At first, the news seemed too good to be true: Serbia's most wanted man, General Ratko Mladic, the accused architect of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide of more than 8,000 men and boys, was arrested on Thursday morning after more than a decade of what had seemed to have been a futile search. Few details of the arrest have been released so far. But according to a Serbian security official who insisted on remaining anonymous, Mladic was living under a false name in the small village of Lazarevo, less than 62 miles (100 km) from the Serbian capital of Belgrade. He offered no resistance and was generally "cooperative," the official said, adding that the general, now 69, looked old and weary, and that one of his arms was paralyzed due to a brain hemorrhage suffered some years ago while on the run from Serbian and international law.
Lazarevo villagers told reporters they were unaware that there had been an indicted war criminal among them. "I had no idea that he was here, and even his arrest went unnoticed," said Radmilo Stanisic, a community leader. Mladic was allegedly living in a cousin's house on the edge of the village under the name of Milorad Komadic. Many of Lazarevo's 3,000 inhabitants are Serbian refugees from Bosnia and Croatia. Mladic was the chief commander of Bosnian Serbs during the 1992-95 war.
Mladic's wife Bosiljka and son Darko, who live in Belgrade, refused to speak to the press after the news broke of the fugitive's capture. Their lawyer, Milos Saljic, said they were shocked and surprised to hear that he was alive. Some months ago, the family requested that the general be declared legally dead, since they claimed not to have seen him for seven years. His very existence and evasion of justice was the bane of Serbia's diplomatic life. For years, Belgrade's apparent inability to arrest the general was a major obstacle in the country's quest to fully normalize its relations with the West and join the European Union.
The E.U. had repeatedly stressed that full cooperation with the International War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was essential for Serbia to make progress in its bid to join the 27-nation bloc. Earlier this month, ICTY's chief prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, left Belgrade deeply dissatisfied with Serbia's efforts to find Mladic and Goran Hadzic, a former Croatian Serb leader who is now the only Serbian war-crimes suspect currently evading international justice. "Serbia's efforts to apprehend the fugitives have not been sufficient ... Serbia's failure to arrest these two men undermines its credibility and the strength of its stated commitment to fully cooperate with the ICTY," Brammertz said in a report that was released last week.
On Thursday, however, Brammertz was full of praise for Serbia's fulfillment of the task. And the Serbian government could barely conceal its jubilation. "We have concluded a difficult period of our history and removed a stain from Serbia and Serbian people," said President Boris Tadic in a televised speech on Thursday. He commended the officers of Serbia's secret police who carried out the arrest and joyfully concluded that the doors of Europe were now "wide open." His words were echoed by Catherine Ashton, the E.U.'s foreign policy tsar, who just happened to be visiting Belgrade at the time of the arrest. "It's an important step forward for Serbia and for international justice," Ashton said in a statement. Mladic is expected to be deported to the international war crimes tribunal in the Hague to stand trial for genocide and crimes against humanity.
Jubilation aside, there are questions that remain unanswered. Among them, how was it possible for Mladic, who was indicted by the ICTY in 1994, at the peak of the Bosnian war, to remain at large for so long? He was the Bosnian Serb army chief of staff until the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords in November 1995. He then moved to Serbia, where he remained under the protection of the Serbian autocrat Slobodan Milosevic, who was also indicted for war crimes by the ICTY. Milosevic was deposed in 2000 and subsequently delivered to the Hague, where he died in 2005 during his trial. Mladic went underground in 2001, eluding all efforts to bring him to justice until now.
Not that those efforts were always sincere, according to analysts and most Western observers. Despite his alleged crimes, including the relentless shelling of Sarajevo (where perhaps 10,000 died or went missing during the war) and the Srebrenica massacre, Mladic remains a hero in the eyes of many Serbs. Beginning in 2000, three successive Serbian governments were reluctant to arrest him and other suspected war criminals, fearing nationalist backlash. The arrest of Milosevic in 2001, and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in 2008, both triggered violent protests. This time, however, apart from an increased police presence in central Belgrade, there were no signs of trouble.
"I think it's fair to say that Mladic enjoyed some degree of state protection until 2008," says Aleksandar Radic, a security analyst for a Belgrade English-language bulletin VIP. In 2008, the nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who openly resented the Hague tribunal, was replaced by a pro-Western administration led by President Tadic. But despite the changes in Serbia's security system, Mladic's whereabouts remained a mystery. For the last three years, Serbian police conducted several raids that, while of spectacular magnitude, yielded no results. "He was very hard to find because he had a very good method of hiding: very low profile, no army of bodyguards, almost no social contacts," Radic tells TIME. "Somewhat like [Osama] bin Laden, he left a very light footprint."
In the wake of the capture, Tadic has been busy receiving praise from the White House and from European leaders, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Foreign Minister William Hague and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. In Sarajevo, many surviving victims of Mladic's troops are joining the chorus. "I'm so excited, I tremble all over," says Hajra Catic, who lost her entire family in the war and now leads the Association of Mothers of Srebrenica, an NGO. "I'm glad I lived to see this day." For her and thousands of others, justice is finally being served. It is somewhat cold, and certainly belated, but it is justice nonetheless.