How the Butcher of Bosnia and his First-in-Command Escaped Justice — and Finally Got Caught
by Victor Peskin, Eric Stover and Alexa Koenig
On March 24, 2016, judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia convicted former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide — “the crime of all crimes” — for abuses committed twenty years earlier during wars that ravaged the Balkans. Karadzic’s military commander, Ratko Mladic, faces similar charges and will learn his fate in early 2017. This is the story of how they were caught.
Twenty-one years ago, on a sweltering afternoon in July 1995, an exuberant Ratko Mladic strode through the abandoned streets of Srebrenica savoring his finest hour as commander of the Bosnian Serb army. Outfitted in freshly laundered army fatigues, a pair of heavy field glasses dangling from his neck, and a 9 mm Heckler submachine gun in his hand, the 52-year-old general stopped to congratulate fellow Serb officers for their capture of the town. Then, as he walked by a row of gutted apartment buildings, he turned to a Bosnian Serb television crew and announced: “Here we are in Srebrenica on the eve of yet another great Serb holiday. We present this city as a gift to the Serbian people. The time has finally come to take revenge on the Turks.”
Declared a UN “safe area” two years earlier, the predominately Muslim community had swollen from a pre-war population of 9,000 to 40,000 people, many of whom had been cleansed from elsewhere in Bosnia. As Mladic’s troops swarmed the town, the women, children, and elderly took refuge two kilometers away in a UN base, staffed by a Dutch battalion, in the village of Potacari. Meanwhile, the remaining men and boys fled on foot through the woods, trying to reach Muslim-controlled territory nearly 40 miles away. Over the next three days, in what would be called the worst massacre on European soil since World War II, Mladic’s troops captured and executed more than 8,000 men and boys, leaving bodies where they fell or burying them in clandestine graves scattered through the hills.
Four months later, the Yugoslavian tribunal’s chief prosecutor, Richard Goldstone, leveled additional charges of genocide against Mladic and Karadzic for planning and carrying out the Srebrenica massacre. Earlier that year, Goldstone had also charged the two men with genocide for their bombardment of civilians in Sarajevo.
Peace finally came to Bosnia soon after the signing of the Dayton Accords in December 1995, and the arrival, a month later, of thousands of NATO peacekeepers. In contrast to the Allies that had occupied post-war Germany half a century earlier, NATO was an ambivalent occupier and even more reluctant guarantor of a fragile peace. For the Allies, capturing high-level Nazis had been a top postwar priority. But NATO commanders feared apprehending indicted war criminals could incur casualties and provoke backlash from Serb nationalists. For almost two years after the indictments of Karadzic and Mladic, NATO troops turned their backs when their convoys drove brazenly past.
Undeterred, Goldstone continued to collect evidence against Karadzic and Mladic and other suspected war criminals. In May 1996, after the spring thaw, he dispatched a team of forensic scientists to begin excavating the suspected mass graves in the hills surrounding Srebrenica.
Within a year, the scientists had unearthed hundreds of bodies and autopsied them in a makeshift morgue to determine the manner and cause of death, and carefully preserved incriminatory evidence, such as ligatures and blindfolds.
In October 1996, Goldstone left the tribunal to take up a seat on South Africa’s Constitutional Court, as promised by the newly elected Mandela. Before leaving he handpicked a successor: Louise Arbour, a judge on the Ontario Court of Appeal and a former criminal law professor. To encourage NATO to start making arrests, Arbour changed tactic and began issuing indictments under seal. Arbour’s idea was not an original one. Law enforcement the world over often keep indictments secret to retain the element of surprise in arrest operations. In Arbour’s estimation, sealed indictments could break NATO’s resistance by enabling peacekeepers to catch their targets unawares and hopefully out of harms way.
Her plan worked. In July 1997, British special forces launched NATO’s first raid, netting two Bosnian Serb suspects. More arrests followed, prompting Arbour to declare that NATO had finally “crossed the Rubicon.”
But apprehending Karadzic and Mladic continued to prove difficult. An aura of untouchability surrounded Mladic, who — even more than his superior, Karadzic — was revered by Serbs on both sides of the Drina, the river that separates Bosnia and Serbia. Mladic, with typical bombastic swagger, vowed to kill as many pursuing peacekeepers as possible. Such threats were not necessarily idle ones. In October 2000, another Bosnian Serb suspect, Janko Janjic, had set off a grenade, killing himself and seriously wounding the four German NATO soldiers who had come to arrest him.
