IT HAS BEEN 20 years since Elvedin Pasic’s father was captured by Serb fighters in the Bosnian war but as the 34-year-old Bosnian Muslim became the first witness at the UN trial of Ratko Mladic yesterday, he repeatedly broke down in tears as he recalled the trauma of separation.
During the emotional testimony, the former Bosnian Serb military chief sat stone-faced in court looking straight ahead. He faces 11 charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes for allegedly masterminding Serb atrocities throughout the 1992-95 Bosnian war that left 100,000 people dead.
He denies wrongdoing and faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment if convicted at the trial that is expected to last years.
Speaking English with an American accent, Pasic said he still dreams of a hand waving toward him out of the window of a makeshift prison camp in a school where his father was being held, and regrets not having gone to see him one last time when he had the chance. He was 14-years-old at the time.
“I was afraid. I didn’t (go),” he told judges at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, as he broke into tears. “I wish, I wish I would have went.”
Mladic is the last top-ranking suspect to go on trial at the UN court that was set up in 1993 as war raged in Bosnia. There was early skepticism about the tribunal’s chances of gaining custody of top suspects, but the court eventually got all 161 people it indicted, including alleged masterminds Mladic and his former political master, Radovan Karadzic. Both went into hiding for more than a decade before being captured.
Motion for delay
Pasic testified despite a motion filed early Monday by defense attorneys to adjourn the war crimes case for six months. UN judges said the prosecution could respond to this latest request for a delay on Tuesday.
Pasic said that his family fled from his village in northern Bosnian in 1992 as it was shelled by Serb troops under Mladic’s command. He eventually was captured along with his father and scores of other villagers.
They were held in a nearby school, with more than 150 men in an upstairs room and a smaller group of women and children downstairs. The next morning, shivering from a cold night spent in soaked clothing, the women and children were bused away and the men stayed, never to be seen again.
“Your honors, after being there that night, there is no doubt in my mind they were all killed,” Pasic told the three-judge panel.
In a grim evocation of the ethnic hatred that permeated Bosnia in the war, Pasic recalled being beaten and abused as he walked toward a bus through a crowd of angry Serbs.
One elderly woman dressed all in black grabbed him and threatened him with a knife, he said.
“She said `let me kill one balia because one of my sons died,’” he recalled her saying, using a derogatory term for Bosnian Muslims.
Earlier, Pasic described weeks of wanderings with his mother after being forced from their village by Serb shelling.
He and his mother eventually circled back to their home village despite a warning from two Serb soldiers patrolling nearby who told them “there is nothing for you to go back to: your home is Turkey, this is Serbia.”
He described his excitement as they entered the village anyway. He raced up a shortcut to his family house – only to find the Serb soldiers had told them the truth about there being little for them to return to.
“The house was burned completely, the fridge, the televisions, the walls – what was left of the walls was stripped,” Pasic said.
Even a stash of clothing they buried when they left had been found and taken. Pasic’s voice choked with tears as he described how he had hoped to find his dog alive, but found it shot where it was chained.
Most of the handful of people who had remained in his village, notably one elderly religious man whom Pasic knew, had been burned alive in their homes, Pasic testified; one was shot instead.
Mladic’s lawyers claimed in their written filing demanding more time that trial judges recently changed the rules governing what documentary evidence prosecutors can file. They said the changes would now let the prosecutors file significantly more evidence than previously allowed.
The defense motion said the change “is unprecedented in the history of the tribunal and threatens to be a significant blight to the integrity of these proceedings. Urgent action by the Chamber is required to avoid a very (great) potential miscarriage of justice.”
Mladic’s trial started on 16 May, but was almost immediately halted because prosecutors admitted that an apparent clerical error meant they failed to disclose thousands of pages of evidence to defense attorneys.
Mladic nodded his head in agreement at the start of Pasic’s testimony, as the witness told of good relations between Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats before the war. But he showed no emotion as Pasic’s testimony went on to lay bare how that same multi-ethnic Bosnia was plunged into a war that turned former neighbors into sworn enemies.