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 urethra 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 favors. “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.
A 2006 U.S. cable quotes del Ponte on the former police director of the Serb Republic Dragomir Andan: “He was undoubtedly in close relationship (including personal) with ICTY fugitive Ratko Mladic.”
Andan has been in The Hague in recent days as a defense witness in a different war crimes case and could not be reached for comment. Lajcak, the international envoy in Sarajevo with the power to fire officials and negate laws, dismissed Andan and barred him from public office.
Some experts also saw links between Mladic and officials around Milorad Dodik, the current president of the Serb Republic half of Bosnia who has been the dominant Bosnian Serb politician in recent years. “The people who work for Mladic are now basically running Dodik’s security operations,” an official close to the hunt for Mladic in Bosnia told Reuters in 2008. “They are all former members of the so-called 410th military intelligence center of the Bosnian Serb Army which was raided and shut down - in 2003.
“These people have connections to the Mladic support network even today.”
Dodik’s office said such allegations were “hideous lies” coming from political circles in Sarajevo. “Such information does not correspond with the truth and falls into the domain of speculation,” Dodik’s office said in a statement. “The truth is that in Milorad Dodik’s security no one works or has ever worked who has been connected in any way with Ratko Mladic and the 410th center of the Serb Republic Army.”
In recent days Dodik has expressed support for those who have demonstrated against Mladic’s arrest and said he would help raise funds to help pay Mladic’s legal fees.
Bosnian Serbs in Serbia proper were also a factor. Lazarevo, the village about 100 km (60 miles) from Belgrade where Mladic was found last week, is home to many Bosnian Serbs who resettled there after World War Two.
“We have established several directions that were expected to lead us to Mladic — his former wartime comrades, a group of Bosnian Serbs residing in Serbia that were linked with him in the past and finally his family,” Rasim Ljajic, who was in charge of Serbia’s cooperation efforts with the international war crimes tribunal in the Hague, told Reuters.
Investigators got close to Mladic in 2006 when they arrested 10 people who had helped hide the general. One of those arrested who agreed to speak with Reuters said agents asked him to convince Mladic to surrender.
“When the secret service busted our network, I was approached by agents during the interrogation and asked to negotiate his surrender,” the man said. “I was let out of the jail ... I managed to pass the message to the general who pondered it and then decided against it.”
The helper returned to prison, and Mladic renewed his efforts to evade arrest even as his funds dwindled. Details about his whereabouts over the past five years are hard to confirm — there are reports for example that he spent some time in a Serbian Orthodox monastery — but security sources say he was hiding with the help of his wider family.
In 2008, Serbian authorities scored a major breakthrough when they apprehended Mladic’s wartime political leader Radovan Karadzic, who was living openly in Belgrade. Karadzic had grown a long beard and reinvented himself as an alternative medicine guru.
Serbia’s war crimes investigators ruled out such a transformation for a military man such as Mladic. “Karadzic ... was prone to public exposure and ... could not cope with anonymity,” said war crimes cooperation official Ljajic.
Over the years, police received thousands of tips about Mladic’s whereabouts which repeatedly came to nothing. Officials did not have particularly high hopes last week either.
In fact, some top Serbian officials related to the Mladic hunt were out of the country the day of his apprehension — a contrast to the gathering of the U.S. president and his top officials awaiting news on the recent killing of Osama bin Laden.
“I am convinced they did not expect Mladic to be there that day,” said one western official whose country has provided past technical hunt on the search. “It was not so much that they expected Mladic would actually be there, but it would have been part of the larger jigsaw puzzle.”
A lead some years ago pointed to the farmhouse in Lazarevo, which is not far from the northeastern town of Zrenjanin. “A man called a while ago and asked to talk to me and said that in a village near Zrenjanin he saw a blue Volkswagen Golf with such-and-such registration plates and that he thought he saw Mladic inside,” Ljajic said. “I gave all the information to security agencies which then continued to pursue the case. But the trail back then went cold.”
Lazarevo quickly fell out of focus until recent months when investigators noticed that one of Mladic’s suspected helpers made repeated calls and trips to the village, Ljajic said.
A security official familiar with the details of the Mladic hunt told Reuters that Mladic’s son Darko had twice attended religious celebrations in the village in recent months.
“Electronic surveillance was the key. We have also reduced the number of operatives on the job to minimize the probability of leaks,” he said.
That was an important point. Mladic’s continued popularity in Serbia forced Serbian officials to limit the size of the team hunting him down. “They have been obviously hampered by not putting more than a certain number of people on the job,” said the foreign official whose country provided assistance in the multi-year search. It was because “of the obvious risk of information getting into the wrong hands.”
But Serbian investigators had enough suspicions to return to the farmhouse. His son’s visits were key. “We increased monitoring of that suspect and he led us to the general.”
In the end, the man who once commanded armies was a solitary figure in a farmhouse annex.
“Mladic was living an ascetic life, he practically never left his hideaway, he seldom opened windows, the room was a mess with many medications and pills on a table,” Ljajic said.
Said the foreign official: “The financial flow effectively was cut off at some point between 2006 and now, hence presumably the state in which he was found.”
The general had boasted he would never be taken alive. But though he had two guns with him, he did not seek a heroic ending.
“He tried to back off away from the window when he saw someone entering the front yard, hoping police would focus on a house near that farmhouse where he was,” Ljajic said. “Police entered that very farmhouse where he was, he approached them and handed over personal identity card with his name on which was expired. He did not try to conceal his identity.”
His sloppy appearance during his arrest last Thursday suggested that he might be suffering from trouble with his bowels, said the security official, who did not want to be named.
After his arrest, the first thing Mladic asked about was his long unpaid general’s pension, a security official said. His lawyer said Mladic has the right to collect 4.7 million dinars ($70,000) of unpaid pension and 90,000 dinars every month ($1,335) until his death. While he was in Belgrade detention, he had empowered his son to collect the funds.
In recent days, he has often spoken of his deceased daughter and said Yugoslav leader Milosevic was responsible for everything, the official added.
On Tuesday, Mladic arrived at what may become his final place of residence: a private, 15-sq-meter room with a single bed, TV and computer in the international war crimes detention center in the Hague.
Additional reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Simon Robinson, Mike Williams and Sara Ledwith