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Justice Finally Caught Up With Ratko Mladić

A former war crimes prosecution team member reflects on the arrest of the Bosnian Serb general and the devastation he left behind at Srebrenica.

I smiled when I heard the news on Thursday. Justice had finally caught up with Ratko Mladić.

To be honest, though, I didn’t always think that it would. Ten years ago, I was serving as the youngest prosecution attorney at the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague. And, while I had great respect for the seasoned prosecutors and investigators hard at work, I couldn’t help but notice that it seemed incredibly challenging for the international community to capture its alleged war criminals. These were the relatively early days of international justice as we know it, and there were few senior-level defendants in the dock.

Conspicuously missing was General Mladić, the former commander of the Bosnian Serb Army. I had been hired to work on the U.N. team prosecuting Radislav Krstić, Mladić’s lieutenant general during the Srebrenica genocide. Krstić was, at the time, the most senior military officer—and the first accused—to be tried for the crimes that took place after the fall of Srebrenica. But, as I learned more about the case—although my family is from the Balkans, I was conducting U.S. Army training at Fort Bragg when the genocide occurred and, like many Americans, didn’t know the extent of the slaughter—I became convinced that Mladić was the mastermind of the genocide. He was the perpetrator who most needed to be tried.

Just consider the devastation he caused. Sixteen years ago this July, some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica were slaughtered at the hands of Mladić’s Bosnian Serb Army and related forces. Most were killed in a full-scale military operation: blindfolded with their hands tied, they were lined up before freshly dug mass graves and shot. In other cases, their captors murdered unarmed men and boys where they were detained—slaughtering them by the hundreds in buildings, using volleys of gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades. Later, earth-moving equipment would pick them up and move them to other mass graves.

As a junior attorney working for the U.N., I was witness to what General Mladić and his henchmen had left behind: mass graves, destroyed lives, and distraught mothers, sisters, and daughters. You only need to visit a mass grave once to feel what human evil can produce—and to smell it. Having seen numerous photographs of the dead in our forensic reports, I was prepared for the sight of decomposing bodies when I participated in my first U.N. mission to Srebrenica. What I was not prepared for was the smell.

The odor of death is sticky, and oddly sweet. It clings to your clothes, serving as a reminder of carnage and destruction, long after you’ve left a mass grave. It is a smell that nauseates, as though the human condition is preconditioned to object to death; and it is a smell that traveled with me when I returned to the tribunal, to the war crimes trials that seem so clinical, so clean, in comparison to the death and destruction that they were meant to prove. I spent three years in the Netherlands before I returned to the U.S., but, like everyone who has been privileged enough to have worked at a war crimes tribunal, I never really left the experience behind. I now can’t be in a theater without glancing up to the projection room, thinking that, in a theater in Pilica, up the road from Srebrenica, Bosnian Serb gunmen used that vantage point to open fire on a room full of unarmed civilians. I never pass by a warehouse without thinking of the one in Kravica, where over 1,000 unarmed Bosnian Muslims were slaughtered. And I never have these thoughts without thinking of two words: Ratko Mladić.

For a while, I thought he’d never be brought to justice. I thought impunity would prevail, as it has done so often in human history. But something interesting has happened in the ten short years that I’ve been a lawyer: Many high-level perpetrators are being forced to face their crimes. This began with the arrest of Slobodan Milosevic and was followed by the arrests of Charles Taylor, Saddam Hussein, and, most recently, Radovan Karadzic. With each such arrest, I became more confident that Mladić’s time would run out. On Thursday, it did.

But we should remember that justice does not come quickly or effortlessly. As it is said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” In the coming days and months, if all goes well, good men and women will do something—in Serbia, in Bosnia, and in The Hague—and these heroes deserve our thanks. It will start with a Serbian signature on an extradition order in Belgrade, and it will continue as people pore over documents, interview witnesses, risk their lives to testify, and participate in one of the most important trials in The Hague. Indeed, there is hard work yet to be done—but, once it is, both Mladić and the victims of Srebrenica will have their due justice.

Mark V. Vlasic, an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University and senior fellow at Georgetown’s Institute for Law, Science & Global Security, served on the Slobodan Milosevic and Ratislav Krstic (Srebrenica) genocide prosecution trial teams at the U.N. war crimes tribunal. He is a partner at Ward & Ward PLLC, where he heads the firm’s international practice.

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