BOSTON — Inevitably, comparisons are being made between the hunts for Bosnian Serb commander, Ratko Mladic, who was finally arrested for war crimes after 16 years on the run last week, and Osama bin Laden, who was tracked down and killed after nearly a decade in hiding.
Both were wanted for mass murder. It would be hard to gauge who had the edge when it came to murdering non-combatants, but the nod might go to Mladic, responsible for killing 8,000 Bosnian Muslims over a four-day period at Srebrenica in 1995, as well 10,000 deaths during Mladic’s siege of Sarajevo.
Both bin Laden and Mladic were found hiding in plain sight, Mladic in a northern Serbian village, bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Both obviously had some protection from their host countries, though it is difficult to say how high up the chain of command the protection went in bin Laden’s case.
Both had, and have, their loyal followers, willing to express their support even after the death and capture of their heroes, demonstrating that the ideas they professed will live on without them.
There the comparisons end. Osama bin Laden was a dreamer who envisioned a resurrection of the Muslim Caliphate that died after World War I, and a schemer whose genius was to connect disparate pockets of Muslim discontent and grievance in many different countries. He was a malignant narcissist who brought terrorism to a new level of death and destruction.
Ratko Mladic was a simplistic, if brutal, soldier who saw his duty as doing what was necessary to protect and promote Serbian interest as the seven-decade-old experiment of a union of south Slavs, called Yugoslavia, was falling apart — a case example of the dangers of ethnic nationalism.
That Mladic should imagine that protecting his nation would involve genocide seems too fantastic to believe. But then I never would have imagined that I would live to see American politicians publicly defending the use of torture either. Fear and insecurity always brings our basest emotions to the fore. And in the most serious cases — especially in ethnic wars — the most brutal take charge.
The tragedy of Yugoslavia was but the latest example of what happens in the breakup of empires and multi-ethnic countries when central authority is gone, and people turn inward to find a sense of identity within in their own clan, tribe, nationality or whatever defines their ethnic survival group.
When threatened, the survival group then lashes out at the “other,” committing atrocities on a horrendous scale. Political psychiatrist Vamik Volkan, himself of Turkish Cypriot origin, describes the tensions well when countries fall apart. “Will the majority group dominate and thereby replace the old colonialism? Who will own the land? Who will have power? ” Political processes around the globe have been struggling with these questions, and with the violence they engender."
Violence came when the British rule in India was at its end and Muslims and Hindus went for each other’s throats. The British thought that partition of India, giving Muslims a state of their own, would be the solution, but it was not. Nuclear-armed Pakistan and India, after three wars, remain as hostile as ever.
It happened, and is happening still, in Africa. The Ugandan genocide followed the same grim course, and produced the same grim protagonists.
It is happening in Afghanistan. Where we see the struggle in terms of Taliban against the good guys, Afghans see it is a struggle between Pashtuns to take back their ancient rights of ascendancy, against Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and other ethnic minorities who don’t want a return to Pashtun dominance.
Human beings have often shaken their heads in wonder at how seemingly peaceable peoples, neighbors and friends, can suddenly turn on each other in a frenzy of ethnic violence. “That wild beast, which lies in man and does not dare to show itself until the barriers of law and custom have been removed,” was the way Yugoslavia’s Nobel laureate, Ivo Andric, referred to the phenomenon in his novel “The Bridge on the Drina.” Although he did not live to see it, that wild beast, in the case of his native Bosnia, came to be personified by Ratko Mladic.
“Groups feeling threatened with cultural and national extinction are particularly prone to ethnocentric behavior,” according to Padraig O’Malley of the University of Massachusetts, “especially in unstable situations or in transitional periods.” Once civil war broke out in Cambodia, for example, both the government side and the Khmer Rouge perpetrated massacres against the Vietnamese minority, because of ancient fears that Vietnam would one day swallow Cambodia, and for a time it did. But when I watched, in 1970, the bloated corpses of Vietnamese civilians, hands tied, floating down the Mekong, I could see no reason for this barbarism.
In Yugoslavia, after strongman Tito’s death, and after the threat from the Soviet Union ceased to be the glue that bound Yugoslavia’s ethnicities together, Croats, Serbs, Slovenians, Macedonians and, later, Montenegrins fell apart in savage ethnic conflict.
To understand is not to excuse. Indeed it is all the more reason to prosecute Andric’s “wild beast” where ever it is found. Serbians were not the only ones to blame in that tragic conflict. Muslims had their death squads at work even within besieged Sarajevo. Croats carried out the biggest ethnic cleansing of the wars when they forced the separatist Krajinan Serbs out of Croatia. But for pure savagery it is hard to beat Ratko Mladic, who will now, hopefully, face justice.