June 13, 1994 12:00 PM

HE IS STOCKY, GRUFF AND SHY OF PUBLICITY. When he does speak to the press, he tends to stress how unremarkable he is. “I am not a legend,” he said recently. “I am just a common man who defends his own people.”

Yet as one of the key figures in the bloodletting in Bosnia, Gen. Ratko Mladic has been likened to some of the most uncommon—and unsavory—figures in history. Some diplomats and human-rights groups have accused Mladic, 51, commander of the ethnic Serbian forces in Bosnia, of carrying out a campaign of genocide worthy of Hitler. So far, thousands of Muslims and Croats, the prime targets of the Serb policy of “ethnic cleansing,” have been killed. Under Mladic’s orders, Serbian gunners have pounded the cities of Sarajevo and Gorazde, among others, with heavy artillery, and his army has been held responsible by human-rights organizations for mass slaughter and rape. While denying that he is a war criminal, Mladic voices no remorse over his scorched-earth methods. “This is the moment when all decent people have to understand…that a lot of innocent people are going to suffer,” he has said. His goal: to reclaim what he believes is historic Serbian territory.

For all of Mladic’s seeming detachment, however, the war appears to have become a personal crusade. In March his 22-year-old daughter, Ana, committed suicide in the Serbian city of Belgrade. Just how and why she did so is not clear—and Mladic has never discussed it. According to one story, Ana, a medical student, had a boyfriend whom her father despised. The boyfriend, who was opposed to the war, was killed in Sarajevo, perhaps by Mladic’s men. When Ana found out, so the story goes, she took her own life. According to another account, she was so gravely ill that she killed herself. A third version, popular in Macedonia where she grew up, is that she didn’t commit suicide at all but rather was murdered by her father’s enemies.

Whatever the case, his daughter’s death had a “marked effect on Mladic,” says Paul Beaver, an analyst for the respected Jane’s Defence Weekly, a military affairs publication. Whether by coincidence or not, within a few days of Ana’s funeral Mladic launched a ferocious attack on Gorazde, a Muslim enclave in eastern Bosnia, which left several hundred civilians dead.

Yet the ultimate source of Mladic’s fury appears to be the death of his father in World War II. A member of Tito’s Communist-dominated Partisans, Mladic’s father, Nedjo, fought the Ustashe, irregular units of Muslims and Croats who collaborated with the Germans. In the waning days of the war, he was apparently killed in battle by the Ustashe, leaving behind two young sons—Ratko and Miloje—and a widow, Stana, who filled Ratko with hatred for those responsible. Even today, Mladic is quick to elevate that personal tragedy to a rationale for ethnic revenge, vowing that his own son, Darko, will not suffer the same fate. “My son is the first in many generations to know his father,” Mladic reportedly told one United Nations official.

A career military man, Mladic is beloved by his troops for his habit of getting into the trenches with them. Those who are attacked by him, however, have learned to expect no mercy. During the siege of Sarajevo in May 1992, Mladic was overheard on a radio barking to two Serbian officers, “Burn it all!” He then ordered his troops to train their 155-mm howitzers—the Serbs’ biggest field guns—on two suburbs of the Bosnian capital. “Bombard both of them,” he commanded. “Leave the 82-mm and 120-mm [mortars] and use the heaviest.”

Mladic’s unbending resolve, and his commitment to the ethic of kill-or-be-killed, extends even to his own family. When the war in Sarajevo broke out, he feared for the safety of his mother, his brother and his brother’s family, who were living there. If they could not be evacuated before Muslim forces overran their house, he told his brother, they were to be killed to spare them from torture. As it turned out, the family escaped and is now living in the Bosnian town of Pale, where Mladic has his headquarters. (Mladic’s wife, Bosiljka, lives in Belgrade.)

An accomplished chess player, Mladic seems determined to use his toughness and cunning to force the NATO allies to abandon any hope of stopping the Serbian conquest of Bosnia. “Mladic is vicious. He doesn’t seem to have any internal inhibitions, which is one reason they put him in charge,” says George Kenney, a former Bosnia expert at the State Department who quit in disgust last August over U.S. waffling on whether to intercede. “He knows how to test the edge of what is possible and always push.”

BILL. HEWITT

JOANNE FOWLER in Belgrade, ELLIN STEIN in London, JANE SIMS PODESTA in Washington

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