Profile: Ratko Mladic, Bosnian Serb army chief

  • 16 May 2012
  • From the section Europe

General Ratko Mladic was the Bosnian Serb army chief throughout the Bosnian war - and the man many hold responsible for the worst atrocities in that bloody conflict.

Along with the Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic, he came to symbolise the Serb campaign of ethnic cleansing of Croats and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims).

With his trial now under way at The Hague, there is hope among victims that they may finally see justice served for the violence they suffered at the hands of Gen Mladic's men.

Their pain has been prolonged because of the 16 years the general managed to evade capture.

He was indicted by the UN war crimes tribunal in 1995 on charges of genocide and other crimes against humanity. His flight from the law became an embarrassment to Serbia and the biggest sticking point in its relations with the West.

Gen Mladic was finally captured at a farmhouse in northern Serbia in May 2011, looking much older and frailer than in the TV footage from the last days of the war.

His health has been an issue at The Hague, delaying some proceedings.

The court, anxious that he should not die before the end of the trial, cut back the scale of the case.


Ratko Mladic's apparent motivation during the war was Serbian nationalism. He saw it as an opportunity to avenge five centuries of occupation by Muslim Turks. He even referred to Bosniaks as "Turks", a term he used to insult them.

There may also have been personal reasons for his ruthlessness.

A year before the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, his much-loved daughter Ana, a medical student, shot herself with his pistol in Belgrade, in an act said by people close to Gen Mladic to have hardened his character.

Some believe she had chosen suicide after learning of atrocities committed by forces under her father's command.

Another bloody event may have marked the eventual "butcher of Srebrenica" from his second birthday.

His father, a partisan, was killed that day in 1945 fighting pro-Nazi Croatian Ustasha troops.

Born in the south Bosnian village of Kalinovik and brought up in Tito's Yugoslavia, Ratko Mladic became a regular officer in the Yugoslav People's Army.

A career soldier, he inspired passionate devotion among his soldiers.

As the country began to disintegrate in 1991, he was posted to lead the Yugoslav army's 9th Corps against Croatian forces at Knin, and was promoted to the rank of general the same year.

Soon after taking command of the Yugoslav Army in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, he was appointed to lead a new Bosnian Serb army created in 1992.

He is considered to have been one of the key architects of the bloody siege of Sarajevo.

His disregard for civilian casualties came through in the commands he issued to his gunners pounding the city in early 1992.

"Burn their brains!" was one. "Shell them until they're on the edge of madness," was another.

But the most notorious attack on civilians was to come in July 1995, at Srebrenica, a Bosniak enclave under UN protection.

The worst atrocity in Europe since World War II occurred after Gen Mladic's forces overran the town and rounded up Bosniak men and boys aged between 12 and 77.

Hours before the shooting began, the general himself was seen handing out sweets to Bosniak children in the main square, and patting one on the head.

Then, over five days, at least 7,500 captives were killed, reportedly machine-gunned in groups of 10 before being buried by bulldozer in mass graves.

Later that year, the UN war crimes tribunal indicted Gen Mladic on two counts of genocide for the Sarajevo siege and the Srebrenica massacre.

Flight and arrest

Image caption Ratko Mladic had aged considerably by the time he was captured

After the Bosnian war, Gen Mladic returned to Belgrade, enjoying the open support and protection of the late Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic.

He could be seen visiting public places, eating in expensive restaurants and even attending football matches.

But when Milosevic was arrested in 2001, the former Bosnian Serb commander disappeared from public view.

In October 2004, former aides to the general began surrendering to the Hague war crimes tribunal as Belgrade came under intense international pressure to co-operate.

Speculation mounted that Gen Mladic would also soon be arrested when Radovan Karadzic was detained in Belgrade in July 2008.

But it was not until 26 May 2011 that Europe's most-wanted war-crimes suspect was finally arrested by Serbian intelligence officers and war crimes investigators in the village of Lazarevo, 100km (60 miles) north-east of Belgrade.

Despite having two guns, the ex-general reportedly offered no resistance.

"I could have killed 10 of you if I wanted. But I didn't want to. You're just young men, doing your job," he told the Serbian policemen who came to arrest him, according to a neighbour who was present.

He was in poor health, and had difficulty moving, apparently due to a series of strokes.

In hearings before the start of his trial he told the court: "I'm very old. Every day I'm more infirm and weaker."

He said he could not concentrate for long periods.

Despite his frailty he has been defiant in court, arguing with the judge and declaring his motivation was simply "defending my country".

But the BBC's Peter Biles, who has watched some of the proceedings in the court, says it is determined to keep the trial moving, and not to be derailed by any antics from the dock.