Butcher of Bosnia: Serbian Who Committed Crimes Against Humanity

Ratko Mladić is a Bosnian Serb convicted war criminal and colonel-general who led the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) during the Yugoslav Wars. In 2017, he was found guilty of committing war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

The 78-year-old Ratko Mladić, known as “The Butcher of Bosnia”, had played a key role in the ethnic cleansing and civil war that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Ratko Mladić was born in Bozanovici, on 12 March 1942. Upon finishing elementary school, Mladić worked in Sarajevo as a whitesmith for the Tito Company. He entered the Military Industry School in Zemun in 1961. He then went on to the KOV Military Academy and the Officers Academy thereafter.

Upon graduating on 27 September 1965, Mladić began his career in the Yugoslav People’s Army. On 14 January 1991, he was promoted again, to Deputy Commander in Pristina and was again promoted on 24 April 1992, to the rank of lieutenant colonel general.

The Case of Ratko Mladic

The Bosnian genocide is widely acknowledged by genocide scholars as the biggest war crime perpetrated on European soil since World War II. The Bosnian genocide refers sometimes to the genocide in Srebrenica, perpetrated by Bosnian Serb forces in the summer of 1995, or refers to the wider crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing campaigns throughout areas controlled by the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS).

The disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1991 threw southeastern and central Europe in chaos and led to violent inter-ethnic wars in the region over the next few years. In many ways, the violence perpetrated against Bosniaks or Bosnian Muslims during the Srebrenica massacre was a result of this regional conflict.

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The Bosnian war that occurred between 1992-1995, witnessed a period of displacement and ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats by the Bosnian Serb army and paramilitary forces. During the war, the Srebrenica massacre started on July 11, 1995. 

In less than two weeks, their forces systematically murdered more than 8,000 Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims). Ratko Mladic, commander of the Bosnian Serb units, told the terrified civilians not to be afraid as his forces began the slaughter. They did not stop for 10 days.

The events in Srebrenica included the killing of men and boys, as well as the mass expulsion of another 25,000–30,000 Bosniak civilians, in and around the town of Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The expulsion from the area is known as ‘ethnic cleansing. The United Nations peacekeeping mission led by the Netherlands failed to stop these murders.

The massacre also saw widespread crimes against women, where girls and women were subjected to violence and rape. Bosnian Serb forces had forced Bosnian Muslims to dig their own graves and later shot them to death. 25 years after the massacre, bodies of victims continue to be found in mass graves.

The massacre helped galvanize the West to press for a cease-fire that ended three years of warfare on Bosnia’s territory. However, it left deep emotional scars on survivors and created enduring obstacles to political reconciliation among Bosnia’s ethnic groups.

Investigation

In 1995, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia indicted Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadzic, the President of the Republika Srpska, for war crimes against Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica. 

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In March 2003, Bosnia and Herzegovina began their own investigations on the Srebrenica massacre, relying heavily on the findings of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which concluded the next year, with the government admitting that crimes had been committed against Bosnian Muslims. The total number of men and boys who were slaughtered was initially a matter of some debate.  

The process of locating the graves and identifying the victims was completed by a well-organized effort undertaken by Bosnian Serb forces in September and October 1995 to hide traces of the Srebrenica crimes. Soldiers used heavy tractors and backhoes to dig up mass graves and moved the disinterred remains to distant sites, many of which were later located by U.S. intelligence experts using satellite photographs.

It required years of analysis by Western scientists—using laborious comparisons of soil and tissue samples, shell casings, pollen, and clothing fragments—to piece together exactly where the killings had occurred and how the bodies had been moved among an estimated 80 mass grave sites. By early 2010 the International Commission on Missing Persons, a nongovernmental organization established in 1996, had used DNA samples to identify more than 6,400 individual victims.

An official apology for the massacre was later issued by the government. Ten years after the massacre, in 2005. The US House of Representatives officially passed a resolution, recognizing it as the Srebrenica Genocide.

Conviction & Final Verdict

The UN criminal tribunal eventually indicted more than 20 people for their involvement. In 2001, it convicted Radislav Krstić, commander of the Bosnian Serb corps responsible for the Srebrenica area, of aiding and abetting genocide and murder. In 2003 Bosnian Serb intelligence officer Momir Nikolić pledged guilty to committing crimes against humanity.

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Both Krstić and Nikolić received lengthy prison terms. In 2010, the tribunal convicted two chiefs of security for the Bosnian Serb military, Vujadin Popović and Ljubiša Beara, of genocide and sentenced them to life in prison; a third Bosnian Serb officer, Drago Nikolić, was given a 35-year sentence for abetting genocide. The trial of Karadžić, who was located and arrested in 2008, began in 2009.

In March 2016, Radovan Karadžić, the former president of Republika Srpska, was found guilty by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and was sentenced to 40 years’ imprisonment.  

Mladić remained a fugitive until May 2011, when he was captured in Serbia to be extradited to The Hague for trial. In November 2017, he was found guilty of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity and was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Ratko Mladić is now set to serve life imprisonment after a UN court dismissed his final appeal against convictions for genocide and crimes against humanity in June 2021. The verdict by a five-judge bench at the UN International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals at The Hague upheld the decision of a lower tribunal and rejected Mladic’s appeal. The judgment marks the last Bosnian genocide trial before the court. 

The ruling was welcomed by US President Joe Biden. In a statement, he said, “This historic judgment shows that those who commit horrific crimes will be held accountable. It also reinforces our shared resolve to prevent future atrocities from occurring anywhere in the world.”

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