TORONTO — A retired Canadian major-general who led a United Nations force in Sarajevo commended the sentencing of former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic to life behind bars, but criticized the international court for taking too long to convict him of war crimes.
Lewis MacKenzie, who met Mladic several times when he commanded a peacekeeping force in Bosnia and Herzegovina, said he believes there was plenty of evidence to convict the man known as the “Butcher of Bosnia” when he was captured in Serbia in May 2011.
“I’m just amazed that it has taken six years,” MacKenzie said. “It’s not a great endorsement of the international criminal court for the former Yugoslavia, but at least they came to the right conclusion.”
The conflict in the former Yugoslavia erupted after the country’s breakup in the early 1990s, with the worst crimes taking place in Bosnia. Mladic’s forces also carried out the worst massacre in Europe since the Second World War in Srebrenica, where some 8,000 Muslim men and boys of fighting age were killed.
His sentence Wednesday was part of a 23-year effort by a UN tribunal to seek justice for atrocities committed during the Bulkan wars in the early 1990s. The legal battles will continue, however, with Mladic’s lawyers vowing to appeal his convictions on charges that included war crimes and crimes against humanity.
“In Srebrenica, for example, you can debate the issue left, right and centre about whether is was genocide or not, but it was a massacre and it was either encouraged or condoned by the general in charge and that makes him immediately guilty of a war crime,” MacKenzie said, adding that is was unnecessary for the court drag the proceedings over six years.
Canadian military personnel were deployed to the Balkans as peacekeepers in 1991 when Slovenia and Croatia declared independence from the former Yugoslavia. MacKenzie said there was never an intention for the UN be involved in Bosnia, but they were dragged into the conflict because its headquarters for the Croatian mission was in Sarajevo.
“It was really the last place they should have put it, because we would be seen as having a UN presence in Sarajevo, but it was a headquarters with a bunch of staff officers and 30 soldiers — Swedish conscript soldiers — and we weren’t in a position to protect anything if trouble started,” MacKenzie said. “Well, two and a half weeks after we arrived, war started.”
MacKenzie said Mladic “got everything he deserved.” He also described him as a “bully,” who said several times that he would return MacKenzie and his soldiers to Canada in body bags if NATO threats persisted against Bosian Serbs.
Melita Kuburas, a journalist at Metro News in Toronto who came to Canada from Biljani, Bosnia, when she was nine years old, applauded the court for convicting Mladic for the genocide in Srebrenica, but said she was disappointed that he was acquitted of genocide in other towns.
“For my home town, which is a small village that lost approximately 300 people — most of them were found in mass graves — this is something that they still live with,” Kuburas said. “I guess it kind of feels like they don’t have justice.”
Kuburas said her father was imprisoned in a concentration camp for six months before coming to Canada and her grandfather was one of the hundreds of men found buried in mass gravesites in Bosnia.
Medina Torlak, who is on the board of directors for the Institute for Research of Genocide Canada, said many people in her community are disappointed that the court was not convinced of genocidal intent in other parts of the country.
“It wasn’t just Srebrenica, this happened all across Bosnia,” Torlak said. “A lot people were in concentration camps as well and it’s not being recognized by the courts and that’s the problem.”