Friday, 27 May 2011

Indicting Mladic - for Srebrenica, Sarajevo...and London

Former Bosnian Serb army commander General Ratko Mladic has amazingly been "found" by the Serbian authorities living in a house owned by his cousin, also called "Mladic", and is now on a fast track extradition process to the International Court at The Hague to stand trial for war crimes. He is likely to have a combined trial with his old boss, former President of the rebel Republic of Srpska, Radovan Karadzic, who similarly enjoyed many years of refuge in Serbia using one of the most obvious and unconvincing disguises in history - a big beard.

We should be glad the pair have been finally brought to justice, but they are not the only culpable parties. The Bosnian civil war was a dreadful stain on European history, one which our media, leaders and publics feigned to find "too complicated" to do anything about while it was happening and then rushed for the exit of history to forget about it as soon as it was over.

Bosnia had been one of five republics which made up Yugoslavia (the Union of Slavs) - Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia-Hercegovina and the largest, Serbia (which included three autonomous areas, Kosovo, Montenegro and Vojvodena). This area, like the rest of the Balkans, has a long history of migration and conquest by competing powers from the Dark Ages onwards over the years as empires rose and fell in lands with often uncertain geographical boundaries.

The five republics of former Federal Yugoslavia
Bosnia is unusual among the former Yugoslav republics in that its largest component - about 45% of the population - is Muslim. Of the rest, about 30% are Serbian Orthodox Christians and about 20% Croatian Catholics - with tiny Romany and Jewish populations making up the balance. The Muslims, who call themselves Bosniacs, are mainly descendants of indigenous people who, when the Ottoman Turks conquered the area in the 15th century, gradually converted to Islam. Although the Muslim Turks were in their time almost uniquely tolerant of other faiths, being a Muslim was a requirement for anyone wishing to serve in the Government. Consequently, over several centuries, many converted either pragmatically or through genuine belief - contrary to western mythology, there has rarely been forced conversion in Islamic history anywhere.

The Ottoman Empire, which stretched from the Danube to the Euphrates and from Istanbul to Ethiopia at its height, was organised into different millets, self-governing communities based on religion. As a result, for several centuries, people of different faiths lived physically alongside each other, with a degree of separation, but in peace and even with some slow social integration and sharing. However, with the rise of 19th century liberalism, unscrupulous politicians in the Balkans whipped up nationalist feelings. People were encouraged and even forced to think of themselves along ethnic lines - Serb, Hellenic, Turk - rather than as Ottomans, with religious differences used to buttress the desire for national independence from the Empire.

In such a potent mix, rivalries over land and resources inevitably led to conflict. The creation of Yugoslavia in 1919 went some way to suppressing nationalism - and after 1945 under the Communist regime of Tito a balance was created between the semi-autonomous republics listed earlier and the central Federal Government. But the collapse of Communism soon unleashed ethnic tensions again.

From 1989, the President of the Serbian republic within Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic advocated the break up of Yugoslavia but with the creation in its place of a Greater Serbia taking in neighbouring lands. He and his cronies set up a process that soon led to violent attacks on non-Serbs across Yugoslavia. In Bosnia, Radovan Karadzic emerged as the spokesman of the Serb minority and in October 1991, just after a national vote overwhelmingly in favour of independence, he chillingly warned his opponents:
"In just a couple of days, Sarajevo will be gone and there will be five hundred thousand dead, in one month Muslims will be annihilated in Bosnia and Herzegovina"

With massive quantities of weapons, troops and supplies provided from the Serbian-controlled Yugoslav Federal Army and with Ratko Mladic appointed to head up its army, Karadzic established the Republic of Srpska, which he intended to unite with Serbia proper. Along with a similar breakaway territory in Croatia, the Krajina, a Greater Serbia would be fashioned from lands seized from its neighbours and, even worse, ethnically cleansed of non-Serbs.

Troika of terror: Mladic, Karadzic & Milosevic

The next three and a half years saw repeated belligerence by the Serbs, joined at times by nationalist Croats. The Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, was surrounded by Serbian paramilitaries and subjected to the longest siege in modern history. Mladic vowed to bombard the largely unarmed inhabitants "until they are on the edge of madness" and over 10,000 people, including 1.500 children, died. Elsewhere, Serbian paramilitaries moved through villages and towns, identifying and expelling or slaughtering Muslims and Croats. Rape camps were set up where tens of thousands of young Muslim women were taken and raped repeatedly by Serbians. Muslim men were incarcerated and worked, starved and tortured to death, their bodies then being tipped into old coal mines which were dynamited to hide the evidence.

Echoes of Auschwitz - Bosnian Muslims in Serbian custody
The most notorious incident came in July 1995 at the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica. In late June, the Serbs overwhelmed the lightly armed Bosniac defenders and ordered the entire population to leave. Over the next few days, men and women were separated and put onto different buses to take them to Sarajevo. But at the other end, many did not arrive and over the next few weeks it emerged than nearly 9,000 Muslim men and boys had been driven into the countryside and massacred by their captors.

Some European leaders did call for action - including French Socialist President Francois Mitterand, who at one point undertook a personally highly dangerous trip to Sarajevo to express his solidarity with its citizens. But the likes of British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd - who later went on to make a fortune out of helping Milosevic privatise Serb state telecommunications - prevailed for all too long. The Bosniacs were repeatedly implied to have a similar agenda to the Serbs, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary and in spite of the Bosniacs being in fact a relatively mixed group of people fighting for their new democracy.

Particularly in Sarajevo, thousands of ethnic Serbs and Croats joined the Bosnic Muslims in defence of their city and in 1992 the Bosnian Army included 18% Croat and 12% Serb components. Ethnic Serb General Jovan Divjak was deputy commander of the Bosniac army, while Croat General Stjepan Siber served as second deputy. Although, as happens all too often in the barbarising furnace of war, there were atrocities carried out by Bosniac individuals against Serbs, this was never a policy of the leadership. There were no acts of mass ethnic cleansing, no work camps and no rape camps in Bosniac territories.

The end of the war following American intervention and the long and troubled restoration of a still uncertain peace are other stories. But what is certain is that by late 1995 the atrocities committed by Karadzic, Mladic and their acolytes had done untold, lasting damage not just in their country but across the world. The figures speak for themselves - in the conflict, according to the International Criminal Tribunal, nearly 70% of the 100,000 dead were Muslims -over one in every thirty were killed. Among civilians, Muslims accounted for 88% of all deaths. And all this happened on Europe's doorstep, little more than two or three hours drive from Venice.

So Mladic has plenty to reflect on as he is is taken to The Hague. Sarajevo, Srebrenica and a host of other places in Bosnia were transformed by his work. Thanks to our leaders' fawning acquiescence to these thugs, London has felt the dreadful impact too, albeit comparatively lightly when set against the massive atrocities of Bosnia - the 7/7 bombers in 2005 were, like many younger Muslims, radicalised by the Bosnian war. And, unnoticed by all too many, the London bombings themselves took place on the tenth anniversary of the massacre of all these defenceless men and boys in the forests and fields around the ghost town of Srebrenica.

Milosevic died during his trial on war crime charges and now Mladic and Karadzic look likely to spend the rest of their lives in jail.Their malign influence is nearly gone, but they leave behind them a terrible, poisonous and far-reaching legacy that touches us all.

The tragedy that changed history: when President Bill Clinton saw this photograph of a young Muslim refugee who had hanged herself, he determined to over-rule repeated European opposition to his attempts to intervene. After a week of air attacks on Serb paramilitaries, three and a half years of brutal civil war came to an end.

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