Ratko Mladic, who was convicted of genocide on Wednesday, believed himself to be a crusading defender of the Serbs but was dubbed the “Butcher of Bosnia” for mass slaughter at the hands of his forces.
The ruthless commander of Bosnian Serb troops in the 1990s civil war, Mladic came to symbolise a barbaric plan to rid swathes of Bosnian territory of Croats and Muslims and carve out a Serb-only state.
The UN rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein described him as “the epitome of evil” after Wednesday’s verdict.
Captured in 2011 after 16 years on the run, Europe’s most wanted man was by then an ailing shadow of his former stocky self.
But the general’s defiance appeared undimmed during his trial at The Hague, although he was dogged by ill health, and the 74-year-old remains a hero to many Serbs to this day.
To the families of war victims, he will forever be associated with the bloody 44-month siege of Sarajevo and the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica.
Mladic presented the sacking of the eastern Bosnian enclave as retribution against “the Turks” for a massacre of Serbs under the Ottoman Empire, wrote journalist Julian Borger in his book “The Butcher’s Trail”, published last year.
“He reassured panicked Muslim women captives that their loved ones would be safe at the same time his soldiers were rounding up and slaughtering eight thousand of their husbands and sons,” Borger wrote.
Mladic was convicted of genocide over the killings, considered the worst atrocities on European soil since the end of World War II.
In all, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia found him guilty on 10 counts including genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the 1992-1995 war that killed 100,000 people and displaced 2.2 million as ethnic rivalries tore apart Yugoslavia. But they found him not guilty of genocide in the municipalities.
Mladic denied all the charges, describing them as “obnoxious” at his first court appearance in 2011.
“I defended my country and my people,” he said.
Born in the village of Bozinovici in eastern Bosnia, Mladic’s life was struck by bloodshed and tragedy as a toddler, when his father was killed in battle by the Ustasha, Croatia’s fascist World War II regime.
Mladic followed his parent’s military path and was a colonel in the Yugoslav army when the federation began to crumble in June 1991.
He was sent to organise the Serb-dominated army in Croatia, and the following May he was made commander of Bosnian Serb forces, tasked with seizing land across Bosnia for Serbs.
Former Yugoslav army spokesman Ljubodrag Stojadinovic once described Mladic as “narcissistic, conceited, vain and arrogant”.
In 1994, at the height of the war, Mladic’s only daughter Ana committed suicide in Belgrade, aged 23, with her father’s favourite pistol.
Those close to the general were reported as saying that he was pushed over the edge by her death, which came a year before the Srebrenica massacre took place.
The court also held Mladic responsible for the interminable siege of Sarajevo, which claimed an estimated 10,000 lives and deprived the city of food, water and electricity with a barrage of shells and sniper fire.
At the trial’s end, prosecutor Alan Tieger dismissed defence claims that the general’s role in the conflict was limited, maintaining he was the man who “called the shots”.
Although Mladic was revered by his men, “his war was a coward’s war”, according to veteran Balkans journalist Tim Judah.
“He fought few pitched battles but managed to drive hundreds of thousands of unarmed people out of their homes,” Judah wrote in his book “The Serbs”.
Mladic was indicted by the ICTY in 1995 and dismissed from his post the following year. But he initially enjoyed a luxurious and protected life as a fugitive, staying in Serbian military resorts with an entourage of staff, according to Borger.
He later went underground in Belgrade after the fall of strongman Slobodan Milosevic — who died while on trial at The Hague in 2006 — and as Serbia came under growing pressure from the West to capture Mladic.
The general was finally arrested in May 2011 at his cousin’s house in bucolic northern Serbia.
His last request before his transfer to the court was to visit his daughter’s grave.