SARAJEVO: “Thank you God! I kiss you God, for the sake of our sons!” cried Nedziba Salihovic, jumping to her feet in joy as a UN court on Wednesday sentenced Bosnian Serb wartime commander Ratko Mladic to life in prison.
Salihovic, like many other Bosnian Muslims, had long waited for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to deliver its judgement for the 74-year-old former general.
The Hague-based court has now ruled that Mladic, widely known as the “butcher of Bosnia”, will spend the rest of his days behind bars over 10 charges including genocide in Srebrenica, scene of the worst massacre in Europe since World War II.
“Mladic will die in The Hague! I’m so happy that justice has been done!” said Salihovic, who lost her husband, father and son in Srebrenica.
“After 20 years Mladic will die in The Hague because he slaughtered my son,” she said, adding that she had only ever managed to locate fragments of his body in several mass graves.
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Salihovic had joined crowds of people watching the hearing live on three giant screens in the village of Potocari near Srebrenica, home to a centre commemorating 8,000 Bosnian men and boys killed in nearby woods and hills.
Some of the women were crying, one woman prayed while others cursed when Mladic appeared on the screen.
“You are a piece of garbage!” one them shouted angrily, as a group of men watched the proceedings in silence.
When the presiding judge of the tribunal Alphons Orie pronounced the verdict, the victims’ relatives applauded, with some bursting into tears of joy, hugging and kissing each other with visible relief.
Mladic has always denied charges that he ordered the massacre, and his son said Wednesday he would appeal the sentence.
The court also found Mladic responsible for the Sarajevo seige, another of the darkest episodes of the 1990s inter-ethnic conflict that killed more than 100,000 people.
But some of the victims’ relatives said the life sentence would not be enough to atone for the atrocities he was responsible for.
“Even if he lives 1,000 times and is sentenced 1,000 times to life in prison, justice would still not be served,” Ajsa Umirovic, who lost 42 relatives in the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre, said ahead of the verdict.
A short drive away in the town of Bratunac, a woman in her 60s dressed in black from head to toe, said Mladic should be “punished for the genocide in Srebrenica, and for crimes in Prijedor (in northwestern Bosnia), Sarajevo and the whole country”.
But not everyone in Bratunac agreed, with several posters seen across the town showing Mladic in uniform. “You are our hero,” read the slogans.
In a sign that society remains bitterly divided, similar posters also appeared in Srebrenica, which is now located in the Serb-run half of Bosnia.
In Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital, the facades of many buildings still bear the traces of shells and bullets fired during the 44-month-long siege that ran from 1992 to 1995.
More than 10,000 people, including 1,500 children, were killed in the siege by shells and sniper bullets fired by Mladic’s forces.
Markale market, where dozens of people were killed in shelling in February 1994 and August 1995, was open for business Wednesday.
The victims’ names were inscribed on a red wall of a building in the area.
However for Safet Kolic, who sells clothes, “this verdict comes too late”.
He believes Mladic “destroyed one people by making them commit genocide, and another by making them suffer genocide.”
But in Pale, a stronghold of Mladic’s wartime ally Radovan Karadzic — whom the ICTY sentenced to 40 years in jail for genocide and other war crimes — views are wildly different.
In nearby Sokolac, Bosnian Serb Mladic supporters — some of whom wore T-shirts imprinted with his photo — awaited the verdit in silence.
“One day history will show that we have known the truth all along,” said Bosnian Serb military veteran Zeljko Dacic, 52.
On the eve of the verdict Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik said: “Whatever the verdict … Ratko Mladic remains a legend for the Serb people.”
“He (Mladic) was condemned even before he arrived in The Hague,” said Neven Krunic, a 61-year-old man.
Mladic was arrested in 2011 after 16 years on the run.