Izudin Alic was eight years old when he met Ratko Mladic outside the headquarters of the U.N. peacekeeping battalion in Srebrenica. Staging an elaborate propaganda show for the television cameras, the 53-year-old Bosnian Serb commander picked out a cherubic-looking boy from the crowd, and patted him twice on the cheek. Then he asked his age.
"Twelve," lied Izudin in a squeaky voice, trying to appear more grown up than he actually was.
I met Izudin during my recent trip to Srebrenica. He is now 25, and only has hazy memories of that terrible day, seventeen years ago, when Bosnian Serb forces embarked on their killing spree against men and boys who had taken refuge in the United Nations "safe area." Izudin's father, Sahzet, was among some 8,000 Muslim refugees who were hunted down and killed by Mladic's men.
Izudin returned to his native village of Prohici, just outside Srebrenica, soon after the end of the war along with surviving members of his family, including his mother. He watched the opening of the Mladic trial in The Hague on television, trying to make sense of the moment when he was briefly thrust into the media spotlight. He recalls rushing to the front of the crowd of refugees when Bosnian Serb soldiers began distributing candy and chocolates for the benefit of the television cameras.
"I was there when the children were taking the candy," he recalled. "Like the other children, I took some candy from the soldiers and ate it. Had I known about the crimes that were being committed, I would never have accepted the candy."
In the video below, you can see Mladic approach Izudin, pat him on the cheek, and promise the refugees that they will be provided safe passage out of the enclave. Soon afterwards, his men began separating the women and children from the men and older boys outside the U.N. compound, and sending them off in different convoys of buses. Prosecutors from the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal believe that by this stage Mladic had already taken the decision to kill all men of military age.
Like many other Srebrenica returnees, Izudin has difficulty making ends meet. He occasionally finds work on construction projects but otherwise lives hand-to-mouth from a modest plot of land that supports a cow and four sheep. He is glad that the man who patted him on the cheek seventeen years ago has finally been brought to trial, but worries that the proceedings might drag on for so long that there will never be a conviction.
"That's what happened in the case of [Slobodan] Milosevic," says Izudin, referring to the former Serbian leader, who died in the middle of his trial in 2006. "We know that Mladic is guilty. I want to see him sentenced as soon as possible."
The encounter with Izudin has become an emotional point of contention for Mladic who was angered by claims that he ordered his security men to confiscate the candy they had previously distributed to the Muslim children as soon as the television cameras stopped whirring. During a pre-trial hearing last October, he began talking about the incident without prompting, as if it had suddenly popped up into his mind out of the blue. The charge that he had murdered thousands of unarmed prisoners seemed to trouble him less than the accusation that he had taken candy away from children
"It's a lie, a blatant lie," he shouted, red-faced.
For the record, despite investigating every aspect of the Srebrenica case for almost a year, I have been unable to find evidence to support the candy-stealing charge. Izudin, for example, has no recollection of this happening. On the other hand, there is a pile of evidence proving the accusations of mass murder, including the execution of Izudin's father.
The photograph below shows Izudin in the centre of Srebrenica, next to the mosque, which was destroyed by Mladic's men in 1995 but has since been restored.
Ratko Mladic has been described as "one of those lethal combinations that history thrusts up occasionally-a charismatic murderer." What drove the Bosnian Serb military commander to order Europe's deadliest massacre since World War II? Could it have been prevented? Michael Dobbs, a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum fellow, investigates.