BELGRADE, Serbia – When he was finally arrested after 16 years on the run, the balding old man hobbling with pain bore little resemblance to the robust, ruthless Bosnian Serb army commander whom I twice met during the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia.
But yes, that was Gen. Ratko Mladic, "the Butcher of Bosnia," who once bellowed: "Burn their brains!" as his men mercilessly pounded Sarajevo with artillery fire.
When I saw footage of Mladic after his arrest in a Serbian village in 2011, what struck me most was his transformation, from a burly, cynical, military strongman with a dark sense of humor, to a frail and almost pitiful prisoner struck down by two strokes who struggled to speak coherently.
Mladic staggered slowly down a corridor of Serbia's war crimes court, wearing a blue baseball hat, a black jacket and baggy blue jeans. Five days later, he was handed over to the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands.
On Wednesday, the court is scheduled to announce a landmark judgment in the 75-year-old's trial on 11 counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes for his alleged role in masterminding atrocities including the 1995 slaughter by his troops of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica — Europe's worst carnage since World War II.
An account of Mladic's capture was provided to The Associated Press by three Serbian police officials involved in Mladic's capture on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
Minutes before his arrest in the northern Serbian village of Lazarevo, they said, the old man couldn't coax himself to sleep. He got out of bed just before dawn, pulled on a black baseball cap and headed for a walk in the garden — maybe some fresh air would clear his head.
At the same time, four jeeps carrying about 20 masked men in black fatigues rolled quietly into the village, hoping to surprise a quarry that had eluded them for so many years. Four of the men jumped over a fence and burst into the house as the frail man moved toward the door. They grabbed him and pushed him roughly to the floor.
"Identify yourself!" one shouted.
The old man managed a whisper: "I'm Ratko Mladic."
An excruciating manhunt had ended quietly as the sun rose over the Serbian fields.
Years earlier, in 1991, I met Mladic when he was the Yugoslav army commander in Knin, the self-styled capital of Serb-held Croatian territory. In one of the strangest interviews I have ever conducted, Mladic poured his homemade plum brandy while bragging about battle successes against the Croatian forces.
He was beaming with self-confidence, playing his taped conversation with a Croatian commander in which he offered a brief cease-fire so the Croats could collect the decomposing bodies of their fighters.
"The stench was so bad that I simply had to show my humanity," Mladic said with a cynical laugh.
The other time I met Mladic face-to-face was in 1993 at Mt. Jahorina near Pale, the Bosnian Serb stronghold, after he delivered an impassioned 45-minute speech spelling out the extent of the territorial loss which the Serbs would have to suffer if they accepted yet another international peace plan for Bosnia.
After his tirade, and his display of several maps of Bosnia, the Bosnian Serb assembly voted to reject the plan, extending the bloodshed by more than two years.
A happy-looking Mladic came out of the hall and joined me and other reporters at a restaurant table. He appeared to remember me from the previous encounter.
"Hello, you American spy!" he shouted with his blue eyes gazing straight into mine.
After a brief dramatic pause, he broke into loud laughter.
I didn't know whether to be afraid, or pin it on his sense of humor.