ACROSS THE NEXT dozen or-so months, the Hague tribunal deliberating charges against former Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladić will review a good amount of evidence, much of it rendered on videotape. The significance of this detail is easily missed if you are too young to have been an adult during the Bosnian War — but if you are of sufficient age, the richness of the record against Mladić constitutes a reminder not only of the crimes but of the character and indefensibility of the world’s slowness of response.
This reminder concerns the fact that as the phrase “ethnic cleansing” was entering the language, the practice itself could be viewed on film and even in real-time by means of Earth-orbiting satellites. In contrast to the genocidal program of the Third Reich — ethnic cleansing’s nearest relation — the Republika Srpska depravities of Slobodan Milošević, Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić were knowable and known early on. It is further a mark of the man’s pride in his work that Mladić took with him a camera crew, better to capture for his future savouring the murder of Bosniaks and Croats.
The war generated an extraordinary amount of pop culture material, Angelina Jolie’s “In the Land of Blood and Honey” being one of the more recent examples. But there is another and important dimension to this made-for-television perspective which is among my personal recollections and that is worth remembering. Between the years 1992-1995 the marvelous and multi-ethnic city which only a few years before had hosted the Winter Olympics fell to what my generation had hoped (and foolishly dared to claim) was a “never again” anachronism, an unimpeded religion and race motivated genocide. For me, the depths of the war were inseparable from the heights of the Olympics, and together they established a sharp contrast as well as a cautionary example of how far, and how quickly, a multi-ethnic civilization may tumble. Along the way the media habitually failed to convey the essential point, referring to Croats and Serbs and Bosnians, rather than the more telling adjectives Catholic, Orthodox Christian, and Muslim. (These terms too are a gross and misleading over-simplification of the conflict, and yet even as such an improvement.) How discouragingly familiar and relevant this theme of inter-tribal slaughter now is.
For years the Security Council deliberated: first over whether or not and how to intervene, and afterward over whether or not to support partition of a post-war, post-Yugoslavia along ethnic lines, thereby inscribing into the very map of the place the worldview which animated the slaughter. From a North American perspective this was not merely demoralizing, it was notice that the conflagrations of the past could at any moment rekindle (certain present-day Serbian nationalist grievances date back to 1389), sucking up the human oxygen of entire regions. In retrospect, and as already noted, 1992-1995 also looked forward to the immediate post-911 world of religious based cleansing. Viewed in this manner, the atrocities of the Bosnian War form an intermediate blot on whose immediate borders are the vast and in many details comparable stains of Nazi Germany and contemporary militant Wahhabism, respectively.
Once this business of ethnic and tribal warfare is underway, its spread is a matter of inevitability. What began as an effort of the Bosnian Serbs to undo an independence referendum and to assert Serbian dominance, under the political leadership of Milošević and with Mladić doing much of the heavy lifting, ended up as a retaliatory effort to cleanse the Bosnian Serbs within Krajina and the autonomous province of Kosovo. This principle, perhaps best characterized as an inverse golden rule, was spat upon by Serbian chauvinists to the eventual harm even of Serbs themselves. The crimes of Mladić will be applauded in certain quarters, even as the rest of the world condemns. He has inflicted on the world hateful, base and lasting harms, so much so that the prospects even of those who admired and continue to admire him as their defender have been diminished.