Feature 16 Nov 17

Ratko Mladic’s Fugitive Years Cloaked in Secrets and Lies

During 16 years on the run, Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic was aided by Serbian officers, his Bosnian comrades and his family - but Serbia seems determined to keep the facts secret.

Marija Ristic, Filip Rudic BIRN Belgrade
Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic

On the morning of May 26, 2011, the Serbian police’s war crimes investigation unit was deployed to search a house in the village of Lazarevo owned by Ratko Mladic’s cousin Branislav, after his relatives repeatedly called its phone number for several days in a row.

When two police officers opened the door of one of the rooms in the house, they were confronted by an elderly man.

"You’ve found who you are looking for," he said. "I’m Ratko Mladic."

The Serbian police had raided Lazarevo in search of Mladic before, but this time they got lucky and, after years of searching for Europe’s most wanted fugitive, could finally report to Serbian President Boris Tadic that the job was done.

The capture signalled the end of Mladic’s 16 years as a fugitive, during which the wartime general was aided by Serbian and Bosnian Serb military and police.

Next week he will hear his first-instance trial verdict at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY.

But his time on the run remains so sensitive that the indictment of 11 people who were tried for aiding him while he was on the run has been declared a state secret by the Serbian authorities because it could damage the country’s international reputation - causing some to speculate that very senior Serbian political or military figures are implicated.

Tadic proudly announced at a press conference that Serbia had fulfilled one its last obligations towards the ICTY, which had looking for Mladic many years in order to bring him to trial for alleged genocide and war crimes during the Bosnian war.

The ICTY initially indicted Mladic in July 1995, just few months before the war in Bosnia ended, but he pledged he would never surrender.

"I can be tried only by my own people," he declared.

It was the start of a 16-year manhunt which to this day still leaves serious unanswered questions about who helped Mladic avoid capture for so long.

Safe haven in Milosevic’s Serbia

After the Dayton peace agreement was signed in 1995, and many international organisations entered Bosnia and Herzegovina in order to implement the deal, Mladic no longer felt safe enough in his homeland.

Neighbouring Serbia was a natural choice for him - Slobodan Milosevic was the president of what remained of Yugoslavia, there were no cooperation between the Serbian authorities and the ICTY, and Mladic already had a big apartment in the Belgrade district of Banovo Brdo.

Slavisa Lekic, the director of the documentary ‘The Fall of Ratko Mladic’, said when Mladic moved to Serbia, his security was ensured by personal guards, but also by military personnel.

"Beside his personal security, which was 47 men strong, Mladic was also guarded by ten bodyguards from the special 30th Yugoslav Army Centre for Security. Several vehicles were at his disposal, located in military barracks at Stragari [in Kragujevac] and Topcider [in Belgrade]," Lekic told BIRN.

The military security was provided to Mladic by Milosevic, who pledged he would protect the Bosnian Serb general from the ICTY at any cost.

Knowing he had army and the president at his back, Mladic walked freely around Belgrade until the late 1990s.

The last time he was seen in public was during a friendly match between Yugoslavia and China, when he was sitting in a private box reserved for officials at the Partizan football stadium.

Even the uprising that toppled the Milosevic regime in 2000 didn’t scare him much, as he believed he still enjoyed the support and loyalty of the army in Serbia.

Although Milosevic was not in power any more, the security and military personnel had not changed since the war period, as at the beginning, the fragile new democratic government couldn’t deal with security sector reform.

A tight protective circle

The ground under Mladic’s feet started to shake when Milosevic was extradited to The Hague in 2001, which led the former Bosnian Serb commander to believe that if they could send Serbia’s strongman leader to face trial, they could do the same to him.

This is when the so-called second phase of his life on the run began; from 2002 until 2006, Mladic disappeared from public view and turned to a network of mostly Bosnian Serb former military officers for support.

The Belgrade barracks deaths mystery

Two young Serbian soldiers, Dragan Jakovljevic and Drazen Milovanovic, were killed at Topcider barracks in Belgrade on October 5, 2004, while Mladic was allegedly hiding there.

An investigation has still not yet established who killed the two men, or whether their deaths had any connection to the fugitive Bosnian Serb general.

The families have repeatedly appealed to officials to tell them if the investigation has made any progress.

The verdict in May 2016 acquitting Mladic’s aides of charges related to hiding him, which was later appealed, shows that one suspect in the case was accused of helping the fugitive general hide in the military compound in Topcider.

Serbia’s Humanitarian Law Centre said this “makes clear why the indictment was declared secret”.

The Humanitarian Law Centre claimed that “by hiding, and by not revealing, the role of the state in mass violations of human rights in the past”, Serbia was damaging its own international reputation.

 

According to the several BIRN sources within the security sector, Mladic mostly spent his time in various apartments in Belgrade and in secure military barracks.

