Who is Ratko Mladic, the ′Butcher of Bosnia′? | Europe | News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 22.11.2017

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Who is Ratko Mladic, the 'Butcher of Bosnia'?

For six years the former Bosnian Serb army chief Ratko Mladic stood trial at the Hague Tribunal. On Wednesday, 22 years after the war's end, he was sentenced to life in prison.

The list of charges against General Ratko Mladic included many of the worst crimes. The International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) convicted Mladic of charges including crimes against humanity and genocide on Wednesday, handing him a life sentence. 

Mladic and the Bosnian Serb army he commanded attacked and destroyed towns and villages in Bosnia-Herzegovina between April 1992 and July 1995. He is blamed for thousands of deaths as well as ethnic cleansing and wide-spread rape of the non-Serb population during the war.

He is also held responsible for the three-year siege and bombardment of Sarajevo. And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, for the preparation and carrying out of the 1995 genocide of Srebrenica.

Read more —Bosnian bone-hunter: No punishment is enough for Mladic

Start of the genocide

"Shoot only at human flesh! Only on human flesh! They have nothing, they have just simple weapons and that's it." Those were the orders Ratko Mladic gave by radio to his soldiers during the storming of the UN safety zone in Srebrenica. And they followed his orders: 30,000 Bosnians were forced from their houses in the following days in open sight of the Dutch Blue Helmets soldiers, around 8,000 young boys and men were executed and moved to mass graves. It was the biggest massacre in Europe since the Second World War.

Man looking at Wanted posters for Mladic and Karadzic

The bounty for Mladic's arrest was huge, yet he lived on the run for years without even keeping a very low profile

At the high point of his career General Ratko Ratko Mladic was a nationalist, through and through. He saw himself as the avenger of the Serbs for the hundreds of years of Turkish rule in the Balkans. In the international media he was often dubbed "the Butcher of Bosnia".

Read more — Srebrenica: Dutch government contests ruling blaming peacekeepers

Commander-In-Chief in Croatia

He began his career as an ardent communist. Mladic, born in 1943 in East Bosnia, was 2 years old when his father, one of Tito's partisans, was killed by the fascist Croatian Ustasha militia. Later he attended the Yugoslavian military academy in Belgrade and graduated top in his class.

Karadzic and Mladic in 1993

Mladic (left) and Radovan Karadzic (right) pictured at a press conference in 1993 during the Bosnian War

At the beginning of the Croatian War in June 1991, when the Serbs living in Croatia rebelled against the independence of Croatia, Mladic was a colonel in the Yugoslav army, Commander of the 9th Corps based in Knin in what's now Croatia. His task: to organize the Serbian militia and to support them in the fight against Croatian independence. Under his command the cities of Sibenik and Zadar were bombed and the Croatian population expelled from the surrounding areas.

And in Bosnia and Herzegovina…

In May 1992, he undertook the same task in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Promoted to general in the meantime, Mladic became commander of the Bosnian Serb troops and fought for creating a connection to Serb-held territory in the east and west of Bosnia. He personally ordered the siege and bombardment of the capital Sarajevo.

He said publicly that only military targets should be attacked. During this time an intercepted radio message told a different story: "You should keep firing against the presidium and parliament," he said, as an explosion could be heard in the background, "there aren't too many Serbs there. We will destroy them [the Bosniaks]."

Opponent to international peace plans

For many international observers the stocky Mladic was the embodiment of the ignorance of the West by the Serbs. "Borders will always be drawn with blood and states with graves," is one of Mladic's purported sayings. Although he officially was under the command of the political leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic, he had considerable influence within the leadership of the Bosnian Serbs. He was never just an ordinary soldier. He made the Bosnian Serb parliament turn down the peace plan by the international mediators David Owen and Cyrus Vance in 1993.

Read more:

Former Bosnian Serb leader Karadzic found guilty of genocide, sentenced to 40 years

Former UN war crimes tribunal spokeswoman arrested at Karadzic hearing

On July 25, 1995, even before the signing of the Dayton Peace Accord, Mladic, along with Karadzic was charged for crimes committed in Bosnia-Herzegovina by the International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia. A year later the new president of the Republika Srpska, Biljana Plavsic, sacked Mladic as general chief of staff. He went underground, apparently with the help of Serbian politicians and the army. He didn't have to hide that much: with the protection of his supporters, he was sighted many times in restaurants and football stadiums during this period.

Woman kneeling in front of coffins

Some 8,000 people were killed in the Srebrenica massacre of 1995

In May 2011, Mladic was arrested in Serbia after all – the international pressure on the Serbian government had become too great. Mladic has now been behind bars in the Hague for six years during his trial. The 74-year-old was given a life sentence on Wednesday, after being ejected from the courtroom as the verdict was read out following an outburst. The trial lasted 523 court days. Nearly 600 witnesses gave testimony. Mladic has always insisted that he was innocent of all the charges. He named the list of charges "loathsome" and described the Hague tribunal as "satanic." His defense counsel had argued for acquittal.

When he was on the run, Mladic threatened his pursuers that he always carried a poison pill with him. He would never be caught alive, he said. He has not swallowed the pill, and in the meantime he has survived three strokes in prison. His daughter on the other hand shot herself in 1994 before the end of the war, because she could no longer bear the thought of the crimes her father was accused of committing in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina. She killed herself with the same pistol Mladic was given for being the best cadet of his year at military academy.