Bosnian Serb Army Leader at Large Indicted War Criminal Ratko Mladic Enjoying Leisurely Retirement

By Renate Flottau

Part 2: Mladic Lived With Family in Belgrade


While wanted posters for the alleged war criminal were pinned up at international airports and border crossings, Mladic spent years living in complete tranquility with his family in their house in Blagoje-Parovica Street in the diplomatic quarter of Belgrade. He bought his bread at a local bakery, went jogging through the streets of the Serb capital, and watched Partisan Belgrade play soccer from the skybox at the team's stadium.

In 1997 he put Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic in an awkward position: Djukanovic received a call that the international fugitive and 15 of his bodyguards were relaxing by the River Rezevica in Montenegro. When Montenegrin police officers politely asked their unwelcome guest to leave the country, Mladic flew into a rage. Eyewitnesses say he shouted, swore, and berated them for disturbing an active general in the Yugoslav army during a much-needed vacation. Nevertheless, he did leave his holiday retreat the next morning -- on orders from Belgrade.

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: Ratko Mladic Evades Capture

Despite all the evidence against Mladic, Serb President Vojislav Kostunica didn't officially retire the general until 2001 -- fully five years after his arrest warrant had been issued. Until then he had continued to serve as a military chief. He was even giving commands to Serb soldiers in Kosovo during the Nato bombardment of Yugoslavia in 1999 from his office in the partially destroyed Topcider barracks in Belgrade, which was constantly being targeted by American Tomahawk missiles. An army general and friend of Mladic's recalls how hard it had been to persuade Mladic to abandon his command post and move to a safer location. Mladic witnessed the end of the bombing campaign at military convalescent homes near Topola and Valjevo.

After the arrest of his principal patron -- Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic -- in 2001, Mladic spent much of his time in army barracks, although until early 2006 he also had the use of seven apartments in Belgrade alone. But in contrast to his one-time superior, Radovan Karadzic, Mladic never felt the need to disguise his identity.

In 1996 he was among the mourners at the funeral of a fellow general. And in October 2002 he thumbed his nose at UN war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte: While Del Ponte was at the Swiss embassy in Belgrade urging Western diplomats to do more to track down her suspects, Mladic was dining on roast lamb and Slivovitz in full view of all the other guests at the Milosev Konak restaurant a mere five minutes away.

Whenever he tired of city life, nature-lover Mladic would travel to a house in the village of Pricevic, about 90 kilometers from the Serb capital. There he would tend to his goats and the 60 beehives the passionate beekeeper had set up in the garden. He attended the weddings of acquaintances in nearby Valjevo, and guests even remember him playing on his harmonica.

The one-time Bosnian Serb chief-of-staff was treated at the Belgrade military hospital on three separate occasions. The hospital's former director and later defense minister, Zoran Stankovic, had been one of Mladic's closest friends ever since Mladic's daughter Ana was brought to the hospital in 1994. Stankovic, who was director of the hospital at the time, was present when Mladic said goodbye to his dying daughter, a situation that Stankovic later said was very emotional. Although the 23-year-old's death is officially classified as suicide, Mladic has always refused to believe it, insisting she was murdered.

Mladic was in constant contact with the government in Belgrade. Aca Tomic, Kostunica's military adviser, met the fugitive on a car park along the Belgrade-Nis highway on several occasions. After Djindjic's death, Kostunica tried repeatedly to talk Mladic into giving himself up, to no avail.

Book Claims Americans Were Ambivalent About Mladic Hunt

But the Serbian government wasn't alone in dragging its feet in the search for Mladic. At times international interest in his capture was tepid at best.

In her book "Peace and Punishment," Florence Hartmann, Del Ponte's former spokeswoman, described the frustration of the prosecutors in The Hague in 2006 when they discovered why their cooperation with the CIA had proved so fruitless for years: The CIA agents stationed in Serbia since 2002 routinely sent information about Mladic's hideaways to their headquarters in the US. There the reports were sanitized and only those that supported the claim that Mladic wasn't in Serbia were passed on to the War Crimes Tribunal. Because Hartmann had used confidential documents from the Tribunal in writing her book and revealed classified information, she was fined €7,000 ($10,250) last month.

The American ambivalence over Mladic remains something of a mystery. William Stuebner, the former deputy mission chief of the OSCE in Bosnia-Herzegovina who also acted as the middle-man between the UN tribunal and NATO-led forces in Bosnia, says Mladic lived in the American sector of Bosnia for at least 18 months after charges had been filed against him. When the Americans finally decided to search Mladic's underground command center in the Bosnian town of Han Pijesak, they not only announced their arrival in advance but also agreed not to enter certain parts of the complex.

As late as June 28, 2004, the war crimes suspect was able to return to Han Pijesak undisturbed to take part in Army Day celebrations and be fêted as a hero. Soldiers from the international peacekeeping force didn't arrive on the scene until four days later -- by which time the general was long gone. British Army General David Leakey told SPIEGEL that the troops had received the information too late, and underlined his unease at the search for the Serbian fugitive. He said soldiers went to "great risks" trying to arrest Mladic. One had to ask oneself, he added, whether arresting a war criminal was worth "sacrificing the life of even a single soldier."

Skeletons in the Closet

Patriotic sentiment about the alleged Serb war hero was just one of the reasons why Mladic's arrest was prevented for years. There were also real national interests for ensuring he wasn't found. Many in Serbia were extremely worried that the man Milosevic had chosen to carry out his militaristic objectives would testify to the War Crimes Tribunal and confirm how deeply the government in Belgrade was involved in the chaos of the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Notes by Mladic recently confiscated during a raid on one of his apartments leave no doubt that the general had struck deals with the then Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic, his intelligence-service chief Jovica Stanisic -- who is also facing trial in The Hague -- and the heads of the Serb army.

War crimes prosecutors apparently now have many documents and eyewitness accounts according to which the Yugoslav army chief of staff at the time, Momcilo Perisic, knew about the attack on the UN safe haven of Srebrenica and the planned massacre. Between July 1997 and 2000, Perisic visited Mladic at least twice at a military convalescent home near Valjevo. Other generals also paid their respects there. Perisic, chief of staff of the Yugoslav army from 1993 to 1998, is now on trial in The Hague. According to prosecutors, he helped Mladic during the siege of Sarajevo, and supplied the Bosnian Serb army with weapons.

If the allegations prove true, Bosnia could file a new charge against Serbia before the International Criminal Court. Conviction by the ICC could saddle Serbia with war reparations totaling billions of dollars, a fine that would plunge the country into endless financial misery.

Ratko Mladic has already prepared for his eventual arrest. Former comrades-in-arms report he has carried a vial of poison with him for years, and intends to swallow it to evade capture. Many Serbs now hope the general really will keep this patriotic promise for the good of his country.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt.

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