Although the network that sheltered him was extensive, there was only one person who knew all the time where Mladic was, and was always two steps ahead of officers who wanted his arrest – former Bosnian Serb military commander Zdravko Tolimir.

Tolimir was with Mladic throughout the whole of the Bosnian war, when he was the main figure in charge of intelligence. He himself was arrested and extradited to the ICTY for trial on genocide charges in 2007.

While he was free however, he was assisting Mladic and his team to change locations quickly, mostly in Belgrade and its surroundings, keeping the fugitive commander in large buildings with a lot of tenants where he could be more anonymous.

According to British journalist Julian Borger’s book ‘The Butcher’s Trail’, which details Mladic’s years in hiding, the former Bosnian Serb general maintained his military discipline, banning the use of cell phones in the apartment and rarely venturing out except for an occasional evening walk with his son Darko.

Family as a last resort

The village of Lazarevo, where Mladic was captured in 2011.

In 2006, Mladic changed his strategy for a third time, after Serbian police arrested ten people, alleging they helped him evaded justice and provided him with assistance in hiding.

According to Lekic, they were arrested in order to show that Serbia was making an effort to capture Mladic, without actually doing so.

"The news about the arrest was released to media right away, signalling Mladic to run," Lekic explained.

After the arrests, Mladic decided to completely abandon his existing network, believing it was compromised, and turned to his relatives for support.

Sources within Serbian intelligence told BIRN that Mladic moved that year to Mala Mostanica, a suburb of Belgrade, where he lived in a two-flour house owned by his relative.

His Serbian police pursuers raided the neighbourhood, but went into the wrong house.

Mladic was allegedly watching the operation from his window, and at the first sign that it was safe to leave, he abandoned Mostanica.

Many believe that Mladic was always ahead of the team that was hunting for him, due to often leaks coming from state security agencies.

Borger’s book demonstrates that initially the Serbian military was directly involved in hiding Mladic, then the state authorities went out of their way to avoid catching him.

Borger believes that despite being under pressure from the US and the Hague Tribunal, the Serbian authorities were content to let him escape.

"They came up and went to the wrong house and it’s always difficult to tell the difference between incompetence and deliberate incompetence," he told BIRN.

"Overall in those years, Serbia was not trying hard… they did it in a way that allowed him to get away," he added.

Aleksandar Dimitrijevic, a former adviser at the Serbian defence ministry, later told media that whenever the authorities got close to an arrest, the Security Information Agency and its head Rade Bulatovic would create a diversion and arrest all the people in Mladic’s support network, alerting the former commander to move on to another location.

When Bulatovic was removed from the Security Information Agency in 2008, Radovan Karadzic was arrested in Belgrade just two weeks later, and many believed that the capture of Mladic would soon follow, but he managed to remain at large for three more years.

Lekic also agrees the Security Information Agency played a key role in enabling Mladic arrest and linking info to his support network. But according to Lekic, media also played an important role.

"The public, the ICTY, even the services in charge of arresting Mladic were told genuine information about his movements, but only after he changed location," Lekic told BIRN.

In the final years prior to his arrest, media correctly reported that Mladic was hiding in Belgrade, Mala Mostanica, even in Lazarevo, where he was finally arrested in 2011 after his family called the house more often than usual.

The network remains secret

The Serbian authorities take Mladic to Belgrade airport for extradition.

"You got me. What do you want with these people? These people sacrificed their life for me. Let them go," Mladic told the Serbian authorities after his arrest, pleading for those who sheltered him to be left alone, according to ‘The Butcher’s Trail’.

And indeed, Serbia heeded Mladic’s plea, and so far has not prosecuted those who were most responsible for hiding him during his 16 years as a fugitive.

This year, the appeals court finally ruled in the case of the people arrested in 2006, and found all of them not guilty, except for Marko Lugonja, a former Bosnian Serb officer, who admitted hiding Mladic.

"I helped him because he was my commander," Lugonja told the court.

According to the verdict, Lugonja allowed Mladic to stay in his apartment at the urging of Zdravko Tolimir. Mladic stayed there for five or six days, despite the fact Lugonja was aware of the warrant for his arrest.

All the other high-level officers who supported Mladic throughout more than a decade on the run remain free, and despite some announcements about potential investigations into Serbian security chiefs, no indictment has been issued.

At the same time, contrary to international conventions on freedom of information and the right to the truth, Serbia has declared the indictment of Lugonja and the other others a state secret, arguing that its revelation would endanger the reputation and status of Serbia.

According to legal experts contacted by BIRN, this is the first time that Serbia has redacted an entire indictment in the case that has been closed.

This means that even as his trial verdict is handed down in The Hague next week, the full facts about how Mladic managed to evade capture - and who exactly helped him - are likely to remain secret for some time to come.

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