Michael Dobbs

Mladic trial underway – again

After six weeks of procedural delays and arcane legal wrangling, the trial of Ratko Mladic finally resumed today with a harrowing reminder of why it is so important: the voice of a victim. When the Bosnia war began in March 1992, Elvedin Pasic (photographed giving his testimony above) was fourteen years old. Although he lived ...

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After six weeks of procedural delays and arcane legal wrangling, the trial of Ratko Mladic finally resumed today with a harrowing reminder of why it is so important: the voice of a victim.

When the Bosnia war began in March 1992, Elvedin Pasic (photographed giving his testimony above) was fourteen years old. Although he lived in a Muslim village, he went to school with Serbs and Croats. They played soccer and basketball together, celebrated each other’s holidays, watched the same movies, and hung out with the same girls. Then, almost overnight, the horror began.

Shells began landing in Pasic’s village on the second day of the Muslim festival of Bajram, a holiday marking the end of the month of fasting. For the next five months, his family was chased around Bosnia by Serb forces. Now 34, Elvedin choked up repeatedly as he described how his father, uncle, and 150 other friends and neighbors were killed in retaliation for the death of a Serb soldier.

It was easy to understand why prosecutors chose Pasic to speak on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of victims of the three and a half-year Bosnia war. He delivered his testimony in fluent English learned as a refugee in the United States. His detailed recounting of atrocities seen through the eyes of an innocent teenager made him a particularly convincing witness.

Pasic described how his family returned to his home village of Hrvacani in northern Bosnia a few weeks after the initial Serbian attack to find charred ruins and general devastation. Several elderly villagers who had been left behind had been burned inside their houses. Elvedin went looking for his dog, which he had left tied to a chain, only to find that it had been shot. “Everything was gone, what was left of the walls of our house had been stripped,” he recalled.

The family eventually found refuge in the village of Vecici, one of the last remaining strongholds of Muslim resistance to a Serbian takeover of northern Bosnia. When the village was on the verge of surrender, several hundred Muslims escaped through the woods, only to be captured by Bosnian Serb forces and imprisoned in a school. Several dozen women and children were permitted to board a bus to take them to Muslim-controlled territory — but only after walking through a gauntlet of vengeful Serbs.

“They had sticks, and axes, and beat me on the knees until I fell down,” recalled Pasic. He described how an old lady with a knife had pleaded with other Serbs to allow her to “kill one balija” — a derogatory term for a Muslim — in revenge for the deaths of her two sons in Vecici. Eventually someone picked him up from the ground and pushed him into the bus.

His last image of his fellow Muslim prisoners was of a hand waving from the second floor of the school house. “I still see that hand in my dreams,” Pasic said, sobbing. He told the court that he had “no doubt” that his father and uncle were killed along with other Muslim men captured by the Serbs.

As related by Pasic, the atrocities in the early phase of the war foreshadowed the more widespread massacres three years later, at Srebrenica. While the scale of the two events was different, the basic scenario was the same: a combination of brutal ethnic cleansing and disproportionate revenge-taking against Muslims who put up resistance to Bosnian Serb forces.

Cross-examining Pasic, Mladic attorney Branko Lukic sought to show that the soldiers responsible for the killings of his relatives were irregular auxiliaries rather than members of the Bosnian Serb army. He also emphasized the destruction of Serb villages and property as a possible motivation for revenge killings of Muslims.

Seated in the defendant’s box across the courtroom, Mladic listened impassively to Pasic’s testimony, displaying no emotion. But he did use a handkerchief to dab his eyes at several points, as shown in the photograph below.

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