By Douglas Hamilton
(Reuters) - There is something shocking about Ratko Mladic in court. Old and infirm, he is a shadow of the strutting Bosnian Serb general who once struck fear into the hearts of Muslims and Croats.
But physical weakness has not dimmed his belief in himself or his cause, or prompted a flicker of remorse over the war crimes for which he goes on trial in The Hague on Wednesday.
"The whole world knows who I am," he said at a pre-trial hearing last year. "I am General Ratko Mladic. I defended my people, my country ... now I am defending myself."
Now 70, Mladic faces a charge of genocide for the slaughter of 8,000 unarmed Bosnian Muslim men and boys from Srebrenica in July 1995, and the pitiless 1992-95 siege of Sarajevo.
It has taken 17 years to bring him to trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, a testament to the loyalty he inspired among Serbs and the power of their nationalist cause.
But as Serbia's goal of integration with Europe overtook its defiance, he lost his comfortable protection. By the end he was reduced to sheltering, penniless and sick, in a cousin's farmhouse.
The son of a World War Two partisan fighter killed in 1945, Mladic was an officer in the old communist Yugoslav Federal Army (JNA) when Yugoslavia's disintegration began in 1991.
When Serbs rose up in 1992 against Bosnia's Muslim-led secession, he was picked to command the army that swiftly overran 70 percent of the country. It was a model of ruthlessness, daring and brutality in the Serb warrior tradition once prized in the life-or-death struggle against Nazi Germany.
But NATO officers who dealt soldier-to-soldier with Mladic when U.N. evenhandedness was official policy later came to regret shaking the hand of the "Butcher of the Balkans".
Bloodthirsty paramilitaries joined in the campaign, murdering, raping and mutilating. Dozens of towns were besieged with heavy weapons that once belonged to the JNA, and villages were burned down as 22,000 troops of the U.N. Protection Force stood by more or less helplessly, with orders not to take sides.
Mladic had a cameraman film the blitz on the enclave of Srebrenica, showing him bronzed and fit at 53, extolling his "lads" and haranguing the hapless Dutch U.N. peacekeepers who took his soldier's word that the inhabitants would be safe.
Instead they were systematically executed in a massacre that took several days.
Men and boys were separated from the women, stripped of identification, then shot. The dead were bulldozed into mass graves, then later dug up with excavators and hauled away in trucks to be better hidden from the world, in dozens of remote mass graves.
Over 6,600 victims have since been identified by DNA tests.
It was the horrific culmination of a 3-1/2-year conflict in which the beefy general pounded the besieged city of Sarajevo daily with artillery, tanks, mortars and machineguns, killing over 11,000, until sports fields overflowed with graves.
The alleged goal was "ethnic cleansing" - the forcible extermination or expulsion of Muslims, Croats and other non-Serbs to clear Bosnian lands for a Greater Serbia.
Prosecutors say it was a conspiracy in which Mladic and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic were aided, armed and abetted by the late Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic.
Only a combination of Western pressure and covert American arms and training for Croats and Muslims turned the tide in 1995 against Mladic's army, ultimately deprived of equipment and fuel supplies from Serbia. NATO air strikes did the rest.
OLD AND FRAIL
Today, Mladic today looks nothing like the burly general in camouflage who ruffled the hair of a Srebrenica boy that July.
He seems older than his 70 years and by his own account feels like a frail old man. In his few court appearances since his capture and extradition a year ago, he has wavered between maudlin self-pity, smiling defiance and vague distraction.
"I am very sick man," Mladic pleaded to the court last July. But he ended with a gruff dismissal of assistance, saying he did not need to be helped like a blind cripple.
Only half his time at large was spent as a hunted fugitive.
Even after Milosevic fell in 2000, he stayed on in a Belgrade apartment until 2002.
Despite Western urging, the reformists ruling Serbia did not dare to move against a man who was still a hero to a determined core of aggressive Serb nationalists.
Mladic received treatment at a top military hospital. Sporadic sightings put him at a Belgrade horse race or a soccer game. In 2004, NATO said he had toasted hard-drinking old comrades at his former HQ bunker in Han Pijesak, Bosnia.
But pressure was now piled on Serbia's pro-European Boris Tadic to prove it was serious about confronting war crimes as the price for starting the process of joining the European Union.
When two sentries at an army complex in Belgrade were mysteriously shot dead in October 2004, newspapers said they had been silenced by diehards because they had seen Mladic. After this his support began to dry up, and he went underground.
When he was finally arrested, he put up no resistance. His right arm was lame, the apparent result of an untreated stroke. At the tribunal he has appeared by turns arrogant and senile.
BOOKS AND TELEVISION
Yet life at the detention centre seems to have helped his condition. Internees have a gym, art rooms, tennis and basketball courts, a kitchen, phone booths, television, books and newspapers, and can order food from a Balkan shop.
Birthdays and religious holidays are celebrated. Men who were sworn enemies in the 1990s now sit down at the same table.
In court last year, Mladic smiled as a judge read out charges that his men had taken 200 U.N. peacekeepers hostage as human shields in 1994 to thwart NATO bombing, a notorious exploit.
But he is not as articulate as his mentors Karadzic and Milosevic, who made long self-justifying speeches at their trials. Last July he was ejected from court for heckling the judge who read out a charge of genocide and entered a not-guilty plea on his behalf.
"No, no, no!" he shouted. "Don't read it to me, not a single word."
Milosevic died in detention on March 11, 2006, a few months before a verdict in his trial for genocide and other war crimes in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Karadzic is still on trial.
The trial of Mladic may serve justice by exposing the truth about the Bosnia war, but reconciliation in Bosnia is far off.
The U.S.-brokered Dayton accords of 1995 stopped the bloodshed, dividing Bosnia into a Muslim-Croat federation and a Serb Republic. But they have not healed ethnic divisions or prevented the steady rise of Bosnian Serb separatism.
Most Bosnian Serbs are convinced that Mladic is innocent. Or they say that even if he did commit atrocities, he was no worse than enemy commanders, and he was defending the Serb people. If he is found guilty, it will only prove their conviction that the Hague tribunal is utterly biased against Serbs.
"I am very old man and I am close to my end as far as my health is concerned, and I am not important," Mladic told the tribunal last year. "It matters what kind of legacy I will leave behind, among my people."
(Additional reporting by Ivana Sekularac, Sara Webb, Damir Sagolj; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Kevin Liffey)