The arrest of Ratko Mladic a few days ago reminded me with a start that it is almost 20 years since I met the man. It was 8th February 1992 at a meeting in southern Croatia between Mladic and a delegation from the European Community Monitoring Mission in Jugoslavia, headed by an Ambassador from the current EC Presidency ( at the time the HOM was from Portugal).  Mladic was at that time the commander of the Ninth Corps of the Jugoslav National Army (the JNA). The horrors of the Sarajevo siege and the Srebenice massacre lay in the future, though he was already acquiring a reputation.

His advance had been rapid as Jugoslavia disintegrated. From being a Colonel in Kosovo he had graduated to organising the activities of the JNA in Knin, part of the Serb controlled area in western and southern Croatia known as the Krajina. A further promotion to Major General followed when an older general was kicked upstairs to command forces in Banja Luka in Northern Bosnia. Was this a move by Milosevic and the generals to ensure that their most capable and committed military commander was well positioned and at hand should the Bosnian balloon go up? Perhaps the trial will reveal more.

The meeting took place during that peculiar period of phony peace in the run up to the war in Bosnia. It was however, entirely Croatia related.  European community recognition of Croatian and Slovenian independence had become effective in mid-January, a ceasefire between the JNA and Croatian forces was holding and the arrival of a UN peacekeeping force was imminent. Attention was now beginning to focus on Bosnia, where no ethnic group had a majority, with Serbs having declined to around 31 % of the population, still much more than in Croatia where they had fought a bloody war and still controlled one third of the country. Given the belligerent and intransigent remarks being made by all three factions in Bosnia, the outlook was sombre, but nobody could have foreseen the slaughter to come.

We met in an old farmhouse in the Krajina which our interpreter informed us had been where the Italians had surrendered to Partisan forces during World War Two. From the Monitors point of view the purpose of the meeting, one of an on-going series, was to seek to cement and stabilise the ceasefire with the Croatians (in accordance with the Mission’s mandate), build confidence and ensure freedom of access and guarantees of safety for the Monitors to those areas controlled by Serb militias.

Mladic’s presentation on the ceasefire was a heightened reprise of what we were hearing elsewhere at the time. These were to the effect that any and all incidents and ceasefire violations could be laid at the Croatians door, directly or indirectly. The EU, which had “done a lot for Croatia” he told us, should teach the Croatians how to observe a ceasefire. It was doublethink and speak of the type ratcheted to higher indices in Bosnia in the years that followed by both him and Karadic. His suggestions on access and safe conduct were classic. Why not make direct contact with those locals in charge in the areas of the Krajina, an unsubtle attempt to equate militia leaders with the government in Zagreb.

Mladic has entered public consciousness since as the bête noire of the war in Bosnia. The best description of him at this meeting, before it all began, is that he was an example of “What you see is what you get”. He was blunt, forceful, bombastic and unyielding, pounding the table several times during a three hour meeting. There was little of the courtesy paid to the EC
Mission by other Serb generals. He took particular umbrage to what he suggested was a translator’s mistake – a reference to “former Jugoslavia”; he hadn’t signed off yet on leaving Jugoslavia!

He spoke forcefully and with passion regarding Jugoslavia and the position of the Serbs. The country had been created and forged in blood, including that of his father, killed by Croatians fighting with the Nazis in 1945, as well as over a million others. It was wrong and unjust that Croatia had been recognised within its administrative boundaries (a line pushed consistently at the time by Belgrade). The Serbs did not want to be a national minority and would not accept it. His remarks were regarding Croatia, but there was a grisly foretaste here of the attitude struck by the Bosnian Serbs which informed and inspired their conduct over the terrible years that followed,  years in which Ratko Mladic was a major player.

June 2011


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