A life sentence for Ratko Mladic, the ‘Butcher of Bosnia’, is no cause for celebration

Published: November 25, 2017
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Bosnian Serbs hold posters depicting Ratko Mladic during a protest in Mladic's hometown of Kalinovik in 2011. PHOTO: AP

The Bosnian war is one of my earliest childhood memories. I remember watching the coverage on our small TV screen in our living room. It was the 90s – I must have been seven or eight-years-old – and I distinctly remember it was the first time I saw my dad cry.

It was around this time that I also remember some newcomers to our class at school. I had overheard one of my teachers saying,

“Exciting day today, the Bosnian refugees are joining!”

He seemed genuinely jubilant, in a kind and anxious sort of way.

I will never forget the bright blue parka coat one Bosnian boy wore; it seemed so worn out, but the colour was still so bold.

“The Bosnian kids are beautiful,” I remember the mums saying at the school gate.

The Bosnian siblings at school stuck together  not a word of English between them – but they smiled and played with us, offering friendship and never showing the slightest hint of the unimaginable suffering they must have endured. It was my first encounter with refugees.

Years later at law school, I studied the Srebrenica Massacre. It left me deeply scarred; I understood then why my dad cried that one day in the 90s. Muslim Bosniaks, mainly men and boys, were starved, raped, killed and crucified in thousands, as part of a plan to ethnically cleanse the country of them.

The Srebrenica massacre, which was the killing of thousands of innocent, unarmed Muslim men and boys, was all the more disturbing for the reason that the United Nations (UN) had assured that Srebrenica was a safe area for the Bosnians. This, however, turned out to be fatefully untrue – Ratko Mladic, a Bosnian Serb former general, subsequently captured Srebrenica while the UN Dutch commanders sent to guard the enclave watched on passively as the killings commenced. Thus, now when a UN court has sentenced Mladic to a life sentence for the war crimes and genocide committed, I feel a sense of irony linger.

Yes, of course, I do believe in international justice, I believe in the work of The Hague, and am lucky to have some of my friends do remarkable work there. But I have often wondered whether international forces, including the UN, could have prevented the massacre had they acted earlier, or had the Dutch commanders performed their jobs and contacted their superiors?

After the verdict was delivered, I received a number of WhatsApp messages and everyone seemed to be in agreement – a life sentence for Mladic was no cause for celebration. Nothing could compensate for the evil and brutality this man inflicted. The child in me, that watched the small TV in my living room and saw Bosnian refugees join her school, agrees.

However, as a lawyer, I have had to message some friends back – peace is not just the absence of war, but the presence of justice. We need international courts for accountability; it is symbolic of what we as an international community stand for and it sends out a strong message that no one is above the law – even during war.

Seventeen years on from the massacre at Srebrenica, it is no longer the 90s, and my father’s beard has turned white. I open social media with the click of a button and I see the world bleed in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan, and I wonder – could more be done right now, in this present time?

I’m sure it can, but for reasons beyond me, a choice is being made not to act. The child in me wells up each time I see these images, but the lawyer in me comes to my rescue – she tells me not to worry. Perhaps 17 years from now, the families of these victims can lift the bloody soil of their land in their hands and take it to the door of the international courts, hoping for an ounce of justice.

Maymunah Zainab

Maymunah Zainab

The author is a corporate lawyer, budding academic and blogger based in Doha.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Parvez

    An extremely good read …… getting justice for a wrong even if it is years later is a good thing. What would be much better is that the inequality amongst people and nations be addressed in a holistic way so that people don’t have to pay the price for this inequality…….but I suppose that’s wishful thinking.Recommend

  • Nagina Shabbir

    Excellent article and an emotionally charged piece. More from this writer please!Recommend

  • kp

    yaah always cry when victims are muslim but close your eyes otherwiseRecommend

  • M.Zainab

    Not at all. There is nothing to suggest this in the article. However, the UN called the violence in Bosnia, the worst mass killing since WW2, so this event in particular shamefully stands out in history.Recommend

  • faeam

    Superbly written. Informative but also heartfelt. I remember seeing images of Bosniaks with just skin and bones, they had been starved so badly and for so long there was no meat left on their bodies. Europeans were silent, UN watched on, if there was ever a genocide In which the intl community was complicit (through their silence) this was it.Recommend

  • Ammar

    Which school are we talking about that the refugees joined? Which city/country? Where are they now?Recommend

  • Hanna Abbasi

    Who exactly is celebrating? People are just glad justice has been served.Recommend

  • Rohan

    Hafez saeed was set freeRecommend

  • rationalist

    How about the genocide of Christians in Armenia?Recommend

  • kp

    shhhh.. dont talk about thatRecommend

  • Patwari

    How about the current ongoing Genocide of Muslim Kashmiris?
    [In Bharat Occupied Kashmir.]
    Or the killings of Muslims in Hindustan under any pretext.Recommend

  • Patwari

    Modi Sarkar also known as Butcher of Gujrat [by Bharati Media]
    elected Prime Minister.Recommend

  • Patwari

    It was President Bill Clinton who went and saved them.
    None of the Muslim leaders did anything. The Saudis,
    the Egyptians, the Emirates, the Turks looked the other
    way. Every single one of them.Recommend

  • M.Zainab

    There is a verse of the Qur’an that states ‘killing one innocent person is as though you have killed the whole of mankind”. Violence and terror had no religion. The Mladic ruling was delivered last week and so it was a moment for pause and reflection, i mention at the end of my article that the world is bleeding, more needs to be done for all. Let’s agree on that at least.Recommend

  • M.Zainab

    unfortunately i am not in contact with this students, i am from the South West of the UK.Recommend

  • rationalist

    Agreed. But my point is: why is that Muslim intellectuals rarely admit and write about the gory genocides committed by Muslims throughout history?Recommend

  • Patwari

    This is here and now. Which is what is in the blog.
    Not your perceived perceptions about the Muslim
    intellectuals not admitting so called ‘genocides’ that
    you claimed, were committed 500 years ago? 700?
    By the same token we can discuss the butchering
    of Muslims, very current, horrendous, ongoing in
    Hindustani Occupied Kashmir perpetuated by the
    Government of Hindustan. There is a mountain of
    evidence from different sources that this is happening.
    Why do Hindu intellectuals fail to admit or write about it?
    You are manufacturing stuff to fit your comment.Recommend