Hundreds of admirers of war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic were streaming Sunday to his childhood home in a remote east Bosnian village, turning the shabby house into a pilgrimage site.
Some 3,000 supporters of Mladic arrived on buses from other parts of Bosnia to the town of Kalinovik to protest his arrest in Serbia on Thursday. Many of them then headed to the shack he was born in at the end of a steep, muddy road in the village of Bozanici. Mladic's aunt and cousins spoke to them, telling stories about Mladic's childhood.
"Even as a child he behaved like an adult. He was smart and alert," elderly Slavojka Mladic told the visitors proudly as some of them kissed her hand to show their respect.
The conversation shifted to the former general's May 26 arrest in Serbia. Slavojka Mladic insisted her nephew had been just "a leader protecting his homeland. And now look what they are doing to him."
Mladic was indicted in 1995 by the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, on charges including genocide in connection with the slaughter 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica _ the worst massacre in Europe since the Nazi era.
But his supporters believe this is not true and he only defended the Serbs during the 1992-95 Bosnian war.
Mladic's first cousin Dusko, also a resident of Bozanici, proudly recalled childhood days with his relative. "I was fortunate enough to take after him in terms of courage, humanity and honesty," he said.
Dusko said he has one message for the former Bosnian Serb military leader: "All Serbs support you." He said he hopes "justice will prevail and he will live here with us in freedom."
Some 100,000 people were killed during Bosnia war which erupted after the country declared independence from the former Yugoslavia, despite the opposition by Serbs who accounted for a third of the population.
Most of those who died during the conflict were Muslim Bosniaks slain in notorious Serb ethnic cleansing campaigns throughout the country.
In 1995, the U.N. war crimes tribunal charged Mladic with genocide and crimes against humanity committed during the Bosnian war, most notably the Srebrenica massacre and the 43-month-long siege of Sarajevo.
Many of his supporters arrived to the gathering Sunday wearing black T-shirts with Mladic's picture and the words "Serbia in my heart."
The protesters called Serbian President Boris Tadic a "betrayer" for ordering the arrest of "the Serb hero" and urged him to "kill himself."
They carried banners that read: "You took the eagle, but the nest remains."
One protester, Vukoja Vojic, said Mladic was his commander during the Bosnian war, adding: "I think all the best of him. He is not a war criminal and I would fight under him again."
The crowd demanded that Kalinovik be renamed Mladicevo and Mladic's house in Bozanici be turned into a museum.