In a century that produced its share of ghastly war criminals, Ratko Mladic stands alongside the worst. As military commander of the Bosnian Serbs during the Bosnian war of the 1990s, Mladic helped orchestrate the largest mass killings in Europe since the Holocaust, including a notorious massacre of 8,000 men and boys in the eastern town of Srebrenica. In 2017, Mladic was sentenced to life in prison on charges of genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia — a rare case of a high-ranking war criminal being made to face justice in a court of law.
Though reviled internationally, for some in his own country Mladic remains a symbol of repressed nationalist dreams. Passing through the dreary suburb of Lukavica, located in the hills directly south of Sarajevo — the capital city that Mladic’s forces terrorized for nearly four years — I recently saw posters and graffiti lionizing the general plastered on the walls of many buildings. At a traffic on-ramp, an image of Mladic was depicted in blood-red spray paint, giving a military salute under the letters “VRS,” the acronym for the Bosnian Serb military forces. Like statues honoring Confederate generals in the United States, many of which were actually built long after America’s Civil War, a monument to Mladic was recently erected in his hometown, an homage to a man that many still consider a hero.