BELGRADE (Reuters) - Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general who once barked out orders that could kill thousands, could not stand the pain and decided he no longer wanted to live.
By 2006, the man charged with genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia had been on the run for 11 years. Suffering from kidney stones -- solid salts or minerals in the ureter which cause sharp pain -- he ordered one of his aides to end his misery.
“We could not take him for treatment,” the former aide, who refused to be named because he still faces legal proceedings related to his role, told Reuters. “We found him some painkillers, but he was in such a pain that he begged us to kill him.”
That refusal by Mladic’s supporters to end his life was to prove one of many secret episodes in a long life on the run that ended with his arrest last week.
There are many gaps in the trail of Ratko Mladic. But interviews with the former aide, a Serbian operative working on his arrest, a top government official overseeing the operation and others, as well as information contained in U.S. diplomatic cables, show a man whose power and influence dwindled over the years until he was found alone last week in a farmhouse, surrounded by disorder and medications.
At first he had lived quite openly at his home in the Serb capital Belgrade. As a commander overseeing the siege of Sarajevo and other operations, Mladic had gained a reputation for fearlessness, as someone who would not seek cover even when other men scrambled for safety.
It helped that he was popular. He was reviled by Bosnian Muslims for the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 in which 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed, and for the long siege of Sarajevo, but the respect he commanded among Serbs smoothed his early years as a fugitive.
Bosnian Serbs had failed in their goal to create an independent state, but they did succeed in creating their own half of Bosnia under a weak central government. Many credited Mladic for this, and respected his reputation as someone who was tough but fair, un-corruptible in a war in which many leaders and business people grew rich.
He was protected by key officials for years after being originally indicted in 1995. A 2006 U.S. diplomatic cable, obtained by WikiLeaks and seen by Reuters, gives a sense of how much support Mladic once had.
Svetko Kovac, director of the military security agency, told the United Nations war crimes prosecutor that “some 300-400 people” were in the Mladic support network between 1997 and 2004, it says.
Despite his indictment, Mladic kept his job as Bosnian Serb military commander through 1996, and then moved to Belgrade where he lived with his family until 2002, according to friend Aleksandar Mihailovic, who lived a few houses down from him in Belgrade’s Banovo Brdo neighborhood.
”Everybody came by to pay their respects,“ Mihailovic, a real estate developer, said in an interview. ”They were always asking for advice and favours. “He simply became the idol of the people, the only person they believed in 1994-95.”
According to Mihailovic, among those who visited during those years was Vojislav Kostunica, who succeeded wartime strongman Slobodan Milosevic as Yugoslav president in 2000. A spokesman said an official from Kostunica’s party would only answer questions at a news conference set for next week.
The period of stability started to end in 2001 when a new pro-western prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, came to power. One day in 2002, Mihailovic said, Mladic simply disappeared from his apartment. Even though the general remained popular, the young reformist leader was seeking to distance Serbia from its wartime pariah years.
In 2001 Belgrade had sent Milosevic to The Hague where the strongman died before his trial ended. In 2002, the country passed a law allowing the extradition of war crimes suspects and urged all of them to surrender.
After that, Mladic moved in irregular intervals from one location to another, mainly in the concrete buildings of Belgrade’s New Belgrade neighborhood, according to helpers who later went on trial for hiding a fugitive.
“We were moving him from one apartment to another, every two or three weeks on the average,” said one who did not want to be named because he still faces legal proceedings. “I would play some chess with him sometimes, bring him food, newspapers, we frequently talked a lot.”
Chess had been one of Mladic’s wartime passions. He often played as he traveled, at military headquarters, or even at the front lines.
Mladic also seems to have been haunted by the 1994 suicide of his daughter Ana. Before extradition to The Hague on Tuesday, Serbian authorities allowed him one final visit to her grave in Belgrade.
”He frequently spoke at length about his daughter, about his suspicion she was killed by some secret service,“ said the past helper who described his kidney stones problem. ”He was inquiring about his family, how they lived, about his son and wife. “We seldom spoke about the war.”
Spending the overwhelming bulk of his time indoors with a limited group of people led to mood swings.
”Sometimes he was in good spirits, sometimes he was depressed,“ the helper said. ”In such bad moments he asked us to kill him if someone tried to arrest him. He always had a loaded pistol on him. He also had a hand grenade at some point, but asked us to dispose of it as it was highly unsafe to carry a piece of live ordnance around.
“Sometimes he would go for a walk, usually in the evenings. Sometimes I would go with him. We appeared as a couple of pensioners, which we actually were.”
Mladic suffered a variety of medical problems. But getting medicine was no problem for his support network. Serbian pharmacies rarely ask for prescriptions.
An investigator working on the hunt for Mladic said a major focus in recent years was on doctors or pharmacists who might have been helping him. Since 2006, Serbian agents have also raided a number of homes and businesses throughout the country in hopes of learning more about how his network was financed.
Investigators suspect Mladic’s support network extended into the Serb Republic half of Bosnia, a mostly ethnic Serb enclave whose very existence was a legacy of his military offences during the war.
There, as in Serbia proper, some officials played a double game, telling diplomats they were doing everything they could to apprehend him but consistently falling short. U.N. war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte was often frustrated by the lack of progress, including in 2006 when she met Serbia’s war crimes prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic. “She described her five-hour meeting with Vukcevic earlier that day as ‘five hours of trash’,” according to one U.S. cable.
Bruno Vekaric, the deputy war crimes prosecutor and spokesman for the office, said they had very good cooperation with del Ponte, although he added there were some tense moments in 2006. And Vukcevic was still in the job when Serbia did finally arrest Mladic.
Privately and in their cables, some diplomats were also convinced that some officials in the Serb Republic of Bosnia were helping Mladic. One U.S. official was particularly concerned about a private security agency in the Serb Republic capital Banja Luka.