John Shattuck

Justice in the arrest of Mladic

By John Shattuck
May 28, 2011

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ON JULY 30, 1995, I traveled to Tuzla in Central Bosnia to investigate the fate of 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men who had disappeared after Bosnian Serb troops overran the UN “safe haven’’ of Srebrenica two weeks earlier. I found survivors of the worst genocide in Europe since World War II, and heard the first testimony about the crimes of Ratko Mladic.

Sitting on a rickety chair in the back of a refugee center, I listened to the story of Hurem Suljic, a grizzled Bosnian Muslim farmer. On July 14, Bosnian Serb soldiers had separated him and other Srebrenica men from their families and forced them into several large warehouses. Suljic heard a soldier announce, “Who knows Commander Mladic? You’ll meet him soon and get to know him well.’’

Mladic appeared and informed the men that they would be exchanged for Serb prisoners. They were taken by bus to a remote warehouse near the border, where they were beaten with iron bars and attacked by hand grenades so that the floor and walls were covered with blood. Their Bosnian Serb attackers drove stolen UN vehicles and wore stolen UN helmets. The Srebrenica men were then blindfolded, herded onto pickup trucks, driven to a huge ditch, and ordered at gunpoint to disembark. “My mind went blank as the shots came,’’ Suljic rasped at me. “I thought I was dead when I fell into that ditch with all the other piled bodies on top of me. But the shots had missed, and I lay there for hours. I heard Mladic ordering his soldiers to finish off the wounded.’’

For two days I listened to stories of other survivors of Srebrenica like the one told by Suljic. I immediately reported my findings to the State Department and the White House. The evidence of vast new crimes against humanity in Srebrenica contributed to a long-overdue shift in US policy toward Bosnia. Balkan specialists at the CIA conducted an urgent search for spy satellite photos that would confirm the existence of fresh mass gravesites north of Srebrenica.

The surveillance photos were shown in early August at a special session of the UN Security Council. The United Nations finally authorized NATO airstrikes to turn back the Bosnian Serb offensive. An aggressive new diplomatic initiative was undertaken by President Bill Clinton, leading ultimately to the Dayton Peace Accord of November 1995.

Dayton ended four years of genocide in Bosnia, but a cold peace followed with no justice. The international force deployed to implement the Dayton agreement did not arrest the war criminals. The UN International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague, established in 1993, appeared to be an empty promise. Mladic, Radovan Karadzic, prime minister of the Bosnian Serbs, and many other architects of this modern European genocide, remained at large, continuing to sow the seeds of ethnic division.

Long overdue, this week’s arrest of Mladic presents at last the possibility that Serbia, as well as Bosnia and Croatia, can exorcise the ghost of genocide that has haunted the Balkans for nearly two decades.

John Shattuck, president of Central European University, served as US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.