Ratko Mladic's Capture May Bring Justice for Victims

General Ratko Mladic (center) surrounded by his bodyguards in eastern Bosnia on April 16, 1994. Photo Illustration by Newsweek. Source: Emil Vas / AP

For years, during the grim and seemingly endless Balkan wars of the 1990s, Ratko Mladic appeared a mysterious, almost mythic figure, a stout and red-faced general in combat fatigues, who was rarely seen by anyone but his most trusted men. To many Serbs, he was a hero, a defender of national pride and values. To the families of his victims, he was a coldblooded killer who led his soldiers not into battle, but into a state of carnage during the disintegration of Yugoslavia. While all sides—Muslim, Croats, and Serbs—were guilty of heinous crimes, it was Mladic's men who crossed into infamy, slaughtering nearly 8,000 Muslim boys and men during the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre.

During the years I spent reporting these Balkan wars, my notebooks grew thick with accounts of the terror Serbian snipers inflicted on the residents of Sarajevo, the city they held in a malevolent siege for years. I heard lengthy, heartbreaking accounts of the destruction of Srebrenica, Gorazde, Foca, and Mostar.

Timeline: Days of Despair Danilo Krstanovic / Reuters-Corbis

But I met Mladic only once.

It was the winter of 1993, a particularly desperate time for the Bosnian civilians, whose villages were left behind as smoldering pyres by marauding Serbian soldiers. Somehow, by a muddy road, through pelting, icy rain, I had made it to Lukavica, the Serb military stronghold where Mladic and his men had made a stop. Dressed in full military regalia, the general was seated in his jeep, appearing smaller than I had expected. I asked him for an interview. Looking at me with a glacial stare, he seemed to regard me not as human but as some strange species. "Tell the reporter to move away from my car before I run her down," he barked to one of his lackeys. I never saw him again.

It would take almost two decades after that before he was finally caught. His wife, Bosiljka, had claimed he was dead; there was speculation that he had had plastic surgery to avoid capture. But last week, after too many close calls, too much leaked information, too many escapes, Serb intelligence agents found the 69-year-old general at last. His face, though aged, was the same—that of Europe's most notorious fugitive from justice. Serbia's president during the war, Slobodan Milosevic, who preceded Mladic to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague after he was arrested in 2001, was known as the Butcher of the Balkans (his trial ended without a verdict when he died in prison in 2006). But it was the bloodthirsty Mladic, soon headed to The Hague himself to stand trial, who oversaw the charnel house.

The capture of Mladic ends what Boris Tadic, the current Serb president, described (with a monumental euphemism) as a "difficult period of our history." His arrest, he said, will remove "a stain from the face of the members of our nation wherever they live." Perhaps it will also, in some small way, ease the anguish of the families of the victims who, in the words of the prosecutor for the ICTY, suffered "unimaginable horrors."

Reliving History: Bosnia

Returning to the Balkans earlier this year to report on the hunt for Mladic, I visited a small, enclosed cemetery called Topcidersko Grobilje on a wooded hillside in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, where families were laying flowers and offerings to the dead. Among the neat Orthodox headstones, near a small chapel, I found the lonely corner where the general's daughter is buried. Under a small pine tree, plastic flowers are scattered around a simple black marble headstone inscribed "Ana Mladic, 1971–1994." A cigarette butt was stubbed into the earth nearby. Caretakers told me Ana's family never visits, but somehow I sensed the spirit of the general, who adored his only daughter, coming here to grieve.

Ana killed herself under mysterious circumstances. In Belgrade, I got different versions: that she had read an account of her father's atrocities in a newspaper and felt sickened, unable to live with the name Mladic; that Ana, a medical student, had come back from a conference in Russia, where she had been abused on account of her father, suffering some kind of emotional trauma; or that simply, like many of her compatriots, she was tired of living with war. Whatever motivated Ana to take her own life, she did it in dramatic fashion—shooting herself with her father's favorite gun.

Those close to him say that perhaps it was Ana's death that spurred him deeper into savagery. "Some people think he went mad," one of Mladic's commanders told me as I met him one afternoon in a grand but faded café on Belgrade's Knez Mihaila Street. The man, who goes by the nom de guerre Jovan, knew Mladic and his moods well, and expressed admiration for the general, who, he said, was well respected by his men because he was an excellent soldier who did what he demanded of others. "If they did push-ups, he did push-ups," Jovan said. But after Ana's death, he changed.

"Mladic's life had two phases—before and after the death of Ana," Jovan told me. He had to run an army, win a war. But his heart and spirit were broken. "He never recovered," Jovan said. "He was a broken man." Bitter military losses followed. And something else. "Do you know what happened a year after Ana died?" Jovan asked me, bowing his head.

One word: "Srebrenica."

Even among the Balkan atrocities, Srebrenica is a particularly black mark on European history. In 1993, after Serb forces had laid siege to the former mining town in eastern Bosnia, I went to the mayor's office in Tuzla and communicated by radio with the city's defenders inside. Supposedly protected by U.N. forces, Srebrenica was endlessly shelled, with surgeons operating without anesthetic and no humanitarian convoys able to break the blockade. "In the name of God, do something," one man pleaded to me, indelibly etching the terror of his voice on my memory.

