Convicted of Genocide: Inside the Trial of Ratko Mladić

November 22, 2017
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by Patrice Taddonio Assistant Director of Audience Development

Ratko Mladic arrives at the airport of Sarajevo on Aug. 10, 1993 in order to negotiate the withdrawal of his troops from Mount Igman. (GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

In the multi-year siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces in the 1990s, more than 10,000 people died.

In the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys were killed.

Since 2012, Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladić has stood accused of masterminding those operations and many others during the Bosnian war, a conflict among Serbs, Croats and Muslims in which some 100,000 people were killed. On Wednesday morning at the Hague, he was found guilty on 10 of those counts by the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and sentenced to life in prison. Mladić is expected to appeal.

In the run-up to this morning’s verdict in one of the biggest war crimes trials of the century, we spoke with co-director and producer Rob Miller — who with filmmaker Henry Singer has been on the ground covering the five-year trial for an in-depth documentary that will air on FRONTLINE in the summer of 2018.

Here’s what Miller had to say about Mladić’s trial, his experience covering it, and the lingering impact of Mladić’s alleged war crimes in Bosnia. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

For anyone who hasn’t been following the trial, who is Radko Mladić and what was his role in the Bosnian war?

Ratko Mladić was the head of the Bosnian-Serb army, and during the war of the 1990s, that army is alleged to have committed various atrocities across Bosnia. The crimes Mladić is accused of, that he’s perhaps most synonymous with, are the shelling and siege of Sarajevo, and the murder of over 7,000 men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995. He’s also being tried on another genocide charge for Serb forces’ actions in Prijedor, where recently a mass grave was discovered — a discovery that happened during the course of the trial and will be explored in our film.

How long have you been covering Mladić’s trial?

Since the very beginning. The opening statements were in May 2012, and we’ve been following the trial from that point until now, making a film that goes in-depth with the prosecution lawyers, and witnesses who testify about what they experienced — but, uniquely, also the defense lawyers and Mladić’s supporters. We film with the opposing sides and we explore both narratives of the war, and then ultimately, it’s up to the tribunal to make a judgment. We’re hoping that there is value in trying to understand those narratives.

What would be the significance of a guilty verdict in Mladić’s case?

I think that there will be a degree of satisfaction among victims that there’s been accountability for the man they deem responsible, and there’s been a kind of a degree of justice. But it’s not going to replace what they lost. We filmed with a mother whose husband and son were murdered in Srebrenica. The tribunal can give her some sense of recognition of what she’s been through, but it can’t give her husband and son back.

“I think that there will be a degree of satisfaction among victims that there’s been accountability for the man they deem responsible… But it’s not going to replace what they lost.”

There are 11 charges, of course. For the Srebrenica and Sarajevo components, the expectation is that he will be found guilty. I think Prijedor is the big question mark. For Prijedor, the prosecution is hoping that the evidence from that mass grave will allow for a guilty verdict, which they feel is important not just to the victims but for history. This is the last case in the history of this tribunal, so it’s the last opportunity in their eyes for someone really senior to be held accountable, and for the prosecution to get a genocide verdict, which is what so many of the victims believe that they experienced. I think for the Prijedor victims, if he isn’t found guilty of genocide, there will be enormous disappointment, because I think that they will feel the crimes they’ve experienced are being denied again.

I think that Mladić’s supporters believe wholeheartedly in his innocence and will find it difficult to accept anything other than an acquittal.

[Editor’s note: Mladic was not convicted on the charge of genocide in the Prijedor area.]

What was Mladić’s defense? What arguments were offered by his team and his supporters?

It’s a war crimes trial, but in some ways, it’s similar to more conventional trials: The prosecution has to prove the case. The defense just has to introduce reasonable doubt. So, for example, while the prosecution might say that people found in mass graves are the result of criminal activities, the defense might say, “Those people were actually in the in the army and they were killed in the natural course of combat, and the terrain had to be cleansed, and these people ended up in graves as a result.”

In the bigger picture, what the prosecution has had to do is try to connect the crimes that are being committed on the ground with General Mladić at the top — so, not suggesting that Mladić himself pulled the trigger, but that he was in command and control of all these troops, that he knew what was happening and he intended it for it to happen. Whereas, the defense would try to sever that connection and suggest Mladić was not capable of knowing everything, and therefore could not be held responsible. They’d argue that war is a terrible thing in which horrible things happen, but their client can’t be held accountable for it. 

What was it like to film with witnesses who were sharing their experiences of those horrible things?

My mind goes back to the first witness for the prosecution, a Bosnian Muslim gentleman called Elvedin Pasic, whose village was shelled very early on. He and his father and uncle and other members of his family tried to escape. They were captured, and they were taken to a school and separated. He and his mother were bussed out of the territory, and he just remembers looking back and seeing what he believes was his father’s hand waving goodbye. He never saw his father again, and even at the trial he made an incredibly passionate and tearful plea for any information about his father’s whereabouts. There are so many people that had just disappeared and that remain unaccounted for. People just want to bury their dead.

“There are so many people that had just disappeared and that remain unaccounted for. People just want to bury their dead.”

We also filmed with Serb victims — I remember filming with a woman who had lost both her daughters, who came to tell her story. Seeing extraordinary pain and terrible trauma like this was really a reminder that this isn’t just history. These are people who experienced terrible things then, and still very much feel them now. For them, the war has never really ended.

Why has the trial taken five years? 

For me, the tribunal is writing a version of history. The importance of the truth is kind of extolled every time a witness takes an oath to solemnly declare to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. So, in terms of the trials taking so long, I think it’s partly because, you know, they feel that responsibility to get it right and really examine the minutia, both for today and for posterity. These are huge cases and very complicated crimes.

Is this the last case to be tried by this tribunal for the former Yugoslavia?

Yes, there’s a mechanism that deals with a potential appeal, but this is the last case. The tribunal was established in 1993 and will close its doors in December 2017, having caught and tried 161 indictees.

Based on your experience making this film, what is the feeling on Mladić and the tribunal inside modern-day Bosnia?

I think Bosnia is actually very split on the tribunal. Definitely on the Serb side of things, the feeling is that Serbs are the only ones who are being held to account. Many people have complained to me that Bosnia is a place where politics is divided by ethnicity, and that it’s in the interest of politicians to keep those ethnic divisions alive. But what I’ve also seen in making this film is a younger generation that no longer wants to identify themselves as Serb or Muslim or Croat. They just want to identify themselves as Bosnian.

What can FRONTLINE viewers expect when they watch your documentary next year?

A film that’s fair — we film with both the prosecution and the defense, and we explore both narratives of the war. And, a film that transcends Bosnia. I think there are lessons that can be learned from this tribunal and this period of history which are really important to the world that we live in now, where the politics of division seems to be very much on the agenda and very much the lingua franca of the day.

Our film will be a very human film. This is a documentary which is dealing with the worst of humanity, but there is a glimmer of light that comes — that so many witnesses have come to try and tell their story, to try and contribute to this process and establish the truth of what happened.

FRONTLINE’s film on the trial of Radko Mladić is expected to air in the summer of 2018. Stay tuned for further details.

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