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article image'Butcher of Bosnia' still a hero at home as verdict looms

By Rusmir SMAJILHODZIC, Nicolas GAUDICHET (AFP)     Nov 16, 2017 in Crime

Dusko Mladic points to the portrait on his wall of his beloved cousin Ratko, the wartime Bosnian Serb army chief, who will next week learn if he is convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity.

"I guarantee you that he is not guilty of a single murder," Dusko insists of his "idol", who faces a verdict from UN judges at The Hague over his actions in Bosnia's bitter 1992-1995 conflict.

Ratko Mladic became known internationally as the "Butcher of Bosnia", particularly for his alleged leading role in the 44-month siege of Sarajevo and the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica.

But in his family village of Bozanovici -- and across the rest of the Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska (RS) -- the 74-year-old general is still widely regarded as a hero for his part in the civil war.

"If those judges knew him only 60 percent as well as I know him myself," says Dusko, "he would be immediately acquitted and rewarded".

On trial since 2012 at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Mladic faces judgement on November 22 on 11 charges arising from the war, including genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

Some 100,000 people were killed and another 2.2 million displaced in the conflict.

In Bozanovici in eastern Bosnia, his cousin still lives on an unpaved lane bearing the sign "General Mladic Street", opposite the house where the military chief was born.

Dusko, a retired construction worker and himself a former soldier, recalls the days when Mladic would return on leave from the Yugoslav army, make hay in the fields and create toy guns out of pieces of wood for his younger relative.

Dusko proudly shows AFP a bottle of homemade "rakija", fruit brandy enjoyed throughout the Balkans, with labels bearing pictures of the general.

"If we stand on the side of justice, truth, God, he should be acquitted," Dusko insists.

- Mayor unmoved -

This file photo taken on February 15  1994 shows Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic looking on in Sar...
This file photo taken on February 15, 1994 shows Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic looking on in Sarajevo. UN judges will deliver in November 2017 a long-awaited verdict against the former army chief, accused of genocide and crimes against humanity
PASCAL GUYOT, AFP/File

The war ended with a deal that divided Bosnia along ethnic lines into two semi-independent entities: the Serb-run RS and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, dominated by Bosnian Muslims (known as Bosniaks) and Croats.

In the RS, home to around one million Serbs, Mladic will "remain a hero, regardless of everything", says Momcilo Krajisnik, 72, a former speaker of the RS assembly.

Krajisnik himself was sentenced to 20 years in prison in The Hague and released in 2013, after which he received a triumphal welcome back home in the RS.

In Srebrenica, the site of mass murder over three days in July 1995, the thousands of white stones at the city's memorial do not change the opinion of the incumbent mayor.

The number of deaths inscribed on the memorial plaque -- 8,372 -- "is not exact" and Mladic "personally did not commit any crime" says Mladen Grujicic, 35, who succeeded a Bosniak mayor last year.

Mladic is charged with genocide over the massacre, deemed the worst atrocities committed in Europe since the end of World War II.

- 'Serb de Gaulle' -

In Pale, a town dotted with monuments to former fighters and enlarged by Serbs who left Sarajevo, 15 kilometres further west, the aura of Mladic remains intact.

"Every inhabitant of the RS would happily welcome an acquittal," says Janko Seslija, president of the veterans' group of "White Wolves", an ex-paramilitary commando unit.

An aerial picture shows Bozanovici  eastern Bosnia  the family village of Ratko Mladic  the 74-year-...
An aerial picture shows Bozanovici, eastern Bosnia, the family village of Ratko Mladic, the 74-year-old general still widely regarded here as a hero for his part in the civil war
ELVIS BARUKCIC, AFP

The 57-year-old describes Mladic as the "Serb de Gaulle", referring to the late French general and statesman.

Jelena Sekara, a nurse in her fifties, says it will take a long time to find another such "great patriot" who fought "international criminals, occupiers and fascists".

Mile Kosoric, 64, a former senior officer who fought under Mladic's orders, insists he was never ordered to commit crimes and never heard the general doing so.

"I only think that if we had not defended ourselves, we would no longer exist," says Kosoric, now retired in the Serb nationalist stronghold of Han Pijesak, close to where Mladic set up his wartime headquarters in a thick pine forest.

- 'Three truths' -

In the office of his gas station in a Pale suburb, ex-convict Krajisnik has hung a civil award presented by the current Bosnian Serb political boss, Milorad Dodik.

"Everywhere the truth is unique, except in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Here, there are three truths" -- for Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks, Krajisnik says.

Dusko Mladic  cousin of Ratko Mladic  walks by his home  in the village of Bozanovici  near the town...
Dusko Mladic, cousin of Ratko Mladic, walks by his home, in the village of Bozanovici, near the town of Kalinovik, eastern Bosnia, on October 18, 2017
ELVIS BARUKCIC, AFP

He explains that Serbs believe the court was set up only to try Serbs, who have been "convicted for crimes for which others are not even charged".

And he warns that the "hatred" born in the 1990s "will be difficult to uproot".

The recent acquittal in Sarajevo of the Bosniak commander of Srebrenica, Naser Oric, for charges of crimes against Serbs, provoked anger in the RS.

"This is the most shameful verdict in history," says the Srebrenica mayor Grujicic.

He believes the Bosnian and international justice systems have continued to "designate Serb people as genocidal".

If Oric had been sentenced, "this image would have changed".

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