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As Mladic Stands Trial, ‘In One Sense, the War Criminals Won’

May 16, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Facing 11 counts of genocide and crimes against humanity, Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic finally went before an international court Wednesday after more than 15 years on the run. Jeffrey Brown and Michael Dobbs of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum discuss the case and Mladic's war crimes charges tied to the Bosnian civil war.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: A short time ago I spoke to author and journalist Michael Dobbs, who’s currently a fellow at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He covered the Bosnian War and has returned to the region to interview Mladic’s victims. Today, he was inside the courtroom at The Hague.

Michael Dobbs, welcome.

So this all goes back many years now. You were in the courtroom today. What was it like? What was the atmosphere?

MICHAEL DOBBS, author/journalist: Well, there were a lot of spectators in the courtroom who been victims of the war in Bosnia.

They were filling about half the courtroom. And there was some back-and-forth, not orally, but visually, between them and Ratko Mladic. When Mladic came into the court, he waved at these spectators, did a thumbs-up. Some of them waved back. Others cursed him. He seemed to relish being in the presence of people who could be described as his victims.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, take us back in time to what this is all about. I mean this was a horrific war in so many ways. What made Srebrenica in particular stand out?

MICHAEL DOBBS: Well, Srebrenica was the final episode in a horrific three-and-a-half-year war in Bosnia. In Europe itself, Srebrenica was the worst massacre to occur in Europe since World War II.

People had said after the Holocaust, never again, and here it was happening on Europe’s own doorstep. And the great powers, led by the United States, were unable to do anything about it.

At Srebrenica, it’s now been established pretty conclusively that at least 7,000 Muslim prisoners were executed in cold blood by Mladic’s forces and another 1,000 were killed in skirmishes as they tried to reach government-held territory to the north.

After the massacre in Srebrenica, finally, the West got its act together and began the — what led to — eventually to the Dayton peace negotiations. So, this was the first big conflict after the end of the Cold War, and for a long time, for three-and-a-half years, the United States and other Western governments proved inadequate to the challenge.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, of course, this particular tribunal, I gather, was set up soon after the war, so long ago. Only now, in the last years, are we getting to some of these very high players, high generals and leaders. Why did it take so long?

MICHAEL DOBBS: Well, actually, the tribunal was set up during the war in what was interpreted then as a kind of token gesture of solidarity with the victims. That’s 20 years ago.

And it took them the best part of two decades to bring the most high-profile war criminals, including Mladic and the president of the Bosnian Serb Republic, Radovan Karadzic, to court. For a long time, Mladic was — and Karadzic were wandering about Bosnia in Belgrade, but nobody dared to go and arrest him.

And it was only last year that Mladic was finally arrested in his cousin’s house in a remote village in northern Serbia, and transferred to The Hague. So, I think at the beginning, it was a lack of political will, and it’s taken two decades to get over that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then if you bring the story right up to today, we see these very different responses to Mladic. We see it in this tape of people reacting very much for him, very much against him. So these divisions are still very much with us?

MICHAEL DOBBS: Right.

In one sense, the war criminals won, in the sense that Bosnia is an ethnically divided country now. And I was there fairly recently, and you go to the Muslim side and you — the Croat side and the Serb side, and you get three different narratives of what happened, and we saw that reflected in the reaction to the trial today.

In the Muslim side, of course, there’s a lot of joy that Mladic has finally been brought to court. On the Serbian side, there’s still a denial about the basic facts of what happened at Srebrenica and in other parts of Bosnia. And among many Serbs, Mladic is still regarded as a hero. And he plays on that in his courtroom appearances.

JEFFREY BROWN: Finally, Michael, how will this trial proceed? How long is it supposed to last?

MICHAEL DOBBS: Well, they think it’s going to last about two years, which, believe it or not, is the fast track for the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal.

They want at all costs to avoid what happened to, in the case of the former leader Slobodan Milosevic, who actually died while his trial was going on. So there were originally 196 charges, separate incidents against Mladic, and they cut the indictment to 106 charges. So they have put him on the fast track. But he is not in good health.

He suffered several strokes while he was on the run. So it’s anyone’s guess whether he’s actually going to last until the end of this trial. But today, at least, he was in pretty good — he seemed in pretty good health.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Michael Dobbs in The Hague, thanks so much.