Fortunately for the two Bosnian Serb icons, the French, who controlled the region of eastern Bosnia where they resided, balked at making arrests or otherwise cooperating with British and American forces. French foot-dragging was accompanied by public contempt for the tribunal, as seen by the French defense minister’s dismissal of the court as a “media circus.” This characterization prompted Arbour to go on the offensive. In an interview in Le Monde, she needled the French government for coddling indicted war criminals. “In the French sector can be found lots of war criminals, and they feel absolutely secure there,” said Arbour.
By 1999, Arbour had been replaced by Carla del Ponte, former Swiss attorney known for her dogged pursuit of drug traffickers and arms smugglers. Arbour immediately confronted a new barrier: a sudden intransigence on the part of the Clinton administration, which had been strong supporter of the Yugoslav tribunal in its early years. After a NATO operation to apprehend Karadzic and other suspects failed in late 1999, a high ranking State Department official, reportedly at US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s request, told Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes David Scheffer to halt his efforts to capture Karadzic. Scheffer later revealed that Albright, who often portrayed herself as the “mother of the war crimes tribunals,” sidelined him because he was persistent in pressing for arrests and had become a thorn in the side of the French and the Pentagon.
US officials now favored a passive approach to gaining custody of the former Bosnian Serb leaders. In addition to offering a $5 million reward for information leading to their arrest, Washington hoped that the suspects’ economic and political influence would weaken and they would somehow “drop like rotten fruit” into the hands of NATO peacekeepers. But neither Karadzic nor Mladic had any intention of turning themselves in.
While Karadzic kept a low profile, moving between the mountainous border region of eastern Bosnia and neighboring Montenegro, Mladic took up residence in Belgrade where he enjoyed around-the-clock protection from a team of 50 heavily armed bodyguards established at the direction of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. The former general lived in a well-appointed stone house in one of Belgrade’s tree-lined neighborhoods. He often could be seen sipping coffee at sidewalk cafés and dining in expensive restaurants. But this life of relative unconcern would not last.
By late 2005, a decade after the signing of the Dayton peace accords, Serbian leaders, feeling the gravitational pull of hoped-for membership in the European Union and understanding that cooperation was a condition of inclusion, had begun to arrest and hand over scores of Serbian suspects to The Hague.
Mladic and Karadzic soon realized they were living on borrowed time. Early in 2006, Mladic made his way to the home of an unmarried second cousin, Branislav Mladic, in the village of Lazarevo north of Belgrade. For the next five years, he spent much of his time in an arm chair reading and watching television, occasionally venturing outside to take a late evening stroll in Branislav’s farmyard.
Karadzic, meanwhile, settled in Belgrade, where he assumed the identity of a New Age healer named Dragan Dabic. Dabic’s old-style appearance–accentuated by a top hat, overcoat, oversized glasses, and flowing gray beard–helped complete his transformation from one of the world’s most wanted war criminals to an intriguing newcomer to Belgrade’s burgeoning New Age scene.
“In the end, Dragan Dabic inhabited a persona and a face that obscured every physical, auditory and historical feature associated with Radovan Karadzic,” wrote Jack Hitt in a New York Times Magazine article that revealed the bizarre story of how the former Bosnian Serb leader had forged a new life and done so with “such hippie panache.”
When he wasn’t working as a “bioenergy” healer, Dabic collaborated with a Belgrade sexologist to develop a sperm rejuvenation process. He created a website and lectured in front of hundreds people on alternative medicine. To supplement his income, he became a Belgrade-based sales representative for a vitamin company in Connecticut. So well disguised was he that patrons of the bar he frequented, where his picture hung on the wall, never recognized him as Europe’s most wanted man.
But in late July 2008, thirteen years after the Srebrenica massacre, Karadzic’s life on the run abruptly ended. Late one evening while stepping off a bus heading into the suburbs of Belgrade, Serbian security officers arrested the former Bosnian Serb leader and, without comment, transferred him to The Hague.
Karadzic’s arrest accelerated Europe’s embrace of Serbia. Over the next two and a half years, Brussels rewarded Belgrade with several political and economic concessions aimed at bolstering the Serbian moderates then in power and keeping their desire for EU membership alive. But as more time passed hopes of persuading Serbian authorities to arrest Mladic — along with the other remaining tribunal fugitive, Croatian Serb Goran Hadzic, also believed to be hiding in Serbia — dimmed.
In January 2008, Serge Brammertz became the tribunal’s fourth chief prosecutor. A former Belgian investigatory judge who had served briefly as the International Criminal Court’s deputy prosecutor, he seemed the antithesis of his predecessor, the hard-charging Carla Del Ponte, who frequently traveled to Belgrade to publicly berate the Serb authorities for harboring Mladic.
