WASHINGTON -- If readers of local American newspapers saw almost nothing about the police apprehension of an old Serb named Ratko Mladic late last week, no one should be surprised.
He's been hiding out, more or less, for 16 years in a Serbia where many (particularly after one or two drafts of Slivovitz) still think of him as a ghostly hero, adept at the dark arts of massacre.
When Mladic was found in the dusty darkness of a cousin's village house in northern Serbia, he didn't emerge spouting inspirational Serbian proverbs or singing old songs about killing the Germans -- or your neighbors, if that was all who were available. All he kept saying was, "I need my pension, I need my pension." This, from the man who would have been emperor of the Balkans!
Indeed, the freezing of Ratko Mladic's government pension of 140 euros a month (roughly $120) back in 2005 was not only a rather miserly punishment for the 10,000 he killed in Sarajevo, the 8,000 in Srebrenica and the 100,000 more across the beautiful landscapes of Bosnia and Croatia; the freezing was part of a plot to lure the Balkan torturer to "justice" by breaking off his ties with civilized humanity and leaving him with impoverished loneliness.
Perhaps the memory of the man is coming back to you now. Best that it does, because, now captured, you'll be hearing a lot more about him. During the savage wars of the Serbs under Slobodan Milosevic to form a "Greater Serbia" between 1992 and 1995, it was this Gen. Mladic who kept beautiful Sarajevo under Serb artillery for nearly four years, whose bulky military figure and expressionless face became the icon for the heinous war, and whose marching paramilitaries, all in black, were the ones who closed in on the exquisite ancient German Danubian city of Vukovar in Croatia -- and utterly destroyed it.
Those three war years in the Balkans in the 1990s were strange ones, presenting the world with new and bitter problems.
Once the majority Serb population had reacted to the death of long-time leader Marshall Tito (1970) by attempting to wipe out ethnic minority peoples for "Greater Serbia," the United Nations and NATO both sent in peacekeeping troops, supposedly to halt the fighting. In reality, it only encouraged it.
By the U.N. rules of "neutralism," the peacekeepers could not even fight back if the Serbs attacked them. This left the page clean for writing a script in which nobody was guilty. In fact, the Europeans, remembering fighting with them in World War II, took the side of the Serbs, the perpetrators of the massacres. In covering those fighting days, I found that the U.N. and Europeans wanted each side to be as good -- or as bad -- as the other.
I walked into the U.N. office in Zagreb one morning in 1993, and the people there were trembling with excitement. "We have found," one said, "that the atrocities are balanced." In effect, they were ready to judge the Croatians and Bosnians as being just as guilty as the Serbs.
I wondered at that moment where I belonged -- it certainly was not there -- until one American diplomat suggested that we might be seeing part of a "Stockholm syndrome," where Europeans sent as peacekeepers came to take the side of Mladic's forces.
When the Balkan wars more or less ended with the Dayton Accords of 1995, Ratko Mladic finally became a pariah. It wasn't until other leaders were taken to the international criminal court at The Hague that he began hiding away -- in ordinary apartments, in army barracks, finally in his cousin's village house.
Little by little, Serbian leadership changed. The new powers-that-be went after Mladic's network of support. The current president, Boris Tadic, represents the faction against the war and passionately committed to getting Serbia into the European Union (the other parts of the former Serbia are now independent countries, and most are already EU members). In particular the Dutch, whose peacekeepers at Srebrenica had been forced by Mladic to stand by while he massacred 8,000 men and boys, have held out against EU membership unless Mladic is handed over.
Finally, the strategy worked. New intelligence networks were formed. Many pro-war people were paid off. In the end, Mladic had no friends, no money, no intelligence. As he "came out," most could not recognize him, he was so grizzled, so thin -- and he didn't even have a pension.
But he must have still been thinking of the ancient roots of these Balkan wars of the 1990s. At Srebrenica, he told his soldiers he was avenging a massacre that the Ottoman Turks had carried out against Serbs in the area 190 years earlier. "We present this city to the Serbian people as a gift," he said. "The time has come to take revenge."