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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

‘Butcher of Bosnia’ faces judgment two decades after alleged war crimes

The verdict from the Yugoslav war crimes court in The Hague will be the culmination of a case spanning 22 years against Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic

Ratko Mladic in Sarajevo on February 15, 1994. The former Bosnian Serb general is on trial for his alleged role in Europe's worst atrocities since the Second World War and will hear the verdict of UN war crimes judges on November 22, 2017. Pascal Guyot / AFP
Ratko Mladic in Sarajevo on February 15, 1994. The former Bosnian Serb general is on trial for his alleged role in Europe's worst atrocities since the Second World War and will hear the verdict of UN war crimes judges on November 22, 2017. Pascal Guyot / AFP

More than two decades after his heyday, portraits of former Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic still hang in the homes of his relatives, emblazoned with the word “xepoj”, or “hero”.

Mr Mladic, 74, once known as the Butcher of Bosnia, will face UN judges in The Hague on Wednesday on charges of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity committed during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in 1990.

The UN court will rule on the last of Europe’s high-profile war crimes suspects and decide whether he is responsible for the 1995 massacre of almost 8,000 unarmed Muslims at Srebrenica, and for the 44-month siege of Sarajevo.

Frail but unrepentant, Mr Mladic made a last-minute attempt to postpone the verdict last month on grounds of poor health, while his supporters hope for a more dignified fate.

“I would be happiest if he died before the judgment,” said Mile Mladic, a relative who still lives in his hometown of Bozanovici.

Slobodan Milosevic, the former leader of Serbia, died four years into his genocide trial, ending it without a verdict.

But the International Criminal Tribunal on the former Yugoslavia was able to convict Mr Mladic’s political superior, Radovan Karadzic, last year. Found guilty of genocide, crimes against humanity and breaches of laws or customs of war, Karadzic was sentenced to 40 years in jail.

Mr Mladic was on the run for 16 years until May 2011 when the Serbian war crimes unit raided the house of his cousin Branislav in Lazarevo, near Belgrade. When the ageing general answered the door to two policemen, he readily revealed his identity.

“You’ve found who you are looking for,” he said. “I’m Ratko Mladic.”

It was a far cry from the swagger he displayed as he orchestrated Serbian operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina after the disintegration of Yugoslavia.

As cameras rolled after he swept into “Serb Srebrenica” in 1995, Mr Mladic declared he was reversing centuries-old defeats for his people.

“We are presenting this town to the Serbian people,” he said. “Finally, the time has come to get even with the Turks for the first time since the uprising against Ottoman rule.”

The next day he travelled to a garrison of 400 Dutch troops in Potocari, which was overseeing the fate of about 30,000 mainly Muslim villagers from the surrounding areas.

Mr Mladic jumped from his military jeep and started distributing chocolates to the children. He declared no one would do them any harm.

The adult men were already being separated out and driven away to execution sites. The massacres took place over the following week.

Even when he appeared in court, Mr Mladic could not resist showing his contempt for his victims. Clambering into the dock, he took position behind the glass screens and stared at the widows of his victims.

Slowly, Mr Mladic drew a finger across his throat. His contempt for the court was complete.

Delivering its verdict on him will be the final act of the tribunal, which has operated for 24 years and set milestones along the way.

With an annual running cost averaging US$200 million (Dh734.6m) and a staff of 425 from 69 countries, it was the first international court to indict a sitting head of state, former Serbian president Milosevic.

He cheated judgment but 83 people have been convicted and sentenced, many to decades in prison.

The legacy of misery inflicted by the war remains powerful in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Suada Hodzic returned from refuge in Austria to live in Trnopolje, near Prijedor, where one of the most notorious of refugee camps was established. Her house is not far from the spot where her husband, Fikret Hodzic, was killed in 1992.

Hodzic was a 15-time bodybuilding champion of Yugoslavia who had set up a gym in the area in the 1970s. Boys of all religions had attended.

“Life with Fikret was the most beautiful fairy tale,” Mrs Hodzic told Balkan Insight. “He was a man who was never angry, who would not raise his voice, always smiling. They called him ‘the bodybuilder with the smile’, and that smile opened every door.”

A quarter of a century later, she recalled her husband’s murder.

“Fikret was taken from us, held near the house and we were told to go on,” Mrs Hodzic said. “We got maybe 10 steps and I heard a burst of fire from a rifle from behind. Unfortunately that was the end.

“I turned to see a boy who trained with Fikret. He was at our house many times. He held a Kalashnikov rifle. He looked at me and laughed. Fikret lay beneath him, killed from behind.”

Taken to the notorious camp that was later exposed by reports that shocked the world, Mrs Hodzic was allowed a final visit to her home.

“I saw his body. I covered it up,” she said. “That day we were deported from Trnopolje, which was good. I don’t know if we would have survived any longer.”