The Ratko Mladic disease infecting Europe

Another war criminal from the Yugoslav war has been handed a sentence, but lessons remain unlearned.

Ratko Mladic
Ratko Mladic monitors a battle from his shelter on top of a hill some 4km from the centre of the eastern Bosnian city of Gorazde on April 16, 1994 [Reuters]

Ratko Mladic, war-time Chief Commander of the Army of Republika Srpska, has been found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995, and genocide committed in the city of Srebrenica in July 1995.

The judge of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) said that Mladic has been found guilty for some of the most horrendous crimes known to humanity. And he will spend the rest of his life in prison.

This verdict will not change anything in the lives of people in Bosnia, or those living in the diaspora around the world. But at least we can comfort ourselves that some kind of justice does exist in this world and that those who are responsible for such horrific crimes, sooner or later, will end up in prison.

At least, that is how I felt, while sitting in the courtroom and listening to the judge reading the verdict. But there is still one question that bothers me: What did we learn from the Yugoslav wars, if we learned anything at all?

Ratko Mladic and war-time Republika Srpska President Radovan Karadzic (sentenced to 40 years in prison by the ICTY) started their bloody campaign in 1992. Under their command, people were mercilessly killed, raped, tortured, expelled from their homes, burned alive, and mutilated. All that was happening in the heart of Europe, while the European Union and its institutions were being established, celebrated, and praised as something that would bring hope, peace and stability for all. 

A new Europe was born and people were promised to live in unity and solidarity, under the rule of law, in respect of human and civil rights. However, that Europe was not wise or brave enough to find a way to prevent, or, at least, to stop the killings in its very heart.

While they were lying to themselves that it can only happen to us, in the Balkans, they were closing their eyes to the growing, far-right movement.


European and other Western leaders were hesitant, back then, to call Mladic and Karadzic war criminals, or name what they were doing a genocide. They did not want to compare their killing campaign to Nazi mass murders, or to call their ideas fascist.

Instead, they were trying to find a way to negotiate with murderers, while using gentle terms to describe what was going on in Bosnia, like “ethnic cleansing”, “conflict”, or “civil war”. It took them a long time to even recognise that war crimes were committed. Then, it took them almost four years to act and stop the war, four years that cost us over 100,000 lives and more than 2 million refugees.

When they finally stopped the war, making all these people with blood on their hands sign a peace agreement, it took years again to find a way to prosecute them. The processes were long and dreadful, and some, like the one for Slobodan Milosevic, former president of Serbia, never really ended; he died before the verdict was pronounced.

People from Bosnia suffered a lot because of this, and we still live the consequences of European hesitation. But these consequences I can see now everywhere around the world.

By not reacting on time to stop mass crimes being committed, Western leaders sent a message to everybody in the world that it is OK to kill other people, and to promote dangerous, ultranationalist ideas. That it is OK to commit genocide, and the world will pretend it is something else, just a small regional conflict among some tribal people. That it is OK to be a fascist, but just call it something else.

While they were lying to themselves that it can only happen to us, in the Balkans, they were closing their eyes to the growing far-right movement and rebirth of fascism all over Europe and the world.


If the Karadzic’s and Mladic’s of the Balkans had been stopped on time, and their ideas proclaimed dangerous, it could have been a clear message to all those who support ultranationalist and fascist ideas. But, everybody forgot the lesson we should have learned in the 1990s in Yugoslavia – that fascism is like a disease; it spreads easily and can infect anyone.

And in my own country, Bosnia and Herzegovina, it seems we also haven’t learned anything for the past 25 years. Nothing, after all the pain we lived and continue to live through.

We did not learn not to trust nationalist politicians. They still rule the country, while constantly keeping old fears alive and reminding us all that we are nothing else but victims. The word “survivor” has not been introduced to our post-war lives yet.

We did not learn how not to have confidence in the international community, whatever is meant by that term. Today, most Balkan people still expect salvation to come from the outside. We still think we are unable to do it ourselves.

We are still unable to stop being victims and become survivors, and move on with our lives. Or start from the beginning. Anything, just to move forward. 

After years of waiting, one more monster – Ratko Mladic – has been punished for what he did. But, unfortunately, I cannot say that his doings and his ideas have been eliminated in the process. They are not even defeated.

On May 28, 1992, I was wounded by shrapnel at my home in Sarajevo. That day, Mladic had ordered his soldiers to use all available ammunition to shoot at our city; “Blow their minds away,” he told them.

He not only blew our minds away, but he also left a time-resistant ideological crater in the heart of Europe. There was nobody to stop him and put him in prison years ago, so his ideas spread like a drug-resistant bug, adjusting to different circumstances and times.

I can hear Mladic and Karadzic in the words of many far-right leaders in Europe and around the world today. I can hear them in the words of people who are justifying wars and war crimes. I can hear them in policies of closed borders and “national security”.

However, unlike many others in today’s Europe, I can hear them and recognise them. And, unlike many others, that makes me worried.


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