The ex-Bosnian Serb commander faced the ghosts of Srebrenica and Sarajevo on the first day of his war crimes trial
The electric blinds rose like a curtain on a West End production and there stood the protagonist: the former general charged with crimes against humanity that almost defy the imagination, reduced to a hollow-looking old man in a blue-grey suit and matching tie.
Ratko Mladic‘s military cap and angry heckling – on combative display just after his arrest last year – had gone, on advice from his lawyers, and the erstwhile Bosnian Serb commander had shrunk to the point that he was barely recognisable from his bluff, ruddy-faced wartime prime. But the bile was still there, impossible to disguise or suppress.
He greeted the bereaved families and survivors in the public gallery on the other side of the bulletproof glass with a sarcastic slow handclap and thumbs up, deriding their victory over him as if it were a temporary setback, soon to be reversed.
And when the furious mother of one of the 8,000 men and boys killed in 1995 in Srebrenica could restrain herself no more and made a dismissive hand signal at him, he drew a single finger across his throat.
A chill went through the old Dutch insurance building where the Hague war crimes tribunal does its business. Even a seemingly empty gesture from a bitter old man has the power to shock when that man is facing 11 charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including two counts of genocide.
Mladic’s lawyer, Branko Lukic, made light of the incident, as you might shrug off the growling of an old attack dog that it had never been entirely possible to tame.
“We visited him before the trial and tried to persuade him to be quiet, not to say anything at all,” Lukic said. “He told me he made that sign at a woman in the gallery who provoked him by showing him the middle finger. He is like that. He does the same to me.”
The Dutch presiding judge, Alphons Orie, called a toilet break and afterwards told Mladic to ignore the gallery and focus on the trial.
He warned the angry women in the gallery to avoid “inappropriate interactions in the future” or he would lower the curtain once more on the oval goldfish bowl of a courtroom and continue in camera.
Over the following four hours, the prosecution at the Hague court, known formally as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, outlined the case against Mladic.
One of the prosecutors, Dermot Groome, took the tribunal through reams of material demonstrating that, as the head of the Bosnian Serb general staff during the 1992-95 war, Mladic had firm control over the regular army and irregular paramilitaries who carried out mass killings across Bosnia.
“The prosecution will present evidence that will show beyond a reasonable doubt the hand of Mr Mladic in each of these crimes,” Groome said.
The statement was a litany of mass murder: 100,000 people died in the Bosnian war, mostly ethnic Muslims and Croats, tens of thousands of them civilians; 10,000 died in the 44-month siege of Sarajevo; 8,000 men and boys were slaughtered in the storming of the Srebrenica enclave in 1995.
Groome interspersed the statistics with reminders of the individual murders hidden within them, each a tragedy leaving whole families with unbearable pain that they will never overcome. He described the death of Nermin Divovic, a seven-year-old who went out to fetch firewood with his mother and sister in Sarajevo in the freezing winter of November 1994.
“A Serb sniper aligned his rifle with Nermin’s mother and the bullet passed through her abdomen and into his head,” Groome said. The boy’s mother, Dzenana Sokolovic, lay wounded on the street, not immediately aware that her son was dead. She thought he was simply obeying her instructions to drop to the ground when under fire.
Groome also told the story of Dino Salihovic, a 16-year-old from Srebrenica, shot dead on video by a Serb paramilitary group calling itself the Scorpions.
“He was taunted by his murderers that he would die a virgin,” Groome said, displaying only a still from the sickening and notorious video.
“You watch him walk forward with his hands tied behind his back and see bullets tear through his back.”
It is the prosecution’s contention that all the killing was part of an “overarching” plan, in the form of six war aims drawn up by Mladic, a former Yugoslav army officer who was recruited by the Bosnian Serb nationalists at the start of the war.
The plan involved carving out an expansive Serb homeland from the ethnic patchwork of prewar Bosnia, and “ethnically cleansing” the Muslim and Croat communities, creating a corridor linking its eastern and western halves and gaining access to the sea.
In this endeavour, Mladic was one of a triumvirate of murderous Serb nationalists.
Slobodan Milosevic was the cool mastermind for whom Bosnia was just part of a regional scheme for a Greater Serbia. The former Yugoslav president was handed over to The Hague in 2001 by the Serbian government that ousted him, but died of a heart attack in his cell here in 2006 while his trial was still under way.
Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb political leader, was the dandy of the trio, a psychiatrist with a bouffant hairdo who fancied himself a poet. He was seized in Belgrade, where he had been posing as a new age healer under an assumed name. Karadzic is currently midway through his own trial and he and Mladic have been reunited as cellmates here.
Mladic was the hot-headed bulldozer of the three. His inability to imagine that he might end up where he is today meant that he left plenty of hostages to fortune in his many explicit military directives ordering the ethnic cleansing of the Republika Srpska, and his frequent boasts designed to intimidate the foreigners, officials and journalists that he came across.
In 1992, he told one UN envoy that he would make Sarajevo “shake” if even one of his soldiers were injured, saying: “I will retaliate against the town … Sarajevo will shake, more shells will fall in one second than in the entire war so far.”
Driving with a Canadian Serb in August 1994, he laughed and was recorded on video as saying: “Whenever I go by Sarajevo, I kill someone. We kick the hell out of the Turks [a reference to Bosnian Muslims]. Who gives a fuck about them?”
Some of his lieutenants said his behaviour became increasingly erratic after the suicide of his daughter Ana, who used his army revolver to shoot herself in the head in March 1994, possibly after reading reports of atrocities committed by her father’s army.
During his 16 years on the run, he became steadily more isolated and impoverished. He was finally arrested by Serbian security forces last year, hiding in a cousin’s cottage in a village not far from Belgrade.
One of the Srebrenica survivors in the Hague gallery, Zumra Sehomerovic, said Mladic’s trial had been a long time coming, but that it was never too late for justice. “I am proud when I see Mladic finally behind that glass, in front of the court. It has come after 16 years, but there is no statute of limitations on the crimes he committed.”
Sehomerovic’s husband and three other family members were killed at Srebrenica and she said she saw the general up close when he appeared at the scene to “reassure” the terrified captives.
“When I look at him today, I see the man I saw then in 1995. I was standing a metre from him,” she recalled.
“There he was with his sleeves rolled up, and he was telling us everything would be OK. He was giving chocolate to the children and said he said he just needed to keep some of the men for a prisoner exchange, but that everybody would be together again soon. And then he killed them all.”