The first witness in the long-awaited trial of former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic testified on Monday, describing a harrowing escape and scenes of horror in his home village despite a motion by defence attorneys to adjourn the war crimes case for six months.
United Nations judges at International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia said the prosecution could respond to the request on Tuesday and allowed Elvedin Pasic to testify.
Pasic described how in 1992, his family was separated as they escaped the shelling of his village in northern Bosnia by Bosnian Serb troops under Mladic's command. Pasic was just 14 at the time and told of weeks of wanderings with his mother, being turned away from village after village.
Mladic faces 11 charges relating to the massacre in the enclave of Srebrenica in northeastern Bosnia in 1995, when almost 8,000 Muslim men and boys were murdered by Bosnian Serb troops under Mladic's command. The charges include genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
He also faces charges for the terrorising of the capital Sarajevo during 44 months of shelling and sniping that killed 10,000 people.
Prosecutors also hold him responsible for taking some 200 UN peacekeepers hostage and for allegedly ordering his troops to "cleanse" Bosnian towns, driving out Croats, Muslims and other non-Serb residents.
"There is nothing for you"
"Before the war we had a great time," Pasic told the court. "We were playing basketball and football, we used to do everything together. Muslim, Croats and Serbs, we were all having a great time, respecting each other."
Now 34 years old, Pasic spoke in English, carefully describing how he and his mother eventually circled back to their Muslim village despite a warning from two Serb soldiers patrolling nearby who told them "there is nothing for you to go back to: your home is Turkey, this is Serbia".
He described his excitement as they entered the village anyway. He raced up a shortcut to his family house only to find the Serb soldiers had told them the truth.
"The house was burned completely, the fridge, the televisions, the walls, what was left of the walls was stripped'' Pasic said.
Even a stash of clothing they buried when they left had been found and taken. Pasic's voice choked with tears as he described how he had hoped to find his dog alive, but found it shot where it was chained.
Most of the handful of people who had remained in his village, notably one elderly religious man whom Pasic knew, had been burned alive in their homes, Pasic testified. One had been shot.
At the same time that the prosecution was beginning, thousands lined the streets of Sarajevo to pay their respects to the remains of 520 victims of the Srebrenica massacre who will be buried on the 17th anniversary of the atrocity.
Three trucks loaded with 520 coffins passed through Sarajevo on their way to the Potocari cemetery near Srebrenica where they will be buried on Wednesday.
"Our children are returning to where they left from in 1995. Unfortunately, they are not alive," Munira Subasic, who heads an organisation of women of Srebrenica whose husbands and sons were killed, told the AFP news agency as she watched the vehicles.
Defence alleges rule changes
Having previously testified in other trials, Pasic will recall how he was separated from other men in his family and consequently "survived the execution of around 150 persons in November 1992 in the village of Grabovica," in northern Bosnia, according to the prosecution.
Judges paused for a recess in the mid-afternoon, with Pasic expected to testify next about Serb forces imprisoning and mistreating men, women and children at a makeshift detention camp in a nearby school.
Mladic's lawyers claimed in their written filing demanding more time that trial judges recently changed the rules governing what documentary evidence prosecutors can file. They said the changes would now let the prosecutors file significantly more evidence than previously allowed.
The defence motion said the change "is unprecedented in the history of the tribunal and threatens to be a significant blight to the integrity of these proceedings. Urgent action by the Chamber is required to avoid a very (great) potential miscarriage of justice.''
Mladic's trial started on May 16 but was almost immediately halted because prosecutors admitted that an apparent clerical error meant they failed to disclose thousands of pages of evidence to defence attorneys. If convicted, Mladic faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Mladic nodded his head in agreement at the start of Pasic's testimony, as Pasic told of good relations between Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats before the war.
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