Ratko Mladic (born 1943) led the Bosnian Serb fight in the Balkan war against Muslims, Croatians, and Serbians which began in 1991. Mladic's savage leadership is reported to have resulted in the deaths of thousands of soldiers and civilians alike, and he has been charged with war crimes.
General Ratko Mladic's forces led the assault on Sarajevo and the "ethnic cleansing" atrocities committed against Muslims. The region's history is marked by conflict among its inhabitants, and after the death of communist leader Tito who held the various ethnic groups together with his party apparatus, the nation known as Yugoslavia gradually eroded into hostilities.
Raised in Military Tradition
Born in the tiny village of Bozinovici, 25 miles south of Sarajevo in Eastern Bosnia, on March 12, 1943, Ratko Mladic grew up in an environment filled with passionate nationalistic sentiments and a tradition of war. On his second birthday, Mladic's father, Nedja, died while fighting Ustasa forces, units of Croats and Muslims who fought alongside the Germans at Bradina, southwest of Sarajevo. Years later, in a verbal exchange with a United Nation's commander in the Balkans, Mladic defended his unrelenting pursuit of war against Bosnian Muslims saying, "My son is the first in many generations to know his father. Because there have been so many attacks on the Serbian people, children do not know their fathers."
Growing up fatherless, Mladic attended an army school on the outskirts of Belgrade. At age 15 he entered the nation's military academy and upon graduation in 1965, he joined the Communist Party. Serving in Europe's fourth largest army in Macedonia, Mladic climbed the ranks, moving from commander of a platoon to commander of a tank battalion, then a brigade. In January 1991, he assumed the position of deputy commander of the army corps in the Kosov province. As turmoil ensued after the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991, Mladic traveled to Knin in the Krajina region and assumed the rank of colonel and command of the former Yugoslavian army.
Amidst the chaos in Krajina, Mladic used his charm, ambition, and fearlessness to advance his military career. Without uniforms or defined battle grounds, enemies often failed to recognize each other and innocent civilians lost their lives and homes. Mladic thrived in this environment, crossing between sides by using identification papers of Croat officers he had known. Even when confronted boldly by a Croatian soldier who recognized him, Mladic convinced the man that he was in fact the Croatian whose identity papers he carried. In another infamous incident, Mladic climbed aboard a bus rigged with explosives and cut the detonator wires after other special units were unable to do so. These and other actions consolidated Serbian positions in Krajina and earned Mladic the title of general in April of 1992.
Raised to Command of Bosnian Serb Army
In May of 1992, Bosnian Serb leaders read about Mladic in a Croatian newspaper and identified him as the man to lead their war initiatives, transferring him from the Yugoslav army to the new Bosnian Serb Forces. Early actions revealed Mladic's ruthless military style. "The dominant shape of armed conflict for me is attack," Mladic told a New York Times correspondent. "I have an offensive character, and that's highly acceptable to the high command of the army of the Republic of Serbians." Arguing his actions safeguarded a Serbian minority threatened by a Muslim-dominated government, Mladic ordered the unrelenting shelling of Sarajevo. When the Bosnian government forces moved to secure a road link between Sarajevo and Tuzla, Mladic's troops resisted an attack from three sides, killing close to 1,000 government troops, according to United Nations officials. Within months of his appointment as the first commander of the Bosnian Serb Army, Mladic consolidated control of 70 percent of the country, an area about the size of West Virginia.
Mladic and his armies fought bitterly while political leaders in Europe and the rest of the world watched, downplaying the conflict as a minor civil struggle amongst centuries-old combatants. President Clinton remarked, "It's tragic. It's terrible. But their enmities go back 500 years. Do we have the capacity to impose a settlement on people who want to continue fighting?" The war steadily escalated, fueled by sentiment such as Mladic's when he said, "There will be no peace in the Balkans until all Serbs join forces and live in a single country. Serbs should never give up their goal, even if it means another world war," quoted the St. Petersburg Times.
By December of 1992, the world listened in horror to reports by the Bosnian government and international human rights groups of ethnic cleansing which left 150,000 to 200,000 Muslims dead and over a million homeless. When a reporter asked Mladic for a response to a British newspaper calling him "ethnic-cleanser-in-chief," he responded, "It's not a crime to defend one's people, it's a holy duty." Yet Mladic and other Bosnian leaders fell under intense scrutiny when a tribunal closely examined the thousands of allegations of war crimes against the Serbian military. In the official indictment published by the U.N. group working from the Hague, Netherlands, Mladic and Karadzic were held responsible for "the unlawful confinement, murder, rape, sexual assault, torture, beating, robbery and inhumane treatment of civilians; the targeting of political leaders, intellectuals and professionals; the unlawful deportation and transfer of civilians; the unlawful shelling of civilians; the unlawful appropriation and plunder of real and personal property; the destruction of homes and businesses; and the destruction of places of worship."
Military Decisions Yielded Consequences
Mladic experienced personal loss as a result of the conflict. In May of 1992, the house he shared with his brother in Pofalici, a borough of Sarajevo, burned to the ground. On March 24, 1994, Mladic's daughter, Ana, a 23-year-old medical student, died in Belgrade of an apparent suicide. Her friends said she took her own life after reading a strongly worded attack on her father written by the former editor of a monthly magazine People's Army, Gajo Petkovic. In the article, Petkovic stated that Mladic was "carried away with rage and brutality" and held "undoubted responsibility for the crimes of members of the army he led." Mladic, raised Communist and atheist, attended his daughter's funeral at the Serbian Orthodox church with his wife, Bozana, and their son.
In December, 1992, the United States formally listed possible war criminals and Mladic was close to the top at number three, below the two leading Serbian political officials. Mladic accused the United States of interfering with and prolonging the war by offering aid to the Croats and Muslims at critical times and consistently used interviews to make anti-American statements, usually through innuendo and indirect criticism. A senior United Nations official who engaged in negotiations with Mladic compared him to Sadaam Hussein, saying, "He has the same cunning and the same urge to take on the Americans and show what a tough guy he is."
In 1995, an international tribunal established by the United Nations indicted Mladic and 51 others suspected of participating in the atrocities committed during the four years of war in the former Yugoslavia. In meetings following the Dayton Peace Accord, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic promised to hand over some officers wanted for questioning before the tribunals but American officials were able to say only that they left the meetings "with the expectation" that Mladic would also be handed over in time. Mladic himself, however, in a March 15, 1996, interview with the BBC said, "I shall probably remain (army chief) for as long as my people need me … I was not ready to and did not follow any dictates from the West to be appointed as adviser of the president of the republic, and thus removed by order of some foreign intelligence circles, because they did not appoint me to my current function in the first place, so they cannot remove me, nor can their agents in politics in the region do that either. Finally, the assessment of my aides and the military is that I am still needed, that I can still be useful, at least with my good advice, if nothing else."
Despite Mladic's apparent responsibility for many of the most brutal atrocities and inhumane policies which brought mass destruction to the country and his attempts to thwart the peace process in the former Yugoslavia, efforts to bring peace to the region appeared in early 1996 appeared to be taking hold. Mladic seems to be stepping away from active responsibility and may succumb to intense political pressure and retire. Facing imminent prosecution and the loss of political power and influence, Mladic's role in the rebuilding process shows signs of being a minor one. Never lacking for words, Mladic responded to questions about his possible arrest saying, "They have to understand one fact: I am too costly, and people are protecting me. I am protected by my reputation, my honesty, and personal sacrifice in this war." On November 27, 1996, Mladic finally stepped down as military leader under pressure from political leaders. He had been dismissed by the Bosnian-Serb president on November 9, but Mladic and his supporters had refused to follow the order.
Further Reading on Ratko Mladic
American Lawyer, September, 1995, p.5.
British Broadcasting Summary of World Broadcasts, March 18, 1996.
International Herald Tribune, February 21, 1996; March 23, 1996.
New Republic, Vol. 211, December 19, 1994, p. 12; Vol. 213, August 7, 1995, p. 6.
New York Times, August 8, 1993, p. 1-14; September 4, 1994, p.6-26; April 17, 1994, p. 1-12; May 30, 1996, p. A7; November 28, 1996, p. A3.
Rocky Mountain News, April 12, 1994, p. A23.
St. Petersburg Times, July 26, 1995, p. A2.
Washington Post, January 23, 1995, p. A10; September 7, 1995, p. A1; February 18, 1996, p. A33.