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Flawed Justice for the Butcher of Bosnia

I met Ratko Mladic only once. He was the general commanding the war machine destroying Bosnia and overseeing the medieval siege of Sarajevo, the capital, where I was living and reporting. I spent my days going to the morgue to count the dead and to sit in hospitals with children who had been blinded by shrapnel.

On a freezing cold day in 1993, as Sarajevo was getting pummeled with shells, I had driven to Mount Igman, a strategic mountain to the southeast, through Bosnian Serb front lines. In a pine forest, on a mud road, I found General Mladic sitting placidly in his jeep. Tentatively, I approached his window to ask him a question about the humanitarian operation in Sarajevo. Food had not been delivered in some time, I said, and people were starving to death. Would he let the trucks carrying food pass?

The Butcher of Bosnia, a nickname I thought let him off lightly, stared at me coldly and muttered something to his aide-de-camp. The aide told me, “The general says, ‘Tell the girl journalist if she comes any closer, I’ll run her down.’ ” Then he added, in English, “And he will do it.”

On Wednesday in The Hague, Mr. Mladic was found guilty by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia of genocide and war crimes. The conflict in the former Yugoslavia, which ran from 1992 to 1995, was a bitter conflict in which 100,000 people were killed and 2.2 million displaced. More than 50,000 women were raped. Untold lives were unraveled and destroyed.

Every day of that war, I would think that I had already heard the worst kind of human rights violation possible, then something more bone-chilling would occur. After covering the war, I spent the next two decades tracking Mr. Mladic, from hiding in Serbia to his own personal tragedy — the death of his daughter, who most likely killed herself over his crimes — to his days in The Hague and, finally, his judgment.

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Sometimes wars end but justice is never really served. Twenty-two years ago this month, at an air base in Ohio, that unrelenting war in Bosnia ended with the Dayton peace accords, brokered by the American diplomat Richard Holbrooke. The accords stopped the immediate killing, but they also froze front lines and did not entirely ensure that the malefactors would be held accountable.

For many years, most of the bigger fish responsible for the worst crimes of the war — General Mladic, the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and the president of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic — roamed free while their victims were either dead or had to live with the fact that these men remained unpunished. There was little faith in the effectiveness of the tribunal in places far from The Hague — in Sarajevo, in Zvornik, in Mostar, the places where truly wicked things happened.

The war crimes tribunal, set up in 1993, has indicted more than 160 people. Handing down the Mladic sentence is the end piece, the culmination of 5,000 witnesses giving gruesome accounts of what happened in those dark days.

But that is a minute number compared with the number of women who were raped, the villages that were ethnically cleansed, the humiliation and agony of those whose lives were halted in time while the war dragged on. As I saw firsthand, the men who did the truly nefarious acts — those who pulled the triggers on women and children, who dug the mass graves in Srebrenica, who took part in the mass rapes in Foca and other towns in Bosnia — walked free. Those men, to me, were the truly evil ones.

Many years after the war, in Srebrenica, I met a broken woman who had been held in the notorious Foca gymnasium as a teenager and raped dozens of times. Justice for her was a laughable illusion. She told me that she saw one of her rapists every day in the village that they both came from. She knew he would never go to The Hague and face justice: Very few men were tried there for rape.