“Brammertz is a Eurocrat,” lamented a tribunal insider in 2010, suggesting that the Belgian would be unwilling to insist that Brussels pressure Serbia on the Mladic issue. With time running out in the tribunal’s mandate, human rights activists feared that the campaign to capture Mladic was losing urgency not only in Belgrade but also in Brussels and The Hague.
In his first speech to the UN Security Council, Brammertz credited the Serbian president Boris Tadic with launching “a genuine but, alas, failed attempt” to arrest a Bosnian Serb suspect whom Serbian authorities ended up arresting later that month. In a later speech before the Security Council, he again struck a conciliatory note by highlighting the potential of Belgrade’s newfound resolve to find and arrest Mladic.
With time running out, however, Brammertz grew more critical of Serbia’s failure to arrest Mladic. In December 2010, he told the Security Council that results, not efforts, were the true litmus test for state cooperation. The prosecutor and his small circle of advisers had also come to realize that Serbia and key EU states were selectively interpreting his Security Council reports in a bid to justify a weakening of the EU policy that made Serbia’s move toward Union membership dependent on its ongoing arrests of war crime suspects. Recognition of such manipulation, one well-placed prosecution official recounted, influenced Brammertz’s shift to a more confrontational approach.
“That was a triggering point when we saw how our words were twisted and turned and used for political goals,” the official recalled. With that realization came the “the real fear that we were losing leverage.”
Brammertz did not need to brandish the politics of shame so freely used by his predecessor to make heads turn in Belgrade and Brussels. Because EU politicians regarded the tribunal chief prosecutor as the most authoritative evaluator of state cooperation, they could not simply ignore Brammertz’s measured yet mounting criticism. Some diplomats considered Brammertz a shrewd practitioner of prosecutorial diplomacy, given his ability to safeguard the tribunal’s influence over Europe’s malleable conditionality policy without antagonizing Belgrade or alienating Brussels. Brammertz did so, according to U.S. war crimes ambassador Stephen Rapp, by acknowledging improvements in Serbian cooperation, but not declaring that the government had achieved full cooperation.
For Brammertz, building trust and credibility in Belgrade and Brussels remained paramount. By doing so, he sought to inoculate himself against charges of being too aggressive and thus having crossed the line from an impartial legal actor to a partisan, political one. Yet in strategically navigating the shoals of international affairs, Brammertz, no less than his predecessors, was engaged in the politics of prosecutorial diplomacy.
International prosecutors know that their primary function is to investigate individual criminal responsibility for violations of international humanitarian law. But as Brammertz had come to learn, it was equally important to investigate and expose how states were impeding the course of international justice. Toward this end, Brammertz sent Bob Reid, his veteran chief of investigations, to Belgrade to work closely with Serbian law enforcement officials and to evaluate their plan for arresting Mladic.
Reid soon discovered his Serbian counterparts hadn’t even taken basic investigatory steps to locate the former general, including tracking the movements of Mladic’s family.
Brammertz, with the aid of the Dutch, pressed the EU to condition Serbia’s quest for EU candidate status on Mladic’s delivery. Just weeks before the prosecutor’s June 2011 Security Council address, the Serbian press published the contents of Brammertz’s forthcoming report criticizing the government’s insufficient efforts to find Mladic. The impact of the report was reinforced by a May visit to Belgrade by Dutch Parliament members who said in no uncertain terms that the Netherlands would block Serbia’s quest for EU candidacy status as long as Mladic remained free.
With the writing on the wall, the politics of delay that Serbian authorities had turned into an art form quickly approached its endgame. On May 26, 2011, nearly sixteen years after the massacre at Serbrenica, Serbian police raided the small house in Lazarevo. The arresting officers found Mladic sitting in the front room, wearing a faded tracksuit, his face drawn and pale from three recent strokes. “Good work,” he said, handing over a pair of guns. “You’ve found the one you’re looking for.”
The timing of the arrest, on the heels of Brammertz’s decisive report, raised suspicions that Serbian law enforcement officials had long known of Mladic’s whereabouts, but only acted when given no alternative. Days later, Serbian authorities handed Mladic over to the tribunal where he joined his former partner in crime, Karadzic.
Victor Peskin, Eric Stover and Alexa Koenig are authors of the recently-released Hiding in Plain Sight: The Pursuit of War Criminals from Nuremberg to the War on Terror (UC Press 2016). All three authors are affiliated with the Human Rights Center, UC Berkeley School of Law