After the city fell to Serb forces three years later, during an unrelentingly hot summer, refugees flooded out of the city, carrying horrific stories of murder, rape, and starvation. The Serb soldiers had separated boys and men from women, as Dutch U.N. peacekeepers supposedly kept guard. A little girl waved goodbye to her father after lunch and never saw him again until he was pulled out of a mass grave. A mother told me of how she had dressed her 13-year-old boy like a girl so that he wouldn't be rounded up and killed in the woods. He was ripped from her arms.

For the thousands of women who were held in "rape camps" in eastern Bosnia, for the families of the countless people who were "ethnically cleansed," for war-crime investigators, and for those of us who helplessly witnessed the destruction of Sarajevo, it was imperative to find Mladic. He had to stand trial if there was ever to be even a semblance of justice. The Balkan wars inflicted trauma not just on the people of Bosnia, on the Serbs, the Croats, and the Muslims, but on Europe as a whole, shamed by its own impotence in the face of slaughter.

So why did it take so long to catch this aging, ill man?

Zoran Dragisic, a professor in terrorism studies at Belgrade University and an authority on the Mladic hunt, says the general was able to evade justice for so long because Serb government agents within the military and security forces protected him. Serge Brammertz, the ICTY prosecutor, was methodical but often thwarted by internal leaks.

The United States and Serbia offered more than $ 1 million in reward. But the bounty hunters didn't linger long, frustrated by the wild topography of the country—and its laws, which forbid bounty hunting. Ordinary Serbs themselves shuddered at the thought of collecting the reward. "Whoever takes it would die in about two minutes," a Serb man told me. "Remember, there are still many people who see Mladic as a hero."

Not that there weren't any close calls—there were many. Three years ago, Mladic was spotted in a remote village. But by the time the authorities arrived, he had been alerted and vanished into thin air. One Serb officer told me that a man in a Belgrade apartment block reported a suspicious-looking character who had moved in next door. The man, it seemed, moved only at night. He was—facts revealed later—Ratko Mladic. But by the time the police arrived, obstructed by Mladic loyalists, the general was gone.

The incredible stories of Mladic's escapes fueled a number of conspiracy theories (a Balkan specialty). One had it that Mladic had made a deal with the late Richard Holbrooke, the American diplomat who had negotiated the Dayton peace accords, ending the war in 1995. "Mladic was in charge of welcoming the American troops into Bosnia shortly after Dayton in early 1996," says Dejan Anastasijevic, a leading Serb investigative journalist. "It is widely believed that the Americans said if he cooperated and did not run for political office, he would escape the long arm of The Hague." Another theory holds that the Americans, who trained Croatian troops in Operation Flash, which helped the Croats take the Krajina region from the Serbs in 1995, struck a deal with Mladic: Krajina in exchange for his immunity after the war was over. Kati Marton, Holbrooke's widow, dismissed this alleged deal as a "ridiculous rumor" concocted by Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader who is currently on trial at The Hague. "I'm telling you flat-out, it never happened," she says. "Richard only met with Mladic once, and that was when Milosevic sprung him on Richard and his negotiating team in the summer of '95 in Belgrade. Richard did not shake hands with [him] … and would not negotiate. Richard would be very, very happy with this event, and I deeply regret that he did not live to see it."

The Crazy House is a nondescript café in New Belgrade, where diehard fans of Mladic gather beneath portraits of the general and Karadzic, who was captured and brought to The Hague three years ago. The men calmly reading the sports pages and eating hard-boiled eggs do not see either of those men as war criminals. But elsewhere in Serbia, many I talked to on my visit spoke with hope of Mladic's capture. They wanted to stop worshiping idols from the past; like Mladic's victims, their lives had been shattered by the wars, too. "Mladic sees himself as a man of honor," Vladimir Vukcevic, the Serbian chief prosecutor, told me. "It's a strange man of honor who [keeps] an entire nation hostage and doesn't allow us to move forward."

And earlier this year a diplomat presciently told me: "This is the year it must happen." Serbia is currently in the process of applying for European Union membership—something that would break the country's isolation and pariah status, and offer tangible economic benefits. Getting Mladic, however, had been presented as a condition for membership. (Another conspiracy theory: some in Serb government circles always knew where Mladic was, but didn't offer him up to the ICTY until they felt it was worth it—there were too many euros at stake.)

Certainly, with 20 percent unemployment and an entire generation of young Serbs demoralized by the war and its aftermath, people want change. And perhaps it's coming. At the 15th-anniversary commemoration of the horrors of Srebrenica, President Tadic attended—a first, and a symbolic gesture that many saw as a vivid break with the past.

I went to that commemoration, too. It is hard for me to go to Srebrenica—a city now almost entirely inhabited by Serbs, its Muslim population erased—without thinking of what might have happened had the international community acted sooner. What would have happened had Ana not killed herself, but instead pleaded with her father to stop the killing?

Leaving Belgrade, I drove by Mladic's old house, a modest white villa in the Banovo Brdo neighborhood. His son Darko, 35, lives there now with his wife, a Muslim woman who became an Orthodox Christian, and their two little children. At the house, I noticed the small garden littered with children's toys, a bicycle parked outside, and a scooter discarded under a staircase—fragments from an ordinary life. But what the tableau failed to reveal were the missing years, all that time Mladic spent in hiding—holding an entire country hostage, delaying the reckoning.

It eventually came.

Di Giovanni's next book, Ghosts by Daylight: Love, War, and Redemption, will be published by Knopf in September.