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Sumantra Bose
Sumantra Bose
Sumantra Bose is professor of International and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics.
The devolution of Ratko Mladic
After rejecting ethnic division and asserting "brotherhood and unity", how did Mladic become an accused war criminal?
Last Modified: 27 May 2011 16:02
Mladic has been accused of being responsible for, among other crimes, the deaths of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the massacre of Srebrenica [GALLO/GETTY]

It is turning out to be a bad season for high-profile and elusive fugitives. From Pakistan to Serbia, the world's most wanted men are falling like dominoes.

Ratimir ("Ratko") Mladic's life is an especially macabre illustration of the turbulent twentieth-century history of the country formerly known as Yugoslavia. Indeed, his life eerily shadows the re-birth of Yugoslavia (literally, "the land of the southern Slavs") in 1945 from the devastation and violence of World War II, the four ensuing decades of relative prosperity and apparent stability in the multinational, federal and single-party state created by the Yugoslav communist movement - personified by Josip ("Tito") Broz until his death in 1980 - and the catastrophic unravelling of that state amid a succession of wars in the 1990s.

Mladic was born in 1942 in eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina, an area with a complicated history of co-existence and conflict between its mixed population of Serbs and Muslims. Bosnia's Muslims, now formally known as "Bosniaks", are the descendants of native Slavs who converted to Islam during the first two centuries of Ottoman Turkish control of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which lasted from the fifteenth century until 1878.

When Mladic was born, the entire region was caught up in a maelstrom of violence. A year earlier Yugoslavia - created after World War I and often referred to as the "first" Yugoslavia to distinguish it from the second period of the country's history, that of Titoist Yugoslavia - had been invaded, occupied and dismembered into fragments by Nazi Germany and an assortment of Axis allies.

In 1941-1942 the large population of Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia were subjected to a campaign of extermination by a nationalist Croat movement allied to Nazi Germany. Mladic's given name literally means "War and Peace", a reflection of the times.

Between 1941 and 1945 as many as 1.7 million people of different faiths and nationalities are estimated to have been killed in the territories of Yugoslavia.

Bosnia-Herzegovina - a multi-religious and multi-national mosaic of (Christian Orthodox) Serbs, (Muslim) Bosniaks and (Catholic) Croats - was the worst-affected part. Hundreds of thousands died in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the single largest proportion were Bosnian Serbs, including a very high number of murdered civilians.

Fitzroy Maclean, a British intelligence officer who parachuted into Bosnia-Herzegovina in early 1943, wrote later in his memoirs that "it is hard to imagine the savage intensity" of the violence and "the extremes of bitterness engendered".

He recalls the Bosnia of 1943 as a kaleidoscope of "burned villages, desecrated churches, massacred hostages and mutilated corpses". Tragically, this was to recur just fifty years later.

Like many Bosnian Serbs, Mladic's parents - rural, peasant folk-joined the ranks of the "Partisans", the communist-led national liberation movement fighting against Nazi Germany and its local collaborators. The beleaguered Serbs of Bosnia and Croatia formed the backbone of the multi-ethnic and multi-religious Partisan fighting forces.

In 1945, with the war drawing to a close and Partisan victory imminent, Mladic's father was killed in action. He died while participating in a Partisan attack on a village located just south-west of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital. This village was the birthplace of Ante Pavelic, the Poglavnik ("Leader") of the extreme-nationalist Croat movement that inflicted such depredations on Bosnian and Croatian Serbs during the war.

For three decades, from the early 1960s onward, Mladic enjoyed a successful career in the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA), the military of Titoist Yugoslavia. A son of Partisan parents and a martyred father, he, like many Bosnian Serbs, identified strongly with the Yugoslavia resurrected from fratricide and rebuilt from ruin after 1945.

The creed and slogan of the second Yugoslavia was bratstvo i jedinstvo or "brotherhood and unity" between the different faiths (Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim) and ethno-national groups - Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Montenegrins, Macedonians and Bosnian Muslims, among others - inhabiting Yugoslavia. 

The communist regime purposely made Bosnia-Herzegovina - geographically the heartland of Yugoslavia, demographically the most multinational of its constituent parts, and historically a violence-prone and troubled place - the showcase of the new Yugoslavia, built on ideals of tolerance, solidarity and co-existence between peoples.

Brotherhood and unity?

During these decades Mladic preferred to describe his primary identity as "Yugoslav" rather than "Serb". The preference was significant. Throughout the Titoist period only a small fraction of Yugoslavia's citizens chose the supra-ethnic category of "Yugoslav" as their primary identity - for example 1.7 per cent in the census of 1961, 1.3 per cent in 1971, 5.4 per cent in 1981, 3.0 per cent in 1991. Most of Yugoslavia's citizens preferred to stick with their ethno-nationality as their primary identity.

Mladic's commitment to being a Yugoslav above anything else was rooted in his family origins, but it was fostered by his career in the JNA. The Yugoslav People's Army, the institutionalised incarnation of the Partisan resistance forces of World War II, saw itself and was widely regarded as the embodiment of the Yugoslavist ethos of "brotherhood and unity".

