THE HAGUE, Netherlands – Twenty years after Serb forces unleashed a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, their military commander Gen. Ratko Mladic is finally going on trial on charges of masterminding atrocities throughout the country's devastating 1992-95 war.
Mladic will enter the United Nations' Yugoslav war crimes tribunal Wednesday a frail 70-year-old, a far cry from the swaggering general who commanded Serb forces during the war that left some 100,000 people dead.
"I don't have to tell you how important it is that finally this trial can start 17 years after the first indictment was issued (against Mladic)," said the court's Belgian chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz.
For years after the war Mladic was an elusive fugitive and one of the world's most-wanted men. His time on the run finally ended last year when Serbian forces arrested him near Belgrade and flew him to The Hague. He has been waiting for his trial in the same jail as his former political leader, Radovan Karadzic, who was arrested in 2008 and is now at the midway point of his own trial on almost identical charges to Mladic.
"We would of course have preferred having both before the same judges, one being the political architect of the crimes allegedly committed, the other the military leader of this policy," Brammertz said.
Both men are accused of leading Bosnian Serb forces responsible for atrocities that started with a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing in 1992 and climaxed in July 1995 with Europe's worst massacre since World War II, the slaughter of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the northern enclave of Srebrenica. They also are charged in the deadly campaign of sniping and shelling during the 44-month siege of the capital, Sarajevo.
The man seen as the overall architect of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, died of a heart attack in his cell in 2006 before tribunal judges could deliver verdicts in his trial.
Survivors of the Bosnian war, which left 10,000 dead, hope the same will not happen to Mladic, who suffered at least one stroke while in hiding after his indictment and has been in ill health in The Hague.
"Victims are afraid that Mladic could die, and that would be very disappointing for the victims in Bosnia. I want a verdict for Mladic so that the whole world will see that he is a war criminal and has committed the crimes in Bosnia," said Kadefa Mujic, 42, from Srebrenica, a representative of the group "Mothers of Srebrenica" who met Tuesday with Brammertz in The Hague.
Munira Subasic was in Srebrenica on those fateful days in 1995, seeking sanctuary with thousands of other residents in a U.N. peacekeepers' compound.
Speaking to The Associated Press in Bosnia, she said she still remembers Mladic barking threats at the base's Dutch commander and ordering men to be separated from women.
"Surrender your weapons and I will guarantee you life," he told the Bosnian Muslim men and boys, some as young as 11. "You can survive or you can disappear."
But it was those who obeyed who disappeared: Their bodies are still being found in mass graves scattered around the town. Thousands who refused managed to flee through the hills to freedom.
After meeting several victims' groups, Brammertz said they have always been a driving force behind the tribunal's work.
"For them it is of course extremely important. Their number one request since day one has always been: 'We want to see Mladic in The Hague,'" he said.
"Having those victims' organizations here is very important because they remind us every day why this tribunal has been created. They remind us really why it was the right thing to do to maintain pressure to make sure the fugitives are arrested."
Mladic has refused to enter pleas to any of the 11 charges against him, but denies wrongdoing.
He argues that his army was defending the Serb people in Bosnia.
One of Mladic's lawyers, Miodrag Stojanovic, says the former general insists his army was defending the Serbs in Bosnia as the former Yugoslavia unraveled in a series of bloody ethnic wars.
"He says: 'Tell me what I've done wrong? Tell me what bad things I've done,'" Stojanovic said.
Back in the Bosnian village of Mladic's birth, Kalinovik, his uncle, Mile Mladic, agreed.
"A big fuss is created that he is a war criminal; that he is on trial. He has never been, he will never be a war criminal," he said. "I don't allow anyone to say that he is a war criminal. He was a military leader, he led his troops, he was a commander; that suited him, and he was only defending his people."
Mladic has waived the right to make a statement Wednesday and Thursday as prosecutors lay out an overview of their case. The first witness is due to testify May 29.
The tribunal's president, Theodor Meron, on Tuesdsay rejected a last ditch effort by Mladic to have the Dutch presiding judge replaced because of alleged bias and to delay the trial.
Brammertz said prosecutors will present testimony from more than 400 witnesses, though most of their testimony will take the form of written statements presented to judges. Prosecutors have a total of 200 hours to present their case before Mladic begins his defense.
If he is ultimately convicted, Mladic faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Since Mladic was first indicted at the height of the fighting in Bosnia, international law has progressed and the permanent war crimes tribunal, the International Criminal Court, has indicted heads of state and warlords. Rights groups say Mladic's trial is a warning to despots around the world that they will eventually face prosecution.
"Victims have waited nearly two decades to see Ratko Mladic in the dock," said Param-Preet Singh, senior counsel in the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch. "His trial should lay to rest the notion that those accused of atrocity crimes can run out the clock on justice."
Associated Press writers Aida Cerkez in Sarajevo and Radul Radovanovic in Kalinovik, Bosnia, contributed to this report.