General inspired devotion, bred fear
BELGRADE — General Ratko Mladic’s ruthlessness was legendary: “Burn their brains!’’ he once bellowed as his men pounded Sarajevo with artillery fire.
So was his arrogance: He nicknamed himself “God,’’ and kept goats he reportedly named after Western leaders he despised.
Mladic, 69, had eluded capture since he was indicted by the UN war crimes tribunal in 1995. But his days as a fugitive were numbered after Serbian security forces captured his partner in crime, Radovan Karadzic, on July 21, 2008, in Belgrade. Yesterday, Serbia’s president announced that Mladic is in custody.
Known for personally leading his troops in the 1995 Serb onslaught against the UN-protected enclave of Srebrenica — where thousands of Muslim men and boys were killed — Mladic was indicted on charges of genocide against the Bosnian town’s population.
Hours before the massacre, Mladic handed out candy to Muslim children rounded up at the town’s square and assured them that all would be fine — even patting one child on the head. That sinister image is forever imprinted in the minds of Srebrenica survivors.
Born March 12, 1942, in the southeastern Bosnian village of Bozinovci, Mladic graduated from Belgrade’s prestigious military academy and joined the Yugoslav Communists in 1965. Embarking on an army career when Yugoslavia was a six-state federation, Mladic rose steadily through the military ranks, making general before the country’s breakup in 1991.
At the start of the Balkan bloodbath, he was in Croatia leading Yugoslav troops in Knin and was believed to have played a crucial role in the army bombardment of the coastal city of Zadar. A year later, he assumed command of the Yugoslav Army’s Second Military District, which effectively became the Bosnian Serb Army.
Appointed in 1992 by Karadzic, Mladic led the Bosnian Serb Army until the Dayton accords brought peace to Bosnia in 1995.
Among his men, Mladic commanded fierce devotion — many Bosnian Serb soldiers pledged to follow him to the death — and adoration bordering on the pathological.
As military leaderships go, his was omnipresent, from front-line trenches to chess games on high-altitude outlooks. He was known for ordering push-ups as a prelude to battle, and he enjoyed reviewing pompous military parades and rubbing shoulders with UN commanders in Bosnia.
Obsessed with his nation’s history, Mladic saw Bosnia’s war — which killed more than 100,000 people and displaced another 1.8 million — as a chance for revenge against 500 years of Turkish-Ottoman occupation of Serbia. He viewed Bosnian Muslims as Turks and called them that as an insult.
Convinced of the power of his army, he was known for telling his soldiers: “When I give you guarantees, it’s as if they are given by God.’’
Once, asking air traffic control to clear the way for his helicopter to land, he declared: “Here speaks Ratko Mladic — the Serbian God.’’