Ethos aside, the JNA's officer corps remained substantially multinational until the end of Yugoslavia in 1991, albeit with some over-representation of Serbs - especially Serbs of Bosnian and Croatian origin - and Montenegrins.

Thereafter, the JNA disintegrated on ethno-national lines, as most of its officers joined different sides in the wars that erupted in Croatia in 1991 and Bosnia-Herzegovina a year later.

Paradoxically, it was this attachment to Yugoslavia and Yugoslavism that drove Mladic's choices and conduct in the 1990s. He blamed Bosnia's Muslims for colluding with Croatia and Bosnia's Croats in engineering the break-up and fragmentation of the Yugoslav federation in 1991-1992 and for cutting the Bosnian and Croatian Serbs adrift from Serbia.

This is an understandable view, which was - at the time and still - widely shared among Serbs in Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Montenegro. What is inexcusable by any civilised standard are the depths of vengefulness and cruelty Mladic is alleged to have shown his adversaries, particularly Bosnian Muslims.

Crucially, Mladic reportedly made no distinction between the combatants and civilians of the "enemy", in a manner totally unbecoming of his professional military background.

When war erupted in the second half of 1991 between Croatia's nationalist government and a large section of Croatia's Serb minority of 12-14 per cent, Mladic was posted as a senior JNA officer in Croatia. In this capacity, he helped Croatia's Serb insurgents in their fight against Croatia's forces. In May 1992, as Bosnia exploded in violence, he assumed command of the Bosnian Serb army.

Early in the Bosnian war intercepted radio traffic revealed Mladic coolly ordering his subordinates to indiscriminately bomb and shell the city of Sarajevo. This conduct continued until the end of the war three-and-a-half years later, when Mladic was reported to have played a leading and possibly the decisive role in the cold-blooded massacres of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, an eastern Bosnian town that fell to his forces in July 1995 - after holding out for most of the war.

Painstaking work done in recent years by the Sarajevo-based Research and Documentation Centre has shown that the total number of fatalities in the 1992-1995 Bosnian war was slightly more than 100,000, substantially lower than the figure of 200,000 or higher commonly cited during the war and years afterward.

Yet 100,000-plus dead is still a catastrophic toll by any standard, and particularly if we remember that Bosnia-Herzegovina's population in 1992 was 4.4 million (45 per cent Bosnian Muslim, 35 per cent Bosnian Serb, and 18 per cent Bosnian Croat - i.e. about two million Muslims, 1.5 million Serbs and 800,000 Croats). Nearly 60 per cent of the deaths were combat fatalities, which reveals the intensity of the fighting that occurred, and about 40 per cent were civilians.

It is not that Bosnia's Serbs did not suffer during the 1992-1995 war. Far from it. There are numerous well-documented cases of Bosnian Serb civilians being murdered, forcibly expelled from their homes and tortured in detention camps by Bosnian Muslim as well as Bosnian Croat forces, and of Bosnian Serb combatants taken prisoner being brutally mistreated and even executed.

The Bosnian Serb army led by Ratko Mladic lost 20,649 soldiers, killed in action during the war. But the overall picture is unmistakable. Bosnia's Muslims, about 45 per cent of the population, account for two-thirds of the total deaths and - most telling - a staggering 83 per cent of the civilian dead.

There is thus no doubt whatsoever as to which community suffered the most in the Bosnian war, just as there is no doubt that the atrocities committed by the Bosnian Serb army and allied paramilitaries were significantly more widespread and more systematic than those perpetrated by the belligerents of the other two sides.

Moreover, most of the worst atrocities of the war were perpetrated by Bosnian Serbs - the violent uprooting of tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims from in and around the north-western Bosnian town of Prijedor in the summer of 1992, the punitive attacks on Sarajevo over more than three years, the Srebrenica killings in the summer of 1995.

In other words, General Mladic has a lot to answer for at The Hague, alongside his erstwhile colleague, the wartime Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic.

Ivo Andric (1892-1975) received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961. A Bosnian Croat born in the central Bosnian town of Travnik, at one time the seat of the Ottoman government of Bosnia, Andric preferred to identify as "Yugoslav" throughout his adult life.

As a native Bosnian, Andric had especially insightful perspectives on Bosnia-Herzegovina and its peoples. As early as 1920 he wrote with trepidation that "Bosnians have, for the most part, got used to keeping all the strength of [their] hatred for that which is closest to [them]. [Their] holy of holies is, as a rule, rivers and mountains away but the objects of [their] revulsion and hatred are right beside [them] - in the same town, often on the other side of the courtyard wall".

It is cruelly ironic that Ratko Mladic, a man born 69 years ago amid the slaughter of his own people, ended up accused of being a perpetrator of genocidal crimes against other Bosnians. 

Sumantra Bose is Professor of International and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics. His books include Contested Lands: Israel-Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, Cyprus, and Sri Lanka, and Bosnia after Dayton: Nationalist Partition and International Intervention.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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