26 May 2011

Alex Thomson: up close and personal with General Mladic

Chief Correspondent

He got up, shook hands – then attempted the first of what would be many bear hugs of that meeting – Alex Thomson recalls his interview with Ratko Mladic in 1995.

Many days in the life of a roving reporter begin early, but that day started earlier than most. There was a knock at the door around 3am and our translator said I had to get up. The interview was on, it was happening – and happening now.

It was September 5th 1995, the fog hanging thick in the darkness over the maize fields in the valleys of Bosnia-Herzegovina, where we had been staying. The interview had been talked about for months, but even now we did not think it would actually take place.

We drove west to the border checkpoint with Republika Srpska – the Bosnian Serb enclave that had been carved out under the military leadership of General Ratko Mladic. It was daylight now and our escort was there to pick us up. Burly men in civilian clothing – jeans and leather jackets – the insignia of heavies across the western world and beyond. They had handguns and were pretty obnvious about displaying that fact.

More from Channel 4 News: Meeting Mladic – Alex Thomson’s 1995 encounter

They led in their car and we followed. But just in case of any misunderstanding, one of their team was placed none to subtly into the back seat of our vehicle.

Another hour or so, moving west into the Bosnian Serb heartland – towards Pale, their capital and the site of the Olympic Village for the Sarajevo Winter Games.

Then there was a change of vehicle. More heavies this time and now soldiers too in the green fatigues of the General’s army, and now carrying Kalashnikovs.

They had several cars too. We were “invited” into one and politely asked to bend down and look only at the floor. It was not at all that threatening to be honest and it did not strike me at any point that we might, in fact, be being kidnapped.

Perhaps it should have done, after all General Mladic was already wanted in connection with killing civilians during the long years of siege in nearby Sarajevo. I suppose I just desperately wanted the interview and that was that.

When the car stopped we were invited out and quickly into a bar. We were told not to film anything around the building or indeed anything outside the building at all. It was a whitewashed Alpine style chalet – the whole of the ground floor given over to a large bar.

I checked with the translator and no- there were no signs on any surrounding buildings to give away any location. It had been carefully chosen.

Inside, half a dozen heavily armed soldiers. Kalashnikovs, pistols and the warble of radio signals. At the bar, General Ratko Mladic, well into what did not look like his first slivovitz of the day – the plum brandy favoured far and wide across the former states of Yugoslavia. He got up, shook hands – then attempted the first of what would be many bear hugs of that meeting.

We were still not allowed to film. Instead we were “invited” to drink. So we did. One slivo – then another. I began to wonder if the interview would, in fact, take place. At around 10 in the morning I began to wonder if I would be capable of interviewing anybody if this level of spirit-drinking continues.

In the end I decided we had to get to work. After ten minutes or more of general chatter about the wars in the Balkan states and the state of the world in general I had a pretty good idea of the victim mentality the General had – which I’d fully expected. But we needed to get it all on tape.

Much to my surprise he complied immediately and the interview you see elsewhere on this site duly took place. Unapologetic as ever – the patriot, the victim, the defender of his people against the aggressors from the west and so forth. It was not, of course, very surprising. And he was not a man to be roused to anger by any journalists – too wily for that and clearly nobody’s fool.

Then, at the conclusion of the interview, it got very strange indeed. His entourage ordered the camera to be turned off. That was very much the end of it all. So now we would leave? Well not quite. The General beckoned me over to the bar and I sensed yet more slivovitz – but no.

He advanced towards me again for another series of prolonged bear-hugs. I just stood there. Our translator’s face contorted with a mixture of horror and astonishment. He released his grip, looked at me:

“I say to you – your mother must be a very proud woman!” Our translator could scarcely get the words out.

Another long embrace. His arms round me. Mine pinned to my sides with no idea at all how to handle this. I genuinely felt he was gay and this was some kind of beyond-bizarre come on. I had absolutely no clue what to do. But it got worse. Another speech and much more grasping of my arms as he spoke:

“We must go hunting together. You and me. We will make an arrangement. You can come. You must come. We will go together.”

On and on it went. It was a torment, in all honesty. Not least because every time he embraced me his head was buried in my chest – I am at least a foot or more taller than he is. I had no idea what to do, or say and nor did anybody else there I suspect.

Eventually I found my self burbling to the translator something about leaving…deadlines….important interview….must be shown around the world…all of it code for please, can this end and can we get out of here.

We did but there was no relief of course, because the armed muscle who drove us up here had now to take us back to our car. Only when we were safely back in our vehicle and back over the border were we able to, well, relive this, laugh at it, simply process it all.

A morning with General Ratko Mladic, already on the run for Sarajevo, had been had. In a matter of a few weeks he would be indicted again for the Srebrenica massacre. It was, quite possibly, the last interview he ever gave.

And no, we did not pursue the invitation to go hunting with General Mladic.

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