MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Joining us now is NPR's Tom Gjelten. He covered the war in Bosnia from start to finish and he wrote a book about the conflict. Tom, we are so glad you're with us.
TOM GJELTEN: Good to be with you, Michele.
NORRIS: Now, Mladic is most famous for presiding over the slaughter at Srebrenica. Remind us what happened there and what his role was.
GJELTEN: Michele, Srebrenica was a Muslim enclave in eastern Bosnia. It was entirely surrounded by territory that was held by the Bosnian Serbs and was besieged for years, designated by the United Nations as a safe area and, more or less, guarded by Dutch peacekeepers. And then, in July of 1995, at the direction of General Mladic, the Serbs moved into Srebrenica, took it over with almost no resistance from the U.N. peacekeepers there.
The Muslim population took shelter at the peacekeepers' base. General Mladic, who presided over this operation, personally assured the U.N. officers the people there would safe. But then, he ordered the men and boys taken away in buses and, according to witnesses and forensic evidence, he had them systematically shot. About 8,000 Muslim men and boys lined up with their hands tied behind their back and executed. They were then dumped in mass graves.
NORRIS: Can you give us a sense of what the man behind that was like personally?
GJELTEN: Well, Mladic was a very capable military leader, very intelligent. He was in charge of all the military operations carried out by the Bosnian Serbs throughout the war. He was actually a general in the federal Yugoslav army at the beginning of the war. He was commanding that portion of the Yugoslav army that was in Bosnia. And then, when Bosnia seceded from Yugoslavia, that portion of the Yugoslav army just transformed itself into the Bosnian Serb army and Mladic was the commanding general.
A very professional soldier and he knew how to relate to other military men on this kind of soldier-to-soldier basis. And in that sense, Michele, he was distinguished, I think, from some of the Muslim and other Serb officers who were much more amateurs. And a lot of the U.S. and European generals who came to Bosnia and met Mladic were impressed by his professionalism.
You know, there was actually a famous meeting between him and U.S. General Wesley Clark, who later went on to become the NATO commander, where General Mladic exchanged hats with him. And that moment was captured in a photograph that later embarrassed General Clark. But he was able to project this professional military demeanor that served him very well in that conflict.
NORRIS: He was especially popular, as I understand, with many Serbs. Why was he so popular with them?
GJELTEN: Well, one of the things about the Serb passions that drove their aggression against Bosnian Muslims was their deep sense of historical grievance - absurdly deep, it could even be said. For many Serb nationalists, the Bosnian Muslims had it coming to them because of what their ancestors had done to Serbs 200 or more years earlier during the period of Turkish rule. And Ratko Mladic was especially adept at linking the war to those Serb struggles of the past. He called the Bosnian Muslims Turks.
And I remember that when his troops captured Srebrenica, for example, Mladic actually referred back to a slaughter of Serb peasants in that area in 1804. And he said, I remember this, the time has finally come to take revenge on the Turks in this region. You know, it may sound crazy holding the Muslims responsible for something that happened 200 years earlier, but it was that linkage that he was able to make that made Mladic a hero to Serb nationalists.
NORRIS: Did the popularity with the Serbs account for him being able to escape arrest for so long?
GJELTEN: It did in a couple of ways, Michele. First of all, any Serbian government that had moved against Mladic would have faced some kind of popular backlash because he was so popular. And then, within the Serbian army, because of his long experience there, he had many, many close friends and protectors, made it very difficult for both political and security reasons to move against him for many years.
NORRIS: Any indication what led to his arrest after all these years?
GJELTEN: Well, as the years went by, the circle of people that were determined to protect him got smaller and smaller. His political counterpart, Radovan Karadzic, was arrested three years ago. And meanwhile, the political argument for arresting him became more and more compelling. The Serbian government is anxious to join the European Union.
It's been very clear from the beginning that the primary condition would be to move against Mladic and that is what, I think, finally led to this political decision. It's not like Osama bin Laden here. This arrest is not the culmination of some great investigation. This was a political decision by the Serbian government finally to go after him.
NORRIS: That's NPR's Tom Gjelten. He covered the war in Bosnia.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.