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

Indicted war criminal and former Serb general Ratko Mladic has brazenly eluded capture for 13 years, living the comfortable life of a pensioner in Belgrade. Politicians, the army and -- it now appears -- Western intelligence services have been helping him the whole time.
Von Renate Flottau

The Luda Kuca café is located on Yuri Gagarin Street in New Belgrade, a satellite town of concrete high-rise apartment blocks. Luda Kuca means "crazy house" -- a fitting name for the café. Until recently, one of its regulars was a bearded faith-healer with a penchant for singing Serb hymns late at night as he sat at one of the café's three tables. The singer's name was Radovan Karadzic.  Today the former leader of the Bosnian Serbs is in jail in The Hague facing trial for war crimes.

Nothing has changed in Luda Kuca since Karadzic stopped coming. His picture still hangs on the wall alongside portraits of Serbian ex-president Slobodan Milosevic and Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military chief who has been on the run since 1995, when an international warrant was issued for his arrest. Mladic stands accused of crimes against humanity for the slaughter of thousands of Muslims during the Bosnian War. The stocky former general was once hailed as a hero. Today most Serbs would rather see him in the dock alongside Karadzic and all the others.

Fotostrecke

Photo Gallery: Ratko Mladic Evades Capture

Foto: REUTERS TV/ REUTERS

While Mladic remains at large, Serbia has no hope of becoming a member of the European Union and thus making economic progress. But Mladic is an expert at fooling his would-be captors, and in so doing he is holding his entire country to ransom.

Just like Karadzic, Mladic often sought refuge in one of the anonymous tower blocks of New Belgrade. But it was only one of many hideouts. The ex-general has friends in high places -- fellow officers, loyal politicians, and businessmen from the upper classes of Belgrade society have all protected the now 67-year-old. They enabled the "Butcher of Srebrenica," whose soldiers massacred some 8,000 Muslim men and boys aged between 12 and 77 in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1995, to enjoy the leisurely life of a pensioner.

However the Serb government is coming under increasing pressure both at home and from abroad. Social Affairs Minister Rasim Ljajic, the cabinet member responsible for cooperating with the UN War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, claims the Mladic problem will be solved "by the end of the year." And Vladimir Vukcevic, Serbia's highest war crimes prosecutor, told fellow Serbs that Mladic would soon be arrested. The only question seems whether he will be taken dead or alive.

Video Shows Mladic Dancing and Singing With Friends

Serbian investigators certainly haven't been short of leads up to now. In June Bosnian television aired video recordings from "confidential sources" showing an evidently carefree Ratko Mladic with silver-grey hair dancing, toasting friends, singing with outstretched arms, and happily enjoying a snowball fight dressed in a skiing outfit in a winter landscape. A single raid on a Mladic-family apartment in December 2008 netted investigators no fewer than 215 video tapes and CDs containing a host of evidence of the man's whereabouts.

Former Yugoslav Lieutenant Colonel Srboljub Nikolic has confirmed that high-ranking Serb politicians and army officers constantly knew the fugitive's location at least until 2002.

It wasn't until May of that year -- fully six years after his arrest warrant was issued -- that then Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic ordered Mladic to leave the military barracks in Belgrade. A former bodyguard testified that before 2002, the general enjoyed the protection of 50 soldiers at the barracks, men officially put at his disposal by the Serb government. However, the bodyguard added that this was not to shield him from state prosecutors, but from bounty hunters attracted by the $5 million reward offered by the United States for his arrest.

Even after his bodyguards had been withdrawn in May 2002, Mladic continued to move freely around the country. The closest he came to being in real danger was in March 2003, when Serb leader Zoran Djindjic -- frustrated by failed mediation to convince Mladic to give himself up -- promised then-chief UN war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte that Mladic would soon be arrested. Although Djindjic's move was unpopular at home, he hoped it would secure Serbia's future within the EU.

In an interview back in 1996, Mladic had warned potential pursuers they would "pay dearly" if they tried to bring him to justice. A few days after making his promise to Del Ponte, Djindjic was murdered. At the time of the assassination, Mladic was hiding in the house of a friend, a general who lived near the airport in a suburb of Belgrade.

Social Affairs Minister Ljajic admits that in the aftermath of the Bosnian war, the Serbs had been afraid that attempts to arrest Mladic would end in a bloody shootout between the police and the army, which was still loyal to Mladic. As a result, the government in Belgrade spent years inventing one excuse after another to win time with the international community. It was claimed he had fled to Russia, that his fingerprints had disappeared from the files, that he had suffered a stroke and was dying. Whenever Brussels or The Hague stepped up the pressure, the Serbs made minor concessions, expressing a willingness to hand over other wanted war criminals.

One of these was General Zdravko Tolimir; a close friend of Mladic. He was Mladic's quartermaster and headed his network of helpers until he was arrested in May 2007. To avoid protests in Serbia, security forces bundled Tolimir out of his house in Belgrade with a black bag over his head, and whisked him over the border into Bosnia. Officials later announced Tolimir had been arrested in Bosnia.

Even so, the Belgrade media did wonder how it was possible that surveillance teams watching Tolimir hadn't also gained evidence about the man he was hiding.

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.

Fotostrecke

Photo Gallery: Ratko Mladic Evades Capture

Foto: REUTERS TV/ REUTERS

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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