THE HAGUE, Netherlands >> It was perhaps the closing of Europe’s most shameful chapter of atrocity and bloodletting since World War II.
With applause inside and outside the courtroom at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Gen. Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb commander, was sentenced to life imprisonment today for genocide and a catalog of other crimes.
It was the last major item of business for the tribunal in The Hague before it wound down, a full quarter-century after many of the crimes on its docket were committed.
From 1992 to 1995, the tribunal found, Mladic, 75, was the chief military organizer of the campaign to drive Muslims, Croats and other non-Serbs off their lands to cleave a new homogeneous statelet for Bosnian Serbs.
The deadliest year of the campaign was 1992, when 45,000 people died, often in their homes, on the streets or in a string of concentration camps. Others perished in the siege of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, where snipers and shelling terrorized residents for more than three years, and in the mass executions of 8,000 Muslim men and boys after Mladic’s forces overran the U.N.-protected enclave of Srebrenica.
Sitting impassively at first in the court in a blue suit and tie, Mladic seemed much smaller than the burly commander in fatigues who had appeared before the media occasionally during the war to defend himself and his forces.
At one point, Mladic disappeared from the court, apparently to receive treatment for a dangerous surge in his blood-pressure levels. Upon returning, he began shouting at the court in a dispute over his blood pressure.
“You are lying, you are lying, you are lying,” he yelled at the bench. The judges then ordered him to be removed.
In pronouncing the life sentence, the presiding judge, Alphons Orie, said that Mladic’s crimes “rank among the most heinous known to humankind.” Mladic’s lawyers said they would appeal.
But if Mladic’s punishment drew a line of sorts — juridically at least — it was a halting and ambivalent marker between Europe’s epochs of uncertainty.
Far from the quieted theaters of Balkan conflict, nationalist passions, the clamor for redrawn frontiers and collisions of faith are rising anew, not to the crump of mortar fire and the stutter of machine guns, but in the recharting of the political landscape.
In Serbia, calls are intensifying for a return to the nationalist politics of the 1990s. Once-discredited senior officials from the barbarous government of Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade — and not a few convicted war criminals — are reclaiming positions of prominence.
There is a sense, too, of unfinished business and resentments that the war did not heal. Indeed, the trials of Mladic and others, including his political boss Radovan Karadzic, who was jailed for 40 years on almost identical charges last year, may simply have intensified Serbia’s rancorous perceptions of being treated unfairly and Muslims’ sense of loss.
“Regardless of the verdict that we all feel as part of the campaign against Serbs, Ratko Mladic remains a legend of the Serb nation,” said Milorad Dodik, president of the Serb autonomous region in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was carved out and cleansed of non-Serbs by Mladic’s wartime forces.
Sead Numanovic, a Bosnian journalist in Sarajevo who fought against Mladic’s forces, said, “This verdict, like all the others, will not bring back sons to their mothers, dead brothers to their sisters and husbands to their wives.”
The sense of victimhood among Serbs seemed to have been trumped on Wednesday by the sentencing of Mladic, which all but confirmed Bosnian Muslim resentments that the Serbs had succeeded in advancing their territorial ambitions by genocide.
“This should all have been behind us by now,” said Hasan Nuhanovic, a Bosnian survivor of the Srebrenica massacre. “The only thing that is behind us is that war.”
Commenting on the outcome of the trial in The Hague, Natasa Kandic, a leading Serbian human rights activist, said that with the atrocities in the Bosnian war, “we stopped being part of the civilized world.”
“Now we can see who stopped our progress and why we became a society without solidarity or compassion,” Kandic said.