Charles Manson, world-famous cult leader and serial killer, died this week in a prison in California, after a life sentence. Ratko Mladic, Balkan war criminal, just received a life sentence in The Hague yesterday.
The two men had some commonalities, although they would likely never recognize their brotherhood, since they were from alien cultures and had differing philosophies about murder. Their common trait was to see their victims as less than human, and themselves as godlike saviors. They felt no guilt before or after their killings, no sense of empathy for those they killed, and no sense of moral duty towards those who were in society, outside their own tight group. Also, they both had the sensational charisma of killers in a Netflix serial.
In Serbia, it’s rather common to see Mladic exalted as a protector of Christianity from an onrushing Muslim jihad. Mladic as a Crusader general has many ardent fans who wouldn’t hurt a fly. As a Serbian citizen, I recognize his devotees as my neighbours. They vote for the future of my country.
Our current president himself, Aleksandar Vucic, was a young radical nationalist politician in the nineties. His party loudly supported the aggressive wars against Muslims and Catholics, generating fake hate-propaganda and volunteering for paramilitary raids. After the fall of Milosevic, this able politician changed his ideas. He stole the clothes from the democratic opposition.
Vucic is the the powerful politician in Serbia who has publicly commented on Mladic’s life sentence. Vucic has stated that Serbia has to look towards the future, to the integration in the European Union, for a better future of our children, and not to soak in tears about our tragic past. He said the sentence from The Hague court was already long-expected. He said that it is not a day to mourn or rejoice about.
This shrewd political position is both good and bad news for Serbia. Good because bad people are in prison. Bad because they never came to terms with their badness.
I followed the trial of the Scorpions in 2005 in Belgrade, a paramilitary group that committed genocide. They were not mere admiring fans of killers, they were killers, those who physically pulled the triggers. They were bandits and raiders, comrades of the armies of Mladic who pulled-off the big operation of Srebrenica, liquidating almost 10 000 people of Muslim ethnicity in five days of slaughter, and even hiding the bodies from cameras and public knowledge.
Mladic was often on world television news channels back in those days, publicly distributing chocolate to the children behind the barbed wire. The UN troops nearby, the Dutch in particular, were having toasts with him while the machine guns chattered out of earshot. This was a fake-news operation of that period, though it didn’t fool some people in Serbia. We knew that a slaughter was coming, that the ethnics who failed to flee would be violently “cleansed” from their own homes. When it happened, people just said, we knew it.
Not only that, but a couple of months after the massacre, the Dayton treaty was signed by the same people who had committed the crime. That act of peace froze the borderlines on the ground and ended the Yugoslav civil war. Good and bad news again?
Activists never stopped working on the background of the war-crimes, collecting facts, dates, facts, objects, especially the testimonies of survivors, the women who were widows, mothers, sisters. Many died while doing this labor, without ever receiving recognition or help.
The Hague tribunal went through many changes and internal scandals. International justice is by no means infallible. A women’s war tribunal for former Yugoslavia was established by Women in Black of Serbia, together with other NGO women’s groups from the region, to fill in the gaps of official justice and give a voice to the invisible civilian victims.
The Balkans will never be as they were: again, good and bad news. We Yugoslav citizens and political idiots, as I call myself and the others involved, lost our nation, our honor, our credibility, and the lives of fellow citizens. Ratko Mladic lost his freedom for good, while Manson lost his life for good. But where is the goodness?
My readers are congratulating me in private emails because I wrote a book on the depredations of Mladic and his allies, years ago when few local people shared my attitude. Journalists can now interview local people involved in the Balkan wars, and it’s much less like stepping on land-mines. It’s easier to ask, from a more distant, more historicized perspective: what do we think or feel? Is it the “banality of evil,” as Hannah Arendt said about appalling Nazi war criminals, who revealed themselves, in the legal dock, as tedious apparatchiks? Ratko Mladic is not a fascist superhuman or evil mastermind. He comes from the same region that my own father did. He had the looks and accents common to anybody on the ground there. He could easily have been a relative of mine. Mladic’s own daughter committed suicide at a dark point of his political career. Her fate could have been mine, but I survived and wrote books.
On a day like this one, instead of rattling on in a “know it all attitude,” I would ask for a moment of thoughtful silence. Once, before those dark deeds, we had so much time to emote, elaborate and speak out, to come to terms with our own grisly potential. To celebrate when a jail door is slammed and bolted is hypocritical. Mladic himself spoke when his sentence was finally read in the court — he swore out, loudly and vulgarly. That is why I ask for a minute of silence instead.