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Latest update : 2011-06-14

Serbia: Ratko Mladic, hero or criminal?

Dubbed the "Butcher of the Balkans", Ratko Mladic is charged with genocide and crimes against humanity, notably for his role in the Srebrenica massacre of 1995. But many Serbs still regard him as a hero. In both Belgrade and rural Serbia where he was arrested, our reporters met a divided population.

Just over the Serbian border, inside Bosnian territory, we had a shocking and very revealing conversation. Our driver, Rade, had fought in the 1990s Balkans conflict, a Bosnian Serb soldier under the command of Ratko Mladic. With tears in his eyes, Rade told us how he had killed civilians and how he had lost members of his own family in brutal attacks. Rade had driven us to film at the famous Srebrenica memorial, where the remains of thousands of Muslim men and boys are buried. This is the where the worst massacre in Europe since World War II took place, in July 1995. But later, Rade also took us to another war memorial, just 10 km away - where Bosnian Serbs go to remember some of their dead. It’s a huge black marble cross situated in the tiny village of Kravice, a grim-looking site which is almost deserted. Rade feels hurt and angry that the world knows about the people slaughtered at Srebrenica, but not about the dead from his own community. He said Serbs and Bosnian Serbs are widely perceived as butchers, the guilty party in the war. He was so depressed and disheartened, that he refused point blank to give us an interview on camera. “Why do you care now?” he asked.

Throughout our time reporting in the region, this was a viewpoint we heard time and time again. Ethnic Serbs fed up of feeling blamed and accused over the Balkans war. From old men in the centre of Srebrenica village, to young school leavers in a suburb of Belgrade, the people we filmed spoke about their deep sense of injustice. They told us Serbia has become a scapegoat, an international villain, and that this is a political tool to manipulate the Serbian state into compliance. This was a prevailing theme at a mass political rally in the centre of Belgrade, organised by the Serb Radical Party to protest against the arrest and extradition of Ratko Mladic. Radical Party MPs accused the government and President Boris Tadic of “betraying” their country, of selling out under pressure from the international community. A banner over the stage, right by the steps of parliament, read “Tadic is not Serbia”.

But while this viewpoint is shared by a sizeable proportion of the Serbian population, it is by no means universal. Many Serbs we spoke to welcomed Mladic’s arrest - people who believe it is right he should face justice, that he should answer charges of war crimes before the ICTY in The Hague. We spoke to a Belgrade artist, Marija, in her studio and apartment in Belgrade. Marija said that like many in Serbia’s intellectual, creative circles, she felt relieved by Mladic’s arrest; that it opened a door for Serbia, the possibility of a fresh start.

Marija believes that many of those who support Mladic do not have enough information about what took place during the conflict. She believes that informing the population is the key to changing nationalist attitudes. During our filming, we went to visit the director of the Serbian TV and radio network, B92. Set up as a pirate radio station just before the 1990s conflict broke out, B92 has always maintained an anti-nationalist voice. Constantly threatened with closure during the Milosevic years, B92 staff have been the targets of intimidation campaigns. Network director Sasha told us how B92 had to battle against Serbian state propaganda during the war. He said next to no information about what was taking place during the conflict was filtering through to the Serbian population (especially given that most of the fighting took place outside Serbian soil). Sasha told us that details of the Srebrenica massacre only emerged here after the war ended, and that many people had problems believing this totally different presentation of the facts. And yet, Sasha does feel optimistic about the future. He says B92 has grown from strength to strength, to become one of the best-known networks in Serbia. And he feels that nationalism is on its way out, even though it’s taking a long time to change some people’s attitudes.

By Noreddine BEZZIOU , Catherine NORRIS TRENT , Audrey RACINE

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