The man behind a massacre and the survivors he taunts

Bill Neely

Former International Editor

Ratko Mladic, the former Commander of Bosnian Serb Army, attends his trial at the International Criminal Tribunal Credit: Reuters

Twenty years ago, they yearned for his death. Many would have happily killed him themselves.

Today, they are hoping that the man who killed their sons, their husbands and fathers survives, just long enough to be convicted of the worst war crimes in Europe since the Nazis.

If Ratko Mladic dies before that day, say the survivors of Bosnia's war, he will have escaped justice.

Mladic, the former Commander of Bosnian Serb Army has finally gone on trial, almost twenty years to the day since he took up that post; seventeen years since the Bosnian War ended. In the years between, he directed a siege and a massacre that have burned their way into the conscience of a continent.

At Srebrenica, he told thousands of Muslims who waited for the arrival of his troops not to worry. He patted a little boy's head. His men handed out sweets. Within days, eight thousand of the men and boys were dead.

Murdered by the bus load, bulldozed into the ground, then dug up and dumped in the darkest corners of a land where Mladic hoped they would never be found.

Most of them have been found and they lie in orderly ranks in the white, mass graveyard of a haunted town. Mladic now stands accused of their slaughter.

He also stands accused of the siege of Sarajevo, the former Olympic city where Torville and Dean danced their beautiful Bolero and where, a few years later, ten thousand civilians died in bread queues and basements and cemetaries as it was pounded and pummelled by Mladic's guns and snipers. "Burn their brains," he said in one order. "Shell them until they're on the edge of madness."

On his first appearance in court I watched him taunt the widows of those he killed. He was at it again today, drawing his finger across his throat as he stared at one woman. They were taunting him too. The judge rebuked them all. The Bosnian poison lives on in the Hague court.

The case will be a long one, harrowing for the survivors. The horror will be relived in the evidence, the videos, the sounds of a war that brought shame to a continent and to a United Nations that so catastrophically failed to protect the vulnerable.

But the trial has brought little remorse. Certainly none from General Mladic.

Back in Sarajevo and Srebrenica, the widows watched the opening of the trial on television. One woman though, seemed distracted. She stared out of a window, loss deeply etched in the lines on her face. She could hear the evidence from the war crimes trial, but she gazed out as if she knew it all already, as if she had seen it all at first hand, as if she was seeing once again the moment a Serb General had told her not to worry and taken her husband and her children away.