It was 5.30 in the morning on 26 May, but an elderly man in Lazarevo, Serbia, was already up and ready to leave the house. The previous evening he had gathered up his documents and medicines and placed them in a plastic bag. He knew that, where he was going, he wouldn’t need them any more. He skipped breakfast and sat down to wait. When the police came, he didn’t hide his identity and handed them his long expired ID card with his real name, Ratko Mladic, born 1942. Then he took out his wallet, had a last look at the photo of his family, and handed it over too. “You killed her,” he said to a policeman, pointing at the photo of his 23-year old daughter Ana. “No, we didn’t,” the policeman answered calmly. “I know, I’m aware it wasn’t you,” Mladic said. “But I also know who did it and why.” Then, while the policemen searched his modest dwelling, he talked about his mother Stana, his education in the military academy, his life before that. After a while they left the house, Mladic without handcuffs, and got into the police car waiting outside.
At least this is what an official witness from Lazarevo told the Serbian press. Apparently, Mladic knew not only the exact date but also the time when the police would come to pick him up. His arrest was anything but pure luck. According to the press, Mladic had made a deal with the authorities: he would give himself up provided that part of the 10 million euro bounty set up by the Serbian government went to his family, and that his arrest was discreet and that he was not handcuffed.
The first photos of him entering a courthouse in Belgrade show a gray-haired, slightly hunched, ordinary looking man with a baseball cap. During his time on the run he suffered at least two strokes and other health problems. All this after the suicide of his daughter Ana in 1994. It’s said that she couldn’t forgive her father for what he did in Bosnia; he has always believed that she was killed by his enemies.
At 69, he looks much older than his age, a shadow of the arrogant, cruel, cold-eyed commander of the Serbian forces in Bosnia that he once was. He managed to escape the justice for fifteen years, although the question remains whether he really hid or whether he was being protected by someone high up. According to the former deputy chief of state security, Zoran Mijatovic, who conducted the arrest and extradition of Slobodan Milosevic in 2001, Mladic could have been arrested much earlier, for example with Milosevic. But there was no political will, he says in an interview with B92, particularly after Vojislav Kostunica became president. The way he saw it, the secret service was not able to act legally against an active army officer: this was the responsibility of the military security. Mijatovic admits that Mladic was protected by his friends in the Serbian army. Mladic obviously felt safe: unlike Radovan Karadzic, he never assumed a false identity. Only after 2001 did he go into hiding – or rather, remove himself from the radar. Did the authorities know where in order to act only now? Of course, no one is willing to confirm that. However the way he was arrested, without resistance, lends credence to this theory.
It looks like political pragmatism has finally prevailed in Serbia. Although the president Boris Tadic was the first to deny that the arrest of Ratko Mladic had anything to do with Serbia’s desire to become an EU candidate for the EU member, very few people think that the arrest was pure coincidence. According to the opinion polls, the majority of Serbs believe that it was a trade-off. On Sunday evening, a few thousand radicals went out onto the streets of Belgrade to protest. Their number gives an idea of how little ordinary citizens are concerned with Mladic’s destiny. He might still be a hero for half of them, as some polls show, but they aren’t prepared to go out onto the streets for him.
However his arrest is surely important and symbolic on many levels, not only for Serbia. It is a message that war crimes do not expire and that justice must be done. It is important as a sign of respect for dead – and even more so for the living: for those Serbs, Muslims and Croats who need to go on living together. It is also a political gesture by the Serbian government aimed at closing that chapter in history and moving forward to a common future in the EU. The winds of change came a year ago, when the Serbian parliament voted on the “Declaration on Srebrenica” condemning the atrocities committed against Bosniaks and expressing condolences and apologies, thus recognizing Serbian involvement in the war in Bosnia.
Ratko Mladic will now be judged in a court of law, which is the only way to determine whether an individual is guilty or innocent. But is his individual guilt – as well as that of other war criminals on all sides – all it boils down to? After the terrible wars that ravaged the former Yugoslav republics of Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, leaving at least 100,000 dead and a million homeless, can Mladic’s trial be the end of the story?
In his first hearing in Belgrade, addressing the judge and all present, Mladic said “Don’t blame me, it is you who elected Milosevic. Tko vam je kriv! (Who else is to blame!)” Certainly, he was trying to evade his own guilt by implying that he was only following orders. Although he rejected the authority of the ICTY and the charges against him, this will presumably be his line of defence. After all, Karadzic was his commander-in-chief as the president of Republika Srpska. But Mladic did have a point. If he is to be tried, what about citizens who repeatedly voted for Milosevic and Karadzic and their policies of nationalism, hatred and war? What about the responsibility of voters who, by casting their votes, made Mladic’s war crimes possible? By sending him to The Hague, are they washing their own hands while marching towards the EU?
Is there such a thing as collective political responsibility? That is the question every side avoids asking. Certainly, it is impossible to talk of the collective guilt of an entire population, be it the Serbs or any other nation. But can the citizens of Serbia (or Bosnia or Croatia), who voted time and again for nationalist leaders who led them into destructive wars, truly believe that they had no part in the transformation of Mladic into a war criminal? There can be no court to judge them, other than history and their own conscience. It is a paradox that Mladic, of all people, reminded them of their role in the carnage they would love to forget.