Ratko Mladic's arrest reopens old wounds

** FILE ** In this Dec. 2, 1995 file picture, Bosnian-Serb General Ratko Mladic visits troops in the east Bosnian town of Vlasenica. (AP Photo/Oleg Stjepanovic)
AP (file)

LONDON - For nearly 16 years, he was one of the world's most wanted men -- accused of genocide in the slaughter of thousands of civilians as head of the Bosnian Serb military.

But for Ratko Mladic, there's no more hiding. Serbian authorities arrested him Thursday at a relative's home 60 miles northeast of Belgrade. Now 69, Mladic will soon face justice before the international war crimes tribunal. CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips reports his arrest is likely to open up old wounds in the former Yugoslavia.

It was a nasty, bloody, ugly little war, where the victims -- mostly civilian -- were buried in neat rows or dumped in mass graves. And where there was plenty of blame to go around.

But no one has more blood on their hands than the squat man in the baseball cap finally arrested in a dawn raid by Serbian police. Ratko Mladic is a stumbling, rumored to be ill, old man now.

But in his prime, as the strutting head of the Bosnian Serb army, his very name struck fear in the hearts of his enemies. For good reason.

Video: CBS News foreign affairs analyst Pamela Falk on Mladic

He is accused of ordering the shelling of Sarajevo -- and of targeting areas where civilian casualties were likely to be highest -- like the public water taps that were set up because the main water supply was cut.

He was the officer whose troops overran what was supposed to be the U.N. safe haven of Srebrenica where thousands of Bosnian Muslims had taken refuge. It was Mladic who guaranteed the safety of those present before separating the women and children from the men, and then ordered the systematic slaughter of more than 7,000 of those men in the worst mass killing in Europe since the Nazi atrocities of World War II.

Col. Bob Steward, who commanded NATO forces in Bosnia. With Mladic, Steward says he knew he was dealing with a man with no sense of morality or honor.

"These people have a very warped sense of what is right and what is wrong," Steward says. "As far as they are concerned, what is right is anything that supports their own people and what is wrong is sometimes allowing anyone that opposes them to stay alive."

Ratko Mladic is more than just an indicted war criminal, he's a bargaining chip. Producing him was a condition of Serbia's application to join the European Union. Yet his popularity in Serbia remains so strong, it took almost 16 years to give him up.

Serbia's western looking president -- Boris Tadic -- said the arrest marks a turning point for Serbia. "Today we closed one chapter of our recent history," Tadic said today.

But for anyone who witnessed that history, the arrest of Ratko Mladic opens up a long-sealed box of unhappy memories of the fear, and of the bodies. Knita Fokac whose husband had been killed by a shell said she only carried on because of her child. She said she cries "very often. My pillow knows the truth."

Mladic's arrest also brings back memories of what Bosnian doctors in the 1990s called "Sarajevo syndrome." They called it passive suicide, where people who simply couldn't take it anymore would go out into some of the more dangerous parts of town, hoping to be shot or killed.

It was a hope Mladic was only too willing to fulfill.

  • Mark Phillips
    Mark Phillips

    Mark Phillips is CBS News senior foreign correspondent, based in London.