Janine di Giovanni: Ratko Mladic ... The Making of a Monster

Roundup: Talking About History

Janine Di Giovanni’s next book, Ghosts by Daylight: Love, War, and Redemption, will be published by Knopf in September.

For years, during the grim and seemingly endless Balkan wars of the 1990s, Ratko Mladic appeared a mysterious, almost mythic figure, a stout and red-faced general in combat fatigues, who was rarely seen by anyone but his most trusted men. To many Serbs, he was a hero, a defender of national pride and values. To the families of his victims, he was a coldblooded killer who led his soldiers not into battle, but into a state of carnage during the disintegration of Yugoslavia. While all sides—Muslim, Croats, and Serbs—were guilty of heinous crimes, it was Mladic’s men who crossed into infamy, slaughtering nearly 8,000 Muslim boys and men during the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre.

During the years I spent reporting these Balkan wars, my notebooks grew thick with accounts of the terror Serbian snipers inflicted on the residents of Sarajevo, the city they held in a malevolent siege for years. I heard lengthy, heartbreaking accounts of the destruction of Srebrenica, Gorazde, Foca, and Mostar.

But I met Mladic only once.

It was the winter of 1993, a particularly desperate time for the Bosnian civilians, whose villages were left behind as smoldering pyres by marauding Serbian soldiers. Somehow, by a muddy road, through pelting, icy rain, I had made it to Lukavica, the Serb military stronghold where Mladic and his men had made a stop. Dressed in full military regalia, the general was seated in his jeep, appearing smaller than I had expected. I asked him for an interview. Looking at me with a glacial stare, he seemed to regard me not as human but as some strange species. “Tell the reporter to move away from my car before I run her down,” he barked to one of his lackeys. I never saw him again.

It would take almost two decades after that before he was finally caught. His wife, Bosiljka, had claimed he was dead; there was speculation that he had had plastic surgery to avoid capture. But last week, after too many close calls, too much leaked information, too many escapes, Serb intelligence agents found the 69-year-old general at last. His face, though aged, was the same—that of Europe’s most notorious fugitive from justice. Serbia’s president during the war, Slobodan Milosevic, who preceded Mladic to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague after he was arrested in 2001, was known as the Butcher of the Balkans (his trial ended without a verdict when he died in prison in 2006). But it was the bloodthirsty Mladic, soon headed to The Hague himself to stand trial, who oversaw the charnel house...

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