A Fugitive in Their Midst? ‘Ridiculous,’ Villagers Say

A Fugitive in Their Midst? ‘Ridiculous,’ Villagers Say

By MATTHEW BRUNWASSER

LAZAREVO, Serbia — This village near the Romanian border is Everytown, an indistinguishable collection of tidy lawns and trimmed trees, where the local people have been rocked by the news that Ratko Mladic, one of the world’s most wanted war crimes suspects, had been found hiding out among them.

They say it couldn’t be true.

“There is no chance that he was living here,” said the village mayor, Radmilo Stanisic, reflecting the general sentiment in this tightknit community. “Everyone knows everyone here. We’re like a big family.”

Lazarevo is a farming village of 3,000 residents about 50 miles north of Belgrade, a place where even lifelong residents are hard pressed to think of anything that would distinguish it from scores of other communities scattered across the flat and fertile Vojvodina region of northern Serbia.

Until Thursday, that is, when the village was briefly overrun by reporters and photographers reacting to the news from Belgrade that the authorities had found and arrested Mr. Mladic in Lazarevo.

(Photo: Matt Lutton)

Outraged by the journalistic invasion and fueled by the view that Mr. Mladic is a Serbian hero, not a war criminal, a crowd of 150 angry villagers responded by blocking the road leading to the house where the fugitive, a former Bosnian Serb general, had been hiding — or at least, where the authorities claimed he had been hiding. Because, as the villagers maintain, he was never living there to begin with.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Vesela Medjo, 53, a shopkeeper wearing heavy eye makeup and flip-flops whose mother lives across the road from the suspect residence. “They brought him here to make the arrest. It was just a setup to make less of a fuss.”

“No one saw anything,” Ms. Medjo said. “It happened so fast.”

Actually, she said, she did see something — a black jeep with a Belgrade license plate in the garden of the house across the road. But the jeep that was shown on television taking Mr. Mladic away was white, she said, evidence that the villagers were correct in suspecting that the whole thing was staged. She said the authorities brought Mr. Mladic to a relative’s house for the arrest to make it seem more credible after he had been at large for so long.

The house in question belongs to Branislav Mladic, a cousin of the former general, and is about as nondescript as the town. It is one of several modest beige country houses in a small compound with a rusty metal gate in front and a yard littered with farm implements behind.

The village mayor called the family of Branislav Mladic, who was also arrested on Thursday, “an honest and hard-working family” who did not deserve to be thrust into the spotlight.

The mayor said local people were “confused” and “bitter” about the arrests, and resented the bad image these events had given the town. But on Friday, life appeared to have returned to normal, with children playing in the leafy park and adults tending gardens as always.

The town has a scrappy side. One resident, who appeared to have had a lot to drink, shouted at passing journalists, “You only go after Serbs, and no one else!”

Many residents refused to discuss Ratko Mladic, who is related to three or four local families, according to the mayor. Those who did comment said they were no more or less supportive of Mr. Mladic than they were of other fellow Serbs. Many people in the region are Bosnian Serbs who moved to Vojvodina after World War II.

“If I’d known he was here, I would’ve invited him to stay in my house,” said Miroslav Stanic, 37, who was reading a newspaper at the local trafika, a corner store common in the Balkans where residents buy cigarettes, beer and newspapers and often stop to chat. A veteran of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, Mr. Stanic blames the pro-Western government of President Boris Tadic for the economic hardships of poor and rural Serbs.

The mayor said he had trouble spelling out the reasons for the bitterness of the locals over the arrest and the way it was carried out. But Lazarevo’s feeling of loss at Mr. Mladic’s arrest is probably linked to the shift in Serbia’s political tides since he was first indicted in The Hague in 1995.

The nationalist president at the time, Slobodan Milosevic, backed the Bosnian Serbs and loudly condemned the West, making Serbia a pariah in Europe. He was later prosecuted at The Hague himself, and died in 2006 before his trial could be completed. By contrast, the current president, Mr. Tadic, and his government are firmly pro-Western and want Serbia to join the European Union.

Local residents sense that public support of Mr. Mladic is not quite so politically correct today. “I’m a reasonable man,” said Branko Petrovic, 61, a retired police officer. “If he committed war crimes, then he should be punished.”

Even so, Mr. Petrovic said, he regretted the arrest, and he noted that Naser Oric, the wartime commander of the Muslim force at Srebrenica, was sentenced in 2006 to just two years in prison for war crimes committed by his side, a much lighter penalty than Mr. Mladic would be likely to face if convicted. In 2008, a United Nations appeals court overturned Mr. Oric’s conviction.

Many people here and elsewhere in Serbia dismiss the tribunal’s evidence against Mr. Mladic and others, and insist that Serbs committed no atrocities in the Yugoslav wars, or at least, none worse than those of the Croats or Muslims. And they see little gain for Serbia in handing over Mr. Mladic for trial. “No one cares about the E.U. here,” Mr. Stanic said. “Only Tadic and his dogs.”

DCSIMG

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