Photo: BIRN.

Around 1,000 metres above sea level, near the small town of Kalinovik, there is a village called Bozanovici, which has around 50 inhabitants, most of them elderly.

A narrow, winding road leads to Bozanovici, where visitors are greeted by the sight of a few sheep, chickens and stray dogs, as well as houses that have become dilapidated due to age and bad weather.

The village looks as if time has stood still, except for the satellite dishes mounted on each house.

Ratko Mladic, the former commander of the Bosnian Serb Army whose genocide and war crimes verdict is due to be handed down soon at the UN tribunal in The Hague, was born here 74 years ago.

The façade of the house in which Mladic was born is made of fibreboard, and its roof covered with metal sheeting.

His cousins and family acquaintances who still live in the village are poor, and mostly earn a living from breeding cattle and farming. Some of them think everything would be different if he came back.

“If he was here, all the roads would be asphalted. There are no more young people here, no jobs. The village residents survive on farming,” said V.J., the sister-in-law of one of Mladic’s cousins, who did not want her identity to be revealed.  

The accusations that Mladic was responsible for the genocide of some 8,000 Bosniaks from Srebrenica, for terrorising the population of Sarajevo with a lengthy campaign of shelling and sniping, for persecution that reached the scale of genocide in six Bosnian municipalities and for taking international peacekeepers hostage, seem not to exist as far as his relatives and godparents are concerned.  

“He did not let anyone do bad or abnormal things. He saved the neighbouring Muslim villages. When the situation became dangerous, he told them to flee,” V.J. insisted.

 Slavojka Mladic. Photo: BIRN.

Slavojka Mladic, the Hague Tribunal defendant’s sister-in-law, who lives in the house in which Mladic was born, said she also believes in his innocence.

She explained that she follows his trial and likes to see him on television, because it feels “as if I saw him at the door”.  

“He calls me on the phone from The Hague and says, ‘God help you, my good sister-in-law’, and I tell him, ‘God help you, our general forever,’” Slavojka Mladic added.

“He never complains about anything, but he is happy to speak to us, to hear how we feel and what we do. He calls frequently, he always wishes us happy holidays. He talks until his phone goes off.”

‘He was a decent young man’

Most of the male residents of Bozinovici declined to speak to BIRN’s reporters.

Mladic’s cousin Srecko, who lives in the house in which the Bosnian Serb general grew up, said he had some problems after he talked to journalists before. He did not want to say what kind of problems they were.  

A villager called Dusan said he did not want to speak about Mladic either. He offers glasses of rakija, Serbian plum brandy, instead of conversation.

“There is nothing I can say about him. Whenever I say something, my words are conveyed incorrectly. And, what can I say after all? The whole world knows him anyway,” he said, then started chopping wood for the winter.

One of Mladic’s cousins invited BIRN’s reporters into her house, where she was cooking soup and food for the cattle on the same stove. She said that she too wanted to remain anonymous.

She said that the last time she saw Mladic was during the war.  

“He used to come during the war, but not after the war. He was a decent young man, decent as a child and as a man. I really cannot say anything bad about him. I simply cannot understand how all this has happened to him,” she said.  

She said that she expects the Hague Tribunal’s verdict to be a “serious injustice” and doubts that he will be acquitted.

“There are many men worse than him, who did all sorts of things,” she insisted. 

She also said that she cannot recognise Mladic on television due to his illness

If she saw him now, she would tell him that he should have no regrets.

“He was a proud fellow and a good man. He has a beautiful family and grandchildren - dear God, may it stay like that,” she said.  

The road leading to the house of Mila Jovovic, who used to herd cattle in the village with the Hague defendant, has been named General Mladic Street.

Mladic helped the residents of Bozanovici by providing them with flour and other supplies, Jovovic said. 

“He was as good as a man could be. Ask whoever you like and you’ll get the same answer,” she declared.

‘Knit socks for the troops’

 Ratko Mladic's childhood house in Bozanovici. Photo: BIRN.

Slavojka Mladic recalled that the former Bosnian Serb military commander visited a neighbouring village on the eve of the war in 1992 and told his relatives that they “should sow crops and work in order to survive”.  

“Knit gloves, scarves, T-shirts and socks for the army, that’s what he told us,” she said.  

She also described his trial as an injustice.

“The poor guy came to that place where Turks lived [Srebrenica] and said, ‘Fetch a lot of water and make sure your children don’t stay behind and go wherever you want so you don’t get killed and not stand here.’ Was this really a bad thing and unfortunate for him? Not at all, but they now say he did all those things,” she said.

The killings of around 8,000 Bosniak men and boys from Srebrenica in July 1995 have been defined by local and international courts as an act of genocide.  

According to the villagers, when Mladic lived here, he spent his time herding sheep and studying. When he was on his summer vacation, he helped others make hay.

They recall him as a rather cheerful man who used to take part in celebrations in the neighbouring villages.  

“He was not inclined to quarrel. He even helped other children make up when they had a quarrel,” said Jovovic.

Momir Jovovic’s mother was the sister of Ratko Mladic’s mother; they saw each other for the last time in 1997.

Jovovic also believes that the Hague Tribunal verdict will go against Mladic.

“He will be convicted, just like the others,” he said.  

But when asked if he considered Mladic to be innocent, Jovovic responded: “Everyone is somewhat guilty, some more than others.

“I do not believe he is 100 per cent guilty, but I cannot say to what extent he is or is not guilty. I am trying to be objective.”

Not far from the house where Ratko Mladic was born and in which Slavojka Mladic lives today, there is a destroyed mosque, with a Muslim cemetery about 50 metres away.

The inhabitants of Bozanovici are now all Serbs.

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