Flawed Justice for the Butcher of Bosnia

Ratko Mladic arriving to hear the verdict in his war crimes trial at International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague on Wednesday. Credit Peter Dejong/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

I met Ratko Mladic only once. He was the general commanding the war machine destroying Bosnia and overseeing the medieval siege of Sarajevo, the capital, where I was living and reporting. I spent my days going to the morgue to count the dead and to sit in hospitals with children who had been blinded by shrapnel.

On a freezing cold day in 1993, as Sarajevo was getting pummeled with shells, I had driven to Mount Igman, a strategic mountain to the southeast, through Bosnian Serb front lines. In a pine forest, on a mud road, I found General Mladic sitting placidly in his jeep. Tentatively, I approached his window to ask him a question about the humanitarian operation in Sarajevo. Food had not been delivered in some time, I said, and people were starving to death. Would he let the trucks carrying food pass?

The Butcher of Bosnia, a nickname I thought let him off lightly, stared at me coldly and muttered something to his aide-de-camp. The aide told me, “The general says, ‘Tell the girl journalist if she comes any closer, I’ll run her down.’ ” Then he added, in English, “And he will do it.”

On Wednesday in The Hague, Mr. Mladic was found guilty by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia of genocide and war crimes. The conflict in the former Yugoslavia, which ran from 1992 to 1995, was a bitter conflict in which 100,000 people were killed and 2.2 million displaced. More than 50,000 women were raped. Untold lives were unraveled and destroyed.

Every day of that war, I would think that I had already heard the worst kind of human rights violation possible, then something more bone-chilling would occur. After covering the war, I spent the next two decades tracking Mr. Mladic, from hiding in Serbia to his own personal tragedy — the death of his daughter, who most likely killed herself over his crimes — to his days in The Hague and, finally, his judgment.

Sometimes wars end but justice is never really served. Twenty-two years ago this month, at an air base in Ohio, that unrelenting war in Bosnia ended with the Dayton peace accords, brokered by the American diplomat Richard Holbrooke. The accords stopped the immediate killing, but they also froze front lines and did not entirely ensure that the malefactors would be held accountable.

For many years, most of the bigger fish responsible for the worst crimes of the war — General Mladic, the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and the president of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic — roamed free while their victims were either dead or had to live with the fact that these men remained unpunished. There was little faith in the effectiveness of the tribunal in places far from The Hague — in Sarajevo, in Zvornik, in Mostar, the places where truly wicked things happened.

The war crimes tribunal, set up in 1993, has indicted more than 160 people. Handing down the Mladic sentence is the end piece, the culmination of 5,000 witnesses giving gruesome accounts of what happened in those dark days.

But that is a minute number compared with the number of women who were raped, the villages that were ethnically cleansed, the humiliation and agony of those whose lives were halted in time while the war dragged on. As I saw firsthand, the men who did the truly nefarious acts — those who pulled the triggers on women and children, who dug the mass graves in Srebrenica, who took part in the mass rapes in Foca and other towns in Bosnia — walked free. Those men, to me, were the truly evil ones.

Many years after the war, in Srebrenica, I met a broken woman who had been held in the notorious Foca gymnasium as a teenager and raped dozens of times. Justice for her was a laughable illusion. She told me that she saw one of her rapists every day in the village that they both came from. She knew he would never go to The Hague and face justice: Very few men were tried there for rape.

It was she, the victim, who dropped her eyes in shame when they passed each other on the street, and he, the rapist, who walked by triumphantly. This was not a rare occurrence. I interviewed mothers and daughters who were raped side by side and still saw their rapists in the towns they had returned to after the war.

Mr. Mladic will go to jail for life. But he is 75 years old. What does it mean, so little, so late? What about those families who are still seeking the remains, the bones, of their loved ones?

After the Srebrenica genocide, General Mladic’s men bulldozed the victims into mass graves but carefully divided them and sometimes moved the remains miles away from the sites of the killings, calculating that in years to come, investigators would try to piece together the bodies.

What about the children who were born from those rape camps, children who were conceived in hate to dilute the Muslim gene pool with Serbian or Croat blood? What about the destruction of the countless rare Ottoman books in the National Library in Sarajevo, which was relentlessly shelled because it was a symbol of multiculturalism? How many generations does it take to erase that hate?

And what kind of message does the process send to victims of current conflicts? For those living in conflict in Syria, in Zimbabwe, in Yemen? Will Mr. Mladic’s verdict, 22 years in the making, inspire hope that justice can be delivered fairly and without delay? I think not.

After the Bosnian war ended, I moved to Africa to report in Rwanda and other war zones where perpetrators of such violence walked free after ending lives and ripping apart societies. I saw a 6-month-old infant whose arm had been amputated at the elbow by rebel soldiers in Sierra Leone, and child soldiers in Liberia.

But I never forgot Bosnia, or the victims, who were growing tired of waiting for someone to be punished for what happened to them. I drove all night from Belgrade to Sarajevo the night that Mr. Milosevic was carted off to The Hague in his bedroom slippers in 2001. I thought my Sarajevan friends who had suffered so much would be overjoyed that he was going to be tried. Instead, I found war-weary people who knew that no prison sentence could ever replace their loved ones.

Six years ago, my work led me to Syria, where I saw the acts that I had witnessed in Bosnia so long ago repeated out in Homs, Aleppo, Daraya and other places. It occurred to me — as I gathered the evidence of rape victims and villages that had been ethnically cleansed in the same chilling manner as strings of villages in eastern Bosnia — that lessons were perhaps learned from the Balkan wars, but not ones about reconstruction and healing.

Justice sometimes comes slow. But 22 years is too long for people to wait. The Nuremberg trials, in which 12 Nazis were sentenced to death, took place shortly after World War II ended. Tribunals should begin while the crimes and the evidence are fresh.

The message we should send to those who continue to act with impunity is that they will be hunted down, that they will not escape justice. The mechanisms that ensure international justice need to be given more teeth and not appear exhausted, cynical and misguided, as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia all too often did.

Then perhaps the Robert Mugabes, the Bashar al-Assads, the Joseph Konys will know that they will never get away with what they did. That we will hunt them down, that we will find them, we will get them. That they will never hide or walk away.

Janine di Giovanni is the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author, most recently, of The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches From Syria.

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