WITNESS - An evening with Ratko Mladic

NEW YORK Fri May 27, 2011 1:19am IST

General Ratko Mladic (C) arrives at special court in Belgrade, May 26, 2011. REUTERS/Handout

General Ratko Mladic (C) arrives at special court in Belgrade, May 26, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Handout

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - More than 18 years have passed since my first encounter with Ratko Mladic but I still see him standing there, an intense, angry look in his eyes. He clasped his hands together and squeezed them more and more tightly until his fingers turned red and his knuckles went white.

I had asked the Bosnian Serb commander about the siege his forces had laid to the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica. The massacre there, the worst of the many atrocities perpetrated against Bosnian Muslims by Mladic's army, was still two years away but this was his way of demonstrating that there would be no escape for its inhabitants.

That gesture by Mladic, arrested in Serbia on Thursday after 16 years on the run from charges of genocide in the Bosnian war, spoke more about his ruthlessness and obsession than any of the words he uttered during an interview that lasted for more than two hours.

Mladic, a former Yugoslav Army officer, was a familiar face to reporters covering the war in Bosnia but few got to spend time with him. I had the opportunity to pass an evening alone with him and a Reuters colleague from Belgrade at the Bosnian Serb headquarters in Pale, outside Sarajevo, in May 1993.

Arrogant and dismissive of the United Nations and the international mediators trying to end the war, Mladic was at the height of his powers. Serb forces were in control of 70 percent of Bosnian territory, the capital Sarajevo was at the mercy of his heavy artillery and Mladic was breathing fire.

The World Trade Center in New York had been bombed in February 1993 and, recalling that attack, Mladic threatened to bomb London and Washington if U.N. troops tried to intervene.

"One furious Serb can do a lot of damage with just one match," he said matter-of-factly, almost slipping in the remark as an aside.

That threat -- an indication of Mladic's exaggerated sense of power as much as anything else -- gave me my story for the day but what fascinated me far more was Mladic the man. Over the course of our discussion, his mood shifted back and forth from angry, belligerent and animated to humorous, charming and pensive.

We sat across a long table trading cigarettes and sipping plum brandy. Whenever he got excited, Mladic would stand and strut around the room. At one point, to illustrate his insistence that he really did not like weapons, he strode over to me, unzipped his camouflage coat and slapped his hips, inviting me to see for myself that he was not armed.

A LONELY CHILDHOOD

He had really wanted to be a surgeon, not a military officer, he declared. He said he would have made a super surgeon "but I'd never make a Frank Sinatra because I don't have a super voice."

As the formality of our exchanges about military and diplomatic developments wore off, we got to talking about his childhood.

Mladic's father was killed in 1945 leading an attack by Josip Broz Tito's partisans against the home village of Ante Pavelic, the World War Two leader of the Croatian Ustasha fascist state. Mladic was two at the time and his widowed mother later sent him off to boarding school in Belgrade.

As he reminisced, it became clear Mladic was obsessively devoted to the female blood relatives in his life. He kept returning our conversation to his mother, his sister and his daughter Ana, a medical student in Belgrade. I cannot recall him talking about his son Darko or his wife Bosiljka.

Ana would kill herself the following year with her father's favorite pistol. Reports at the time said she could not come to terms with reports that he was a butcher.

I left our meeting convinced I had met a psychopath, a man without a conscience but a charmer as long as you stayed on the right side of him.

We ran into each other several more times over the course of 1993. On each occasion, Mladic would throw me a wave or shake my hand. Then, the final time we met, in August of that year, he winked at me with a big grin on his face, as if to let me in on the joke he had decided to play on the United Nations.

Mladic had just completed the encirclement of Sarajevo with the capture of the Muslim-led Bosnian army's only supply route into the capital. This was his chance to show off his conquests to the commander of U.N. forces, Belgian General Francis Briquemont.

Briquemont had to ride up Mount Bjelasnica in an armored car to survey the scene. Mladic stood at the summit, binoculars around his neck and a Gazelle helicopter in the background to drive home his point that a U.N. no-fly ban was not worth the paper it was written on.

Briquemont was not amused. Mladic, typically, did not care.

(Paul Holmes covered the wars in Bosnia and Croatia as a Reuters correspondent. He left Reuters in 2007).

(Editing by David Storey)

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