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Ratko Mladić, the 'butcher of Bosnia' – video profile

General Ratko Mladić, the most bloodthirsty warlord to strut European soil since the Third Reich, will die in jail. Any other outcome after today’s verdict in The Hague would have been preposterous.

The mothers of the more than 8,000 men and boys mass-murdered in Srebrenica, over five days in the summer of 1995, have every reason to welcome the sentence of life imprisonment, and Mladić’s conviction for genocide: the only judicial standard by which that crime can be rightly measured.

Timeline

Ratko Mladić: the long road to justice

The breakup of the former Yugoslavia

The breakup of the former Yugoslavia formally begins when Slovenia and Croatia declare independence. The Serb-led Yugoslav army withdraws from Slovenia after a 10-day conflict, but the war in Croatia that followed would last until 1995.

War breaks out in Bosnia

Bosnian Serbs swiftly take control of more than two-thirds of Bosnia and launch the siege of Sarajevo, headed by Ratko Mladić, who becomes the Bosnian Serb army commander a month later. The siege lasts 1,460 days, during which more than 11,500 people die.

Srebrenica massacre

Mladić's troops capture Srebrenica, where more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed. Nato bombs Bosnian Serb positions following reports of the slaughter.

The international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia indicts Mladić and Bosnian-Serb leader Radovan Karadžić on charges including genocide.

Dayton agreement signed

The Dayton agreement is signed, ending the war and creating two mini-states in Bosnia: a Bosnian-Serb one and a Muslim-Croat one.

Mladić goes into hiding

Nato peacekeepers and western intelligence agencies operating in Bosnia step up attempts to  track down war crimes suspects, but Mladić is sheltered by loyalists in Serbia. He is seen attending football games and eating at Belgrade restaurants.

Mladić arrested

Following intense pressure from the international community on Serbia, Mladić is arrested in Serbia

He appears in court at the UN tribunal for the first time in June but refuses to enter pleas to the charges against him. At a second hearing in July, judges enter not guilty pleas on his behalf.

Trial hears closing statements

The trial in The Hague is arguably the most significant war crimes case in Europe since the Nuremberg tribunal, in part because of the scale of the atrocities involved. Over 530 days, the UN tribunal hears from 591 witnesses and examines nearly 10,000 exhibits concerning 106 separate crimes.

During closing statements, prosecutors urge judges to convict Mladić on all counts and sentence him to life in prison. Defence attorneys call for acquittal.

Mladić convicted

More than 20 years after the Srebrenica massacre, the now 74-year-old Mladić is sentenced to life imprisonment after being convicted of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Delivering the verdicts, the judge said Mladić’s crimes “rank among the most heinous known to humankind and include genocide and extermination”.

But for all the back-slapping by human rights organisations and lawyers, there is a dark cloud under which the majority of those who survived Mladić’s hurricane of violence etch out their lives, and that shrouds the memory of those killed, or are still “missing”.

I testified against Mladić, as well as his political counterpart Radovan Karadžić and seven other defendants, at The Hague: mostly to give evidence on the network of concentration camps I revealed in this newspaper in 1992 – along with an ITN crew – and the litany of mass murder, ethnic “cleansing”, rape and destruction that followed over three bloody years.

Today I spent time on the phone to survivors. Beyond those bereaved by Srebrenica, not one shared in the celebration of Mladić’s conviction.

ITN image of prisoners at Trnopolje concentration camp in Bosnia
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Prisoners at Trnopolje camp in Bosnia, one of the camps Ed Vulliamy and ITN revealed in 1992. Photograph: ITN

He faced two counts of genocide: one for Srebrenica, the other for what happened in the “municipalities” elsewhere in Bosnia. Here serial atrocities were committed by troops under Mladić’s direct command over those years, while the international community dithered, and worse. The whole idea of the Hague tribunal was as much an act of contrition for that failure as it was ambition for international justice. Mladić’s pogroms included more mass-murder, torture, mutilation and rape, in the camps at Omarska, Trnopolje and Keretem in north-west Bosnia. To the east, in Višegrad, civilians – including babies – were herded alive into houses for incineration, or down to a bridge to be shot, or chopped into pieces, and hurled into the river Drina. Then there was the wholesale demolition of countless towns and villages, and the “cleansing” of all non-Serbs, by death or deportation; the razing of mosques and Catholic churches; the gathering of women and girls into camps for violation all night, every night. And the rest.

None of this, apparently, is genocide. Mladić was acquitted on that count. This raises the question: then what is?

Among those in The Hague to hear the verdict was Kelima Dautović, who survived the Trnopolje camp while her husband was in one at Omarska, and lost many of her extended family and neighbours in the levelling of her home town of Kozarac in 1992. “It’s so disappointing, but hardly surprising,” she says. “Maybe they didn’t want to call it genocide because it happened under the eyes of the international community that was there, supposedly protecting us. Whatever, I hope the historians do a better job than the judges.”

Among the more outrageous farces along the tribunal’s long and winding road was the incarceration in 2015 of one its former senior officers, Florence Hartmann, for her subsequent journalistic coverage of Srebrenica, with reference to material sealed by the court. Hartmann, who from her cell could see Mladić taking daily exercise, observes today that “no genocide in history happened over five days in summer. Genocide is a process.”

She notes that unlike in other verdicts, the role of Serbia itself has been entirely omitted: “The verdict has stripped genocide of ideology, history and international context.”

It’s a good point. Human Rights Watch celebrates the fact that the verdict sends “a message to those in power around the world who are committing brutal atrocities, whether in Burma, North Korea, or Syria”, as preparations begin for prosecutions of war crimes in Syria.

But who exactly will be brought to justice? Mladić is a warlord, and better jailed than free. But, as archbishop Desmond Tutu has rightly asked: where was Tony Blair when it came to justice for the ruins of Iraq, to which one might add the names Cheney, Rumsfeld et al? Will justice in Syria be similarly “stripped” to exclude Assad and Putin, and whoever in the regime of our ally Saudi Arabia is arming Islamic State and bombing Yemen? Should that former darling of the human rights movement, Aung San Suu Kyi, be expecting an indictment?

The Hague tribunal’s remit was in part judicial, but also to “promote reconciliation” in the Balkans. Well, there is none. Mladić got largely what he wanted: a Bosnian Serb statelet from which almost every non-Serb was banished in 1995, to which only a bold few precariously return. He is adored, his portrait adorns bars and office walls in Bosnia and Serbia, his name sung at football matches.

Even the chief prosecutor at The Hague, Serge Brammertz, acknowledged that “conflict and atrocities can gain a logic of their own”, and life in Bosnia is more sectarian now than at any time since the war, all sides settling into the comfort zone of mutual hatred – which is, incidentally, financially lucrative to the political class leading all of them. Mladić is no doubt a furious man, but he can start his sentence with the satisfaction of a mission in no small part accomplished.

Ed Vulliamy is author of The War Is Dead, Long Live the War: Bosnia – the Reckoning