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Serbian youths hope to finally shake off bitter legacy

'We're labeled as a genocide nation,' says one student. Now the arrest of Bosnian Serb fugitive Ratko Mladic, wanted on charges of war crimes and genocide, may end the taint some feel lingers from the Balkans war.

May 28, 2011|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times
  • Serbian riot police officers arrest men at a protest against Ratko Mladic's arrest in downtown Belgrade. Some Serbian ultranationalists hail Mladic as a hero.
Serbian riot police officers arrest men at a protest against Ratko Mladic's… (Koca Sulejmanovic, EPA )

Reporting from Belgrade, Serbia — Jovana Vujcic is too young to remember the war that ravaged the Balkans in the early 1990s but old enough now to experience its baleful legacy.

"We're labeled as a genocide nation," the 23-year-old Serbian economics student said. "When you travel around Europe and you meet people, they only know those years of our history."

The burden of that past felt a little lighter Friday, a day after Serbian authorities finally captured Ratko Mladic, Europe's most-wanted war crimes suspect. A fugitive for almost 16 years, Mladic was the man in charge of Bosnian Serb troops who systematically killed 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995 in the worst atrocity in Europe since the Holocaust.

Photos: Ratko Mladic and the Bosnian war

As much of the world welcomed — and had demanded — Mladic's arrest, reaction to it here in Serbia was never going to be uniform.

There was anger among ultranationalists who still regard Mladic, now 69 and ailing, as a hero. For some Serbs, disbelief no doubt mixed with relief that the hunt was over and grief for the years and opportunities laid waste by the war.

But for many, though by no means all, younger Serbs like Vujcic, something else stirred: a tentative hope that their country might at last stop being a pariah state and rejoin the community of free and prosperous nations; that there is a chance to move away from a past that doesn't belong to them, and to a future that they hope will.

"I don't see any big-time problems for Serbia from now on," said Milan Vukelic, 28, an arts writer. "You don't have a problem of a mass murderer who killed 8,000 people. Now it's done, and we're going to be a normal European country again."

Vukelic and his generation were children during the 1992-95 Bosnian war that saw brutal ethnic cleansing. Those living here in Belgrade would have been largely sheltered from the fierce fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the city of Sarajevo lay under siege for years by Bosnian Serb soldiers who tried to shell and shoot it into submission.

Mladic was the military commander in charge of that ruthless campaign, in which 10,000 people died. His arrest paves the way for his extradition to The Hague to face charges of genocide and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. His boss, the Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic, is already there and on trial.

But the Mladic of today cuts a very different figure from the barrel-chested, swaggering wartime general. Gray-haired and shaky-looking, he has apparently suffered two strokes in the last few years that have left the right half of his body numb and the fingers of his right hand useless, said his son, Darko.

On Friday, a judge in Belgrade ruled that Mladic was fit for extradition. His lawyers are expected to file an appeal Monday, and his family has asked for independent doctors to examine him, insisting that he is too frail to be extradited.

But few expect the legal appeal to succeed, which means that the man dubbed the "Butcher of Bosnia" could be on his way to The Hague by early next week.

Mladic was arrested in an early morning raid Thursday in the village of Lazarevo, about 50 miles north of Belgrade, where a number of his relatives lived. The influential Belgrade newspaper Politika, quoting unnamed sources, said Serbia's domestic intelligence agency traced Mladic to Lazarevo "several weeks ago."

When agents burst into the home where he was staying, Mladic put up no resistance and greeted them by saying, "Congratulations, guys, you found the one you were looking for," Politika reported.

Serbian President Boris Tadic has pledged to investigate how Mladic managed to evade capture for so long. Critics believe he must have had help from within the Serbian security forces, whose pursuit of him struck many as half-hearted. Even now, a significant portion of society here considers Mladic to have been unfairly hounded by the West.

The arrest satisfies a key demand by the European Union for Serbia to be considered as a candidate for entry into the bloc, which Tadic's government desperately wants.

Other nations of the former Yugoslavia, including Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, are further ahead in the process of joining the EU. Slovenia is already a full-fledged member, uses the euro single currency and has held the rotating EU presidency.

"It's still a long way until Serbia gets in," said Dusica Drazic, 32, a visual artist. "Economically it would be important."

But not all Serbs are eager to join the club. Last November, a Gallup poll found that 44% of Serbs viewed it as desirable.

Among aspiring youth, however, the pull of Europe, if not necessarily the EU, is more pronounced. A recent survey at the prestigious Belgrade University found that nearly two in three students want to leave Serbia after graduation. Other Western European nations would be likely destinations.

For Vujcic, the economics student, geography is destiny. "We are in Europe. We belong to Europe," she said.

With Mladic no longer such a millstone around Serbia's neck, veteran liberal activist Borka Pavicevic believes that the younger generation can go forward lightened and with more confidence.

"These young people are expecting that this is the end of an epoch," Pavicevic said. "They can be liberated from the burden of the past."

Photos: Ratko Mladic and the Bosnian war

henry.chu@latimes.com

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