When Ratko Mladic appeared in court in Belgrade yesterday, he was a frail-looking man of 69 with a bad right arm. His family says he's had a stroke. He mumbled.
But during the siege of Sarajevo in the mid-1990's, Mladic was a strutting general who famously commanded his Bosnian Serb gunners and snipers to "Burn their brains! Shell them until they're mad! Make blood run in the streets!"
In July 1995, Mladic ordered troops into the town of Srebrenica, which the United Nations had declared a "safe haven" for some of the tens of thousands of people trying to flee the "ethnic cleansing"—a disingenuous term for genocide—of Bosnian Muslims.
The Dutch UN troops put there to protect the town stepped aside. Mladic more or less strolled into Srebrenica. He walked the streets, patted the cheeks of grandmothers and children, told them they would be safe, and put chocolates in their trembling hands. He told the Dutch commander that buses would whisk women, children and old men to safety in Muslim areas, while his troops politely interrogated boys and men of service age. He drank a toast of brandy with the commander.
Dutch soldiers helped load the buses. And after they drove out of sight, many of the women were raped; their baby boys were killed. And then, Ratko Mladic's troops made the boys and men left behind march to football fields, warehouses, and schools, where they were stripped and shot.
At least 8,000 people were murdered over four days. A US spy plane flew over Srebrenica and said most of the ground in town looked like it had been freshly plowed.
It had—for mass graves.
The UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia indicted Ratko Mladic for crimes against humanity and genocide. He will now have what the people of Sarajevo and Srebrenica didn't: a chance to defend himself.
But trials convened by the International Tribunals have been spectacularly slow. Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Serbia, was on trial at The Hague for so long—four years—that his case only ended when he died of a heart attack.
There was nothing remote or impersonal about the crimes of which Ratko Mladic is accused. He was not a man who just gave orders: he patted heads and passed out chocolates. He evaded capture for 16 years, getting photographed at football games and flashy nightspots until just a few years ago, when Serbia elected a new government that wants to join the European Union.
Will those who commit crimes against humanity today see Ratko Mladic's capture as a sign that the world won't rest until they've been brought to justice? Or that no one will catch up with them until their crimes are almost forgotten?