“I will know him by his bones”

I’m a softie for hurt animals, baby anythings, sad people and even have a soft place in my heart for those who have done wrong and have themselves then suffered. I’ll put a caveat on the last phrase. Generally. The arrest of Ratco Mladic is an exception. For many of you that’s just another eastern European name without enough vowels. For me it’s a hole in my heart.

How many others were guilty of the tragedy at Srebrenica I cannot say. But this was Mladic’s doing. What he did was more bragged than disputed. He was the commanding officer and his the signature on a death march unlike many the world has known. Beginning July 11, 1995 more than 25,000 girls, women and elderly of Srebrenica were put on buses and told they would later meet their sons and husbands. Torn from their homes and the arms of their loved ones, they were given no chance to say good-bye or gather many belongings. Anything of value was stolen from them on the buses anyway.

Meanwhile instead of going to meet their families as they had been told, all the boys and men of the area, more than 8,300, were forced into a genocidal march that ended in mass graves.

Srebrenica was once a middle class Muslim town where many Serbs went skiing in winter and enjoyed the beauty of nature walks in spring and fall. That was before years of massive propeganda hammered a wedge between the Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Serbs so deep that a genocidal war resulted. The massacre at Srebrenica was the largest atrocity in Europe since WWII.

I worked at the time as communications advisor to the US Ambassador to Austria and her passion was supporting women in emerging democracies. Some months after the massacre we went to Tuzla where the women had been taken. We found a refugee town of hard-working, grieving women and children without a male figure in their lives. The women had nothing but their skills, their strength, and their sorrow. Collectively their strength and sorrow were a force that carried them forward.

We had come to organize a one-year anniversary of the massacre for the following summer — a larger-than-life international do that would bring the likes of Queen Noor of Jordan and some US$ 3 million to help the women start cottage industries and begin to rebuild lives.

The July 1996 event was an intense journey into collective sorrow. Everywhere we went women held up pictures of boys and men and asked if we had seen this one or that. The auditorium was filled with signs and overflowing with tears. If longing and torment could bring them, there were also the ghosts of more than 8,000 dead.

One woman touched my shoulder and in broken English said: “Just show me his grave. I will know him by his bones.”

So forgive me when I turn a cold eye to Mr. Rladic’s poor health. Reading his name in the press has always rattled me as it brought with it the innumerable sad eyes and longing hands. But today his capture means that the survivors of Srebrenica can finally reach out for a small act of justice. A small act for which they have had to wait 16 years.

Whatever his condition Mladic must go to the Hague. His trial at the International Court of Justice is not for or about him. It is for and about those he slaughtered and the women and children they left behind.

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