Less than a month after the death of Osama bin Laden, Ratko Mladic, one of the most evil men of the 20th century, has been captured. The moment is sweet. For me, bittersweet. For 16 years, Mladic had been Richard Holbrooke’s nemesis, and my husband died without seeing him brought to justice. Mladic’s freedom all these years after the Dayton Accords put an end to the Bosnian war was a personal wound for Richard, the chief architect of that agreement. We cannot call Dayton a success while Mladic is free, my husband used to say.
The butcher of Srebrenica, the general whose forces laid siege to Sarajevo, was a rebuke to everything the Dayton Accords stood for: reconciliation among Serbs, Bosnians and Croats; the integration of the shattered pieces of the former Yugoslavia into the European family; a multicultural future for the blood-soaked Balkans. Mladic at large was a powerful weapon for the hate-mongers in the Balkans and a terrible blot on the face of Europe.
For my husband, it felt personal. Every time there was a Mladic sighting — in a tavern or at a football match in and around Belgrade — Richard felt it like a slap. How happy he would be to see his nemesis captured, and about to face justice for his unspeakable crimes.
I remember the summer Mladic entered our lives, as the Balkan war turned its most murderous. The frantic phone calls from Srebrenica began six weeks after our wedding. Richard’s son Anthony, who worked with refugees in nearby Tuzla, warned his father of what was coming as Europe’s biggest single mass murder unfolded.
The genocide of the area’s Muslim population was carefully choreographed. First, General Mladic’s gunners pulverized the town (allegedly in retaliation for Muslim forays into Serb territory). Then he and his troops took 30 U.N. peacekeepers hostage. Then the whole town became hostage. Mladic rounded up all the Muslims and forced them onto buses. Others were herded into a soccer field. It was a grotesque replay of a scene Europe had witnessed before, and no one stopped it.
Emboldened by the world’s passivity, Mladic then took the next step: He and his men killed thousands of Muslims, execution style, in cold blood. Srebrenica entered the lexicon of horror, along with Auschwitz and Babi Yar.
In Washington, Richard was frantically trying to rouse the Pentagon and the West Europeans to use air power to stop the massacre. Confusion and apathy paralyzed the “international system.” As usual, there were many reasons given for doing nothing.
Later that summer, when Richard was negotiating with the Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, at his Belgrade villa, the Serbian leader sprung Mladic on Richard and his team. Richard refused to shake the murderer’s extended hand, but got a good description of him. “Hollywood could not have found a more convincing war villain,” he wrote. “He glowered — there was no better word for it — and engaged each of the Americans in what seemed to us, when we compared notes later, as staring contests. Nonetheless, he had a compelling presence; it was not hard to understand why his troops revered him; he was, I thought, one of those lethal combinations that history thrusts up occasionally — a charismatic murderer.”
Once the peace deal was done and the guns were silent, Richard did not feel his work was done. With Radovan Karadzic and Mladic — the evil twin masterminds of the siege of Sarajevo and the genocide of Srebrenica — at large, full implementation of the peace was impossible. He urged, pleaded really, with those in charge of implementing the Dayton Accords to arrest the two indicted war criminals — but to no avail. This was heartbreaking for my husband. Their freedom undermined everything Dayton stood for. At large, the murderers mocked the peacemakers and gave heart to the separatists and the ultranationalists. To a certain group of diehard racists, Mladic and Karadzic became folk heroes.
Now, with Mladic soon to join Karadzic in the dock, Dayton — and a multicultural Bosnia-Herzegovina — have a much brighter future. Like Eichmann in the glass box, Mladic in the dock will not cut nearly as large a figure as he did after his troops took Srebrenica and he swaggered before terrified Muslim women and children, ruffled a young Muslim boy’s hair, and told him and his people that they had nothing to fear.
When the time comes for the former general to face his victims and accusers without his armed men arrayed behind him, Mladic might learn something about fear himself.
It is a very good day for humanity. I wish Richard, who died in December, were alive to see it.
By Kati Marton, the author, most recently, of Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America.