Ratko Mladić: life in prison is as close to justice as his victims will get

When Ratko Mladić’s life sentence for genocide and crimes against humanity was confirmed, marking the end of the road for the Bosnian Serb general 10 years after his capture, Munira Subašić was in The Hague courtroom to watch.

In July 1995, Subašić was outside a UN compound, a disused battery factory near Srebrenica, appealing for protection from Dutch peacekeepers along with thousands of other terrified Bosnian Muslims.

That protection was not given. Abandoned by the UN leadership and overwhelmed by Mladić’s Bosnian Serb troops in what was supposed to be a safe haven, the Dutch gave up and allowed the short, stout, blustering general to take control.

Subašić watched as the Bosnian Serb forces brought cameras and filmed Mladić handing out sweets and bread, patting a boy on the head and assuring the crowd they were safe. When the cameras were turned off, the chaos started, as men and boys were separated from their wives and mothers.

Subašić’s 17-year-old son, Nermin, was pulled from her arms and put on a bus. Only some of his remains were ever found. Her husband, Hilmo, was also taken away. His remains were found in a mass grave, but lay unidentified in a morgue for eight years. She finally buried him in 2004.

Altogether, 8,000 men and boys from Srebrenica were slaughtered in mass executions. Mladić’s convictions for overseeing the sniping and shelling of civilians in Sarajevo, the ethnic cleansing of other towns and seizure of UN peacekeepers as hostages were also upheld on appeal on Tuesday.

Munira is the head of the organisation Mothers for Srebrenica, which perched on the shoulder of The Hague war crimes tribunal and urged on its prosecutor to track down Mladić, as well as Radovan Karadžić, the civilian leader of the Bosnian Serbs, who has also been convicted and is now serving his sentence in a British prison on the Isle of Wight.

She has sat through countless trials and appeals over the years, and each time the recitation of the awful crimes takes its own draining toll.

“My emotions have been awakened in a way, so I feel a bit helpless,” she said in a Zoom call from a back room of the court building in The Hague, minutes after the verdict. She pointed out there is no such thing as total justice for the mother of a murdered child, but a life sentence for the chief butcher is the next best thing.

“This victory is not only for us but for all the mothers of Bosnia and Herzegovina whether they be Serb, Bosniak or Croatian. Every mother suffers,” she said.

“It’s a message to all of humanity, to Europe, to the Balkans, to everyone. The lesson should be that it does not pay to act inhumanely,” she said. “And this serves to increase the trust and confidence, because that is very much needed for reconciliation to happen, and it is up to our grandchildren to go on with their lives and to build the country.”

In reality, Bosnia is as divided as ever, nationalism is rampant, and denial of what happened there over a quarter a century ago is the norm among Bosnian Serbs, many of whom see Mladić as a hero. None of the harrowing testimony provided over the years in The Hague has been able to dent that deliberate ignorance. The fact that Prisca Matimba Nyambe, the presiding judge, dissented from almost all the appeal chambers rulings, looks destined to be seized on by the denialists.

“I know men may be rough at times, but now I see women can be too,” Subašić said, commenting on Nyambe’s role. “Today, I witnessed the words of a woman – I don’t know whether she’s a mother or not – who had so many dissenting opinions, despite the fact that the whole world knows what happened there. So, I felt a bit antagonistic, asking myself whether it was possible for a woman to show that lack of understanding.”

Sitting at Subašić’s side on Tuesday was Serge Brammertz, the Belgian lawyer who has been the chief prosecutor of the court since 2008.

He oversaw the capture and prosecution of Mladić and Karadžić after their many years on the run. He shrugged off Nyambe’s dissents and took a long view of the record of the court, established by the UN security council in 1993 as the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the first such tribunal since Nuremberg.

At the time, the major powers saw it as a sop to international outrage but not many thought it would achieve its task. Eventually, however, all 161 of the war criminals it indicted were brought to justice.

“It’s an important chapter which is ending,” Brammertz said. “When I started here in 2008, no one was optimistic about ever seeing Mladić and Karadžić being arrested, and we aren’t even speaking about being convicted.”

“I’m sure that we have done more than fulfilled expectations,” he added. “Could it have been done better? Of course, always. But I’m personally absolutely convinced that if the ICTY had not been created, justice in the former Yugoslavia, and internationally, would not be where it is today.”

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