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St. Louis Bosnians react to Mladic's arrest and extradition

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 31, 2011 - It's a balmy Sunday afternoon in late May as Murat Muratovic walks through the front door of WEW Radio's station near the Hill. As the Polka Plus program wraps up, Muratovic sits at a desk flipping through a thick binder of CDs to pick music for the 5 p.m. broadcast of Radio Behar -- a weekly Bosnian radio program broadcasted on 770 AM in St. Louis.

A half-hour into the program, Muratovic makes a call on his cell phone. On the other end of the line is a journalist in Bosnia who gives St. Louis' Bosnian community news from their homeland on Radio Behar. And tonight, Muratovic expects the half-hour segment to be about one thing: Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb general responsible for the massacre of Srebrenica.

Capturing A War Crimimal

After 16 years as an international fugitive wanted for war crimes during the Bosnian war, Mladic's arrest last week made headlines across the world as the closing of a bloody chapter in the Balkans. Serbian authorities captured Mladic, the last of three men considered to be the ringleaders of the genocide during the Bosnian war, May 26 in Serbia.

Within hours of the arrest, President Barack Obama said in a release, "Today is an important day for the families of Mladic's many victims." He expressed hope "the families of Mladic's victims find some solace in today's arrest."

U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, whose district encompasses much of St. Louis' Bosnian community, also released a statement: "Mladic has avoided arrest and prosecution for far too long, and it is time he answer for his crimes."

However, many Bosnians in St. Louis, like Muratovic, remain reluctant to celebrate the arrest.

"It's really nice that he is captured," Muratovic said. "Because, with him, we see the symbol of the evil of the crime, or the murder, killing, rape -- everything."

Muratovic, founder of the St. Louis-based Bosnian Media Group, lived in Bosnia during the war. He immigrated to St. Louis in 1996 after the death of his brother at the hands of Serbs and the ethnic cleansing of his hometown of Zvornik. Like many Bosnians, he sees the arrest as too little, too late.

"It's definitely big news," Muratovic said. "But you know, we've been through the war. Since 1992 we've been killed, raped, murdered. We were waiting for the international community to come in and say, 'Wait, stop it.' But after two years, we realized, nobody is going to stop. Everybody has betrayed you -- just go and fight for yourself."

Mladic is responsible for the 43-month siege of Sarajevo, which killed an estimated 10,000 civilians as well as the massacre of nearly 8,000 Bosnian men and boys in the United Nations "safe haven" of Srebrenica in 1995.

"You feel kind of disappointed that [there were] all those victims, and we still don't have a functioning government or freedom inside Bosnia," Muratovic, who returns to Bosnia every summer, said. "I go back and I see a split country. If I go to Sarajevo, it's fine. If I go to Tuzla, it's fine. If I go to the city where I was born, it's not fine. I don't see my old friends. They will be gone, or they will be killed or God knows where. I don't even see my old Serb friends."

'It Doesn't Change Anything'

Imam Muhamed Hasic, president and CEO of the Islamic Community Center in South City, believes that Mladic's arrest, while significant news for the Bosnian community, does not bring closure to the victims of his crimes or their families.

"It doesn't change anything," Hasic said. "Many people do not know where the bones of their loved ones are."

Hasic, who hails from the village of Orahovica in northern Bosnia, was "blessed by God" that he left Bosnia before the war. He was in Canada when the war broke out and was unable to return home. He did, however, plan to return to Bosnia once the war had ended, but he was asked by St. Louis' Muslim leaders to relocate to St. Louis to be an imam for Bosnian refugees, most of whom could not speak English. Hasic settled in St. Louis in 1997. About 85 percent of the Islamic Community Center's congregation is Bosnian.

"Most [refugees] are settling here and are happy and grateful to be in a free country, no matter what your race or religion or background," Hasic said. "Many cannot go freely back from where they are from. They will find burned or destroyed houses or find that their property has been taken."

Muratovic agrees, saying, "That country is not functional. You don't feel freedom in some parts of it. You don't feel safe, still."

During the Bosnian war, Bosnians fled the country by the thousands, and many refugees came to St. Louis, where more than an estimated 50,000 now live. St. Louis has earned the unofficial title of the "capital city of the Bosnian diaspora."

'It Wasn't Only Srebrenica'

While Mladic's arrest comes as good news to most Bosnians living in St. Louis, many are quick to point out that the genocide during the war was not confined to just one region.

"You need to know it wasn't only Srebrenica," Muratovic said.

One such individual is Amir Karadzic (no relation to another indicted war criminal, former Serbian President Radovan Karadzic), who came to St. Louis in 1993 from Prijedor -- the Bosnian city that saw some of the first bloodshed of the three-year conflict.

In 1992, Serb forces were responsible for the death of around 5,200 Bosnians and Croatians in Prejidor and around 14,000 in the region surrounding the city. Tens of thousands were also expelled from their homes. Several concentration camps were established outside the city to detain Bosnians, other non-Serbs and non-compliant Serbs. What became known as the Prejidor massacre was the second largest massacre after the Srebrenica Genocide.

"Nobody had a uniform. Nobody had a weapon. They were civilians," Karadzic said.

Karadzic is founder and president of the Union of Citizens of the Municipality of Prijedor and, four years ago, worked with the Jewish Holocaust Museum to create an exhibit to "explore the genocide happening in Bosnia" and bring international awareness to the crimes against his people. The exhibit has traveled around the region and country.

"We don't have a place to put the exhibit in the Bosnian community," Karadzic said. "We don't have a museum."

Unlikely Justice

Karadzic, along with Muratovic and other St. Louis Bosnians, said they wonder whether Mladic will see justice. It was only five years ago that Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian president and instigator of the Balkan wars, died during his five-year trial. Radovan Karadzic is still on trial after his 2008 capture.

"It's a joke," Muratovic said.

Since the war, Muratovic and Karadzic say that Serbian leaders have yet to stand up and denounce the atrocities Mladic and others committed during the war. Karadzic also referenced several videos on the internet several years ago in which Mladic casually appeared in public places in Serbia.

"They're not recognizing who he is," Karadzic said. "They're selling his face on T-shirts, on key chains. Serbs say he is a national hero. The government never stood up to the people and said, 'They are criminals. They are bad people.'"

In the days following Mladic's arrest, thousands of Serbian nationalists protested in Serbia's capital of Belgrade, other cities in the Balkan nation along with towns in the Republika Srpska, the Serbian political entity inside Bosnia and Herzegovina.

On Tuesday, Mladic was extradited to the Hague, but Bosnians here in St. Louis remain skeptical that justice will come at all.

"In reality, he's almost a dead body," Karadzic said. "It's too late. I guess, he's going to die and he's never going to be accused of genocide. We're asking ourselves why it took so long to capture him."

Ryan Schuessler, a student at the University of Missouri at Columbia, is a summer intern with the Beacon.