It is perhaps fitting that I had breakfast this morning with a friend I met while working in Sarajevo during the war that ravaged Bosnia more than 15 years ago. The first thing she told me was that Ratko Mladic, one of the engineers of the Serb campaign of ethnic cleansing that killed tens of thousands and left millions homeless in Croatia and Bosnia, had finally been arrested.All I could summon in the way of a reaction was, “Really? Huh.”
I spent a considerable part of the 1990s in the war zones of Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo working for the United Nations. I served as the Spokeswoman for the prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in Sarajevo and Kosovo, and worked with the team investigating the deaths of approximately 8,000 men and boys in Srebrenica in July 1995. Mladic is charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the laws and customs of war for commanding the Bosnian Serb troops in the massacre, the largest in Europe since World War II.
I suppose I should be jumping for joy now that he’s (finally) in custody, but it’s not that simple. There is no doubt that his arrest is an important victory for international justice, even if it is long overdue. But his crimes are not a footnote in the history books for me. They are etched in the fabric of my soul and those of many of my friends. A mere hours after hearing the news, his arrest isn’t closing a circle so much as it is opening a gaping wound.
First my mind rewinds to the summer of 1992. I interviewed countless Bosnians and Croatians who had fled the fighting. I still wonder what happened to many of them. After showing me their bullet wounds and knife cuts and photos of the men they left behind—dead, alive, missing, detained—they would ask me why my country would not let them buy weapons to defend themselves. At the time, the United States and our allies (shamefully) participated in an arms embargo “on all sides,” even though the Serbs were clearly the aggressors. What could I say? I didn’t understand it either.
The atrocities continued for another three years. You cannot possibly imagine the cocktail of emotions that envelops you when you see a column of refugees pouring down the street in real life. It was a funeral procession writ large. No one spoke. They were dirty and disheveled. Everyone dragged pathetic, worn-out nylon bags stuffed with all that remained of their worldly possessions. Their faces were ashen and creased. Children usually cried while clinging to a filthy doll. Elderly women often had to be helped along.
Anger. Righteous indignation. Sadness. More anger. Despair. Shame. Disbelief.
The night that Mladic decided to overrun Srebrenica I was at my friend Gary’s house in Zagreb with several other colleagues who also worked at U.N. mission headquarters. We were playing cards and drinking whiskey and waiting for word on air strikes. Srebrenica had been declared a safe haven by the United Nations Security Council, along with five other Bosnian Muslim towns. The only problem was that no one stepped up to provide the additional troops that would actually make the safe havens viable. One by one, they (predictably) collapsed. The few hundred Dutch soldiers who were tasked with protecting Srebrenica were doomed to fail. With the Serbs knocking on the door, the only option to save the town was to bomb the Serbs from the air.
When we found out that the request for close air support had been denied, reportedly by the French, the room fell silent. I went to bed that night knowing that thousands of people would be dead by sunrise.
Several years later I was part of an exhumation team that unearthed the victims of Mladic’s crimes for the ICTY. I had to throw out my clothes because I couldn’t wash the stench of death out of them. I know he’s supposed to be innocent until proven guilty but when you’ve stood in a mass grave of tangled, decomposed bodies—unearthed and reburied in an attempt to hide the evidence—it’s hard to be impartial.
Perhaps we will never know why it took so long to apprehend one of the world’s most wanted war criminals. Personally, I believe that NATO simply lacked the political will to arrest Mladic and his political counterpart, Radovan Karadzic, when they (officially) arrived in Bosnia in December 1995. They have always denied such accusations of being soft, just as Serbia had until they finally arrested them.
In any case, thankfully the deed is done. Maybe now so many gaping wounds can finally heal.
To read this column on The Huffington Post click here.