On the early morning of May 26 an elderly man in a blue jacket sat patiently in a house in Lazarevo, Serbia, holding a plastic bag with a few documents and medicines. He did not appear to be nervous—just waiting, prepared. When he heard a knock on the door, he knew the moment he’d been dreading had come. He stood up, took his baseball cap and without resistance followed two policemen to their car parked in front. At least that is how a witness described his arrest later on. The street was still sleeping, an ordinary spring day just about to begin.
But it was not an ordinary day, either for the man or for the rest of the world. Because the arrested man was Ratko Mladic, for the past fifteen years one of the most wanted European war criminals by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
At 69, Mladic looks much older than his age, a shadow of the arrogant, cruel, steel-eyed war commander of the Serbian forces in Bosnia he once was. During his time on the run he suffered several strokes, followed by other health problems. All this after the suicide of his daughter, Ana, in 1994. It is said that she could not forgive her father for what he did in Bosnia. But one should not feel pity for this man, despite his frail looks, considering the crimes he is charged with: genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The master of life and death in Bosnia during the 1992–95 war, Mladic is the general considered chiefly responsible for carrying out the siege of Sarajevo and the execution of some 8,000 mostly civilian Muslim men of all ages in Srebrenica in July 1995.
Political pragmatism finally prevailed in Serbia. Although President Boris Tadic was the first to deny that the arrest of Mladic had anything to do with Serbia’s desire to become a candidate for European Union membership, few in Serbia believe his arrest was a lucky discovery. Indeed, according to the Serbian press, it was the result of a deal between Mladic and the authorities: he would give himself up if part of the $14 million bounty the Serbian government put on his head would go to his family. True or not, after the first hearing in Belgrade, the judge decided Mladic is mentally and physically well enough to be extradited to the ICTY in The Hague.
His arrest is symbolic in many ways. It is a message that crime never gets old and that justice must be done. It is important as a sign of respect for the dead, and even more important for the living, who need to go on living together. And it is an important gesture by the Serbian government, one aimed at closing a chapter in its history and moving forward to a common future in the EU. The first step on the way toward the EU came a year ago, when the Serbian Parliament voted in favor of the Declaration on Srebrenica, which condemned the crime committed against Bosniaks in Srebrenica and expressed condolences and apologies to families and victims.
Now Ratko Mladic will be judged in a court of law, which is, of course, the only legal way to determine individual guilt or innocence.
In his first hearing in Belgrade, Mladic, addressing the judge and all present in the courtroom, said: “Don’t blame me. It is you who elected [Serbian President Slobodan] Milosevic!” He added, Who else is to blame? (Tko vam je kriv?) Strange words from someone like Mladic, but he knew what he was talking about. Of course, he was trying to evade responsibility for his role in war crimes by implying that he was only following orders. But he did have a point: if he is to be tried, what about those Serbs who repeatedly voted for Milosevic and for Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and their politics of nationalism, hatred and war? How to determine the responsibility of those citizens who made Mladic possible? Are they off the hook now by washing their hands of him, on their way into the EU?
While the question of individual guilt is relatively straightforward, collective responsibility is much more complicated, and also repressed. There is no such thing as the collective guilt of entire populations, Serbs or any other people. But could the citizens of Serbia—or Bosnia or Croatia—who voted time and again for nationalist politicians who led them into war truly believe that they are innocent in the transformation of Mladic into a war criminal? There can be no court to judge them, other than their own bad conscience and history. It is a paradox that Mladic, of all people, reminded them of their own role in the carnage they would love to forget, with him behind bars.