Ratko Mladic

Dutch UN peacekeepers sit on top of an armored personnel carrier in 1995 while Muslim refugees from eastern Bosnia gather in the village of Potocari, some 5 km north of Srebrenica.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

SREBRENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — They’re coming on bicycle from Switzerland, by plane from the U.S. and Australia. From Bosnian towns and villages they’re heading through the woods on foot joining thousands of other pilgrims.

The occasion is a somber one that’s also marked by solace: the funeral next Monday of 613 newly identified victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.

The burial is a yearly event marking the July 11 anniversary of Europe’s worst massacre since the Nazi era. This year, the commemorations are particularly special because of the May capture of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander accused of orchestrating the execution of 8,000 Muslim men and boys — and now standing trial on genocide charges in The Hague.

The event attracts more people than Srebrenica, a town of about 4,000 people, has residents. Historians, former townsfolk, Bosnians from all over the world come to take part in round table discussions, performances and a march along the route through the woods survivors took in 1995 to escape death.

The week of reflection and commemoration culminates with the burial of hundreds of bodies found in mass graves and identified through DNA analysis.

The ceremonies have caused more division in this ethnically divided town, where Serbs and Muslims shop at rival butcher shops and hold deeply conflicting views of history.

On Monday, a Serb was arrested for driving up and down town waving an ultranationalist flag and playing patriotic songs as Mladic appeared at his hearing at the International War Crimes Tribunal.

Muslims say they’re struggling to keep historical memory alive in a hostile environment where majority Serbs continue to worship Mladic and former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, also on trial at the Hague.

Mladic’s “genocidal policy is nowhere near to being defeated here,” said Damir Pestalic, the local imam.

Srebrenica was under the protection of the United Nations during the 1992-95 Bosnian war but the outnumbered Dutch troops never shot a bullet when Serb forces commanded by Mladic overran Srebrenica on July 11, 1995.

Over 15,000 men headed through the mountains toward government-held territory but many of them never made it as they were hunted down by Serb forces and killed.

Every year, thousands march that escape route backward, praying at sites of mass graves along the way.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Ratko Mladic, who will appear in public Friday for the first time since his arrest when he goes before a war crimes judge, was “extremely cooperative” when finally taken into U.N. custody after 16 years as a fugitive, a court official said Wednesday.

John Hocking, the registrar of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, said the wartime Bosnian Serb military commander understood him clearly when Hocking spoke to him Tuesday night, shortly after Mladic was extradited from Belgrade in a Serbian government business jet.

Hocking, the tribunal’s senior administrative official, described the rules and regulations of the detention block that will be the ex-general’s home until the end of his trial on charges of genocide and orchestrating Serb atrocities throughout the Bosnian war.

Hocking said a doctor who examined the 69-year-old Mladic saw no medical problems to prevent him being taken into the tribunal’s detention unit but declined to provide details about Mladic’s health, citing privacy concerns.

The descriptions of Mladic’s health and powers of concentration appear to be at odds with those of Mladic’s Belgrade lawyer, who has said the ex-general is too weak mentally and physically to face a complex and lengthy war crimes trial. Mladic’s family says he has suffered at least two strokes while on the run.

Mladic will appear in court for the first time Friday morning when a judge will ask him to confirm his identity and give him the chance to enter pleas to the 11 charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Tribunal Chief Prosecutor Serge Brammertz