Bosnian victims await the war crimes trial of Ratko Mladic

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The justice that awaits Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic at The Hague war crimes tribunal is too good for him in the eyes of those who lost loved ones to the wartime atrocities for which Mladic goes on trial Wednesday.

The 69-year-old nationalist accused of leading the slaughter of 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995 and raining death on at least 10,000 Sarajevans during the four-year siege of the Bosnian capital has already been in U.N. detention for a year. He’s been dining on Balkan specialities in the modern, climate-controlled lockup, getting medical attention for his reported maladies and meeting with attorneys to prepare his defense against genocide and other war crimes charges.

Since his capture a year ago after 16 years of dodging the U.N. tribunal’s indictment, Mladic has joined the last dozen or so defendants from the conflicts that racked the former Yugoslavia. Their cases are still making their way through the world body’s laborious judicial process.

He appears in no hurry to get on with his case. On Monday, his lawyer filed a motion seeking to delay the trial by six months, contending the prosecution missed a deadline for sharing evidence. Three days earlier Mladic’s defense team demanded a two-month delay and the removal of presiding Judge Alphons Orie, accusing the Dutch jurist of bias based on his involvement in other Serb defendants’ trials.


Victims and survivors of the 1992-95 Bosnian bloodshed that cost at least 100,000 lives and left 2 million people refugees have waited for the commander of the Bosnian Serb army to answer for his actions. Some relish seeing their tormentor in the dock of the world body’s tribunal. For others, a court in the Dutch administrative capital, where the harshest sentence is life in a European prison, is too fair-minded a fate for the man they called the Butcher of Bosnia.

‘I understand democracy, but exceptions need to be made when it comes to monsters,’ said Delila Lacevic, who watched as her parents were blown to pieces by a shell fired from Bosnian Serb territory while they waited in a water line at a Sarajevo brewery in 1993.

‘They didn’t even allow people to say a prayer before they executed them,’ Lacevic said in a telephone interview, referring to Mladic and Bosnia’s wartime political leader Radovan Karadjic.

Still, the civilized justice accorded Mladic may give him time to reflect on his actions, so appalling that they drove his own daughter to suicide at the height of the conflict, said Lacevic. ‘I’m sure he’s haunted by all those people that he killed. He deserves that. The best punishment would be for him to sit in his cell and be haunted by ghosts.’

Many victims, like the 6,000-strong Mothers of Srebrenica alliance, don’t want whatever punishment may come to Mladic to be left to the afterlife. A caravan of cars and buses has brought hundreds to The Hague, although only about a dozen of the widows, mothers, sisters and daughters of men slain in the Bosnian war’s most shocking atrocity have secured space in the courtroom for the scheduled start of the trial Wednesday.

They want to see the once-formidable general brought low, his barrel-chested physique withered by age and life on the run, his confident gait hobbled by undisclosed ailments that forced him to accept help making his way to the defense table for his arraignment last year.

The cocky defiance exuded during the war years remains. He refused to enter a plea during the June arraignment, disparaging the U.N. court’s accusations as ‘obnoxious.’ But unlike Karadzic, the psychiatrist-turned-nationalist zealot who is representing himself, Mladic has accepted the help of a court-appointed lawyer as well as an advocate from Belgrade.

The passage of time has meant some witnesses have died, and others have moved away and put the Bosnian horrors behind them. But there are plenty still eager to do their part to see Mladic convicted.

‘They are very much willing to tell their stories to the tribunal,’ Frederick Swinnen, special advisor to the prosecution, said of the witnesses lined up to testify against Mladic.

His trial will be the last before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia disbands in 2014, after prosecuting the last fugitive from among the court’s 161 indictments, most resulting in convictions.

‘We’ve had a few acquittals, and a few deaths, but if you compare our work with other tribunals this is a major achievement that all of those indicted have been brought to justice, that there are no more fugitives,’ Swinnen said.

Mladic’s trial is expected to take more than a year. The prosecution expects to call 411 witnesses, though much of their testimony has already been recorded and submitted in the trials of other Balkan warlords, including Karadzic and late Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.

The fate of Milosevic, who was found dead in his cell at The Hague of apparent heart failure in 2006, left victims and survivors of his aggressions angry and frustrated by the court’s failure to bring in a verdict on the reputed architect and instigator of the Serb campaigns to seize territory from other republics as Yugoslavia fell apart in the early 1990s.

Param-Preet Singh, senior lawyer on the international justice project of Human Rights Watch, attended the 2009 opening of Karadzic’s trial, likewise besieged by victims who drove all night in hopes -- mostly unrealized -- of a glimpse of the defendant.

‘Karadzic didn’t show up, he was boycotting. But it was apparent how much the victims had invested in seeing justice for the crimes committed,’ said Singh. ‘These two men were seen as outside the reach of the law for nearly two decades. To see them in the dock is a big moment for victims.’

For the major crimes attributed to Mladic -- the Srebrenica massacre, the shelling of Sarajevo and the ‘ethnic cleansing’ that drove Muslims and Croats from their homes at gunpoint -- the prosecution will have to prove ‘command responsibility’ in the absence of witnesses who can place Mladic at each scene, said Singh.

But the tribunal has been successful in previous prosecutions of the top military figures, like the 46-year sentence meted out for Srebrenica commander Radoslav Krstic in 2001, when he became the first tribunal defendant to be convicted of genocide.

Victims like Lacevic will be watching, despite the expected length of Mladic’s trial and the piecemeal coverage they can expect.

She has carried the emotional burden of making a split-second decision about whom to shield with her body when she heard a deadly projectile whizzing toward the water line when her parents were killed. She chose to hurl herself on her 12-year-old brother. Both were severely injured but survived and were brought to the United States by relief agencies.

‘I’m 38 years old but I feel like I’m 70, because of what I have lived through, because of the anxiety and the depression and the guilt I’ve lived with for not being able to save everyone,’ Lacevic said.

‘I would like to look him in the eye and ask why he did this, why he killed people he never met,’ said Lacevic, a subject of Times staff writer Barbara Demick’s wartime chronicle of life in Sarajevo, ‘Logavina Street.’

‘I do wish I could go to The Hague, to get some closure,’ said Lacevic, now married and living in Texas. ‘I want to say, ‘You haven’t destroyed me, you didn’t kill me even though you tried.’ Just by surviving, I won.’

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in June at his initial appearance at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Credit: Martin Meissner / AFP/Getty Images