THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The first witness to testify in the genocide trial of Ratko Mladic broke down in tears as he told a war crimes court on Monday about the last time he saw his father, one of 150 Muslim men killed by Bosnian Serb forces in the village of Grabovica.
The mass killing in November 1992 was part of an early wave of ethnic cleansing carried out by nationalist Serbs determined to carve out a Serb state in Bosnia by removing all Muslims and Croats. The 1992-95 war claimed 100,000 lives.
Elvedin Pasic, 14 years old at the time of the Grabovica massacre, told the war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia in The Hague that he had spent the night before the killings on the ground floor of a cold school building in Grabovica, which was controlled by Bosnian Serb forces at the time.
His father, who had been beaten up by Serb forces earlier that day, had been held in the same school building on the second floor along with neighbors from the village of Hrvacani near the town of Kotor Varos in the northwest of Bosnia.
Pasic was too afraid to go upstairs to see his father and neighbours that night even though an armed Serb soldier offered to escort him, he told the court.
“After being there that night there is no doubt in my mind they were all killed,” he told judges, weeping. His father’s body was never found.
The prosecutors, who brought Pasic to testify, will try to prove that Serb forces under Mladic deliberately killed and expelled Muslims and Croats from their homes in some of the worst war crimes seen in Europe since World War Two.
As Pasic spoke, Mladic - a 70-year-old former general who commanded Bosnian Serb forces during the war - sat and listened - calm, serious, without a flicker of emotion.
Pasic’s life changed in the spring of 1992 when the shelling of Hrvacani began, and his family and neighbours fled to save their lives. Moving from village to village, they were repeatedly turned away, Pasic said, so in November 1992 they tried to reach the Muslim-held central town of Travnik.
To do that they had to cross Serb-controlled territory.
Pasic was in a group of 200 men including his father, mostly of fighting age, who walked while the women, including his mother, were taken by Serb forces by bus to the Travnik area.
They were ambushed by Serb soldiers near the village of Grabovica, where a few women and boys including Pasic were separated from the rest of the men. “They told us to lay down and face the ground,” he told the court.
Later, the soldiers told him to stand up and go to the school building but not to look around. Even so, he saw the motionless face of his local imam who had been beaten to death by soldiers.
The next day he was told to get on a bus which would take him to Muslim-held territory, but as he walked to the bus, he was beaten by angry Serb civilians whose relatives had lost their lives in the conflict.
“As I looked back when the bus left I saw a hand waving from the second floor,” he said. He never found out whether it was his father or not.
Mladic, who was arrested in Serbia in May last year after 16 years on the run, is accused of genocide for his role in the siege of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo and the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys, considered to be Europe’s worst atrocity since World War Two.
He is also charged with crimes committed in seven Bosnian municipalities, including Kotor Varos, in 1992, and over taking 200 U.N. peacekeepers hostage as human shields in 1994 to deter NATO bombing of Serb forces.
Mladic has denied all charges against him.
The Kotor Varos municipality had a population of about 36,000 before the war, 60 percent of them non-Serbs, said Munevera Avdic, who runs a local association of Kotor Varos victims and missing persons.
By November 1992, seven months after the war started, almost all Muslims and Croats had been expelled from the region and only a third have since returned, she said.
“My only wish is for Mladic to have a long and healthy life, to live long enough to get his verdict delivered,” said Avdic, who dedicated her life to establishing the truth about the events in Kotor Varos.
Her association is still searching for 283 victims. So far the remains of 139 Muslims and Croats have been exhumed from a number of secondary mass graves, where their bodily remains were dumped after being moved from primary graves in an attempt to cover up the crime.
Aisa Jaksic, 72, returned to her village of Vecici 10 years ago to live alone, hunting for the remains of her husband and her two sons, who were aged just 21 and 18 when they were taken to the school in nearby Grabovica.
“Our menfolk tried to escape from the village through the woods but were arrested by the Serbs and taken to Grabovica. I have had no information about them since,” she said.
Jaksic said women, children and elderly had to pay to be bussed out of the village, and sign documents handing over their property to Bosnian Serb authorities.
“It took until 2002 to return to my home and my only motive was to be near the place where I believe the bodies of my sons and husband rest.”
Post-war Bosnia is divided between a Serb Republic and a Muslim-Croat federation with a relatively weak central government in Sarajevo.
Additional reporting by Maja Zuvela in Vecici, Bosnia; Editing by Mark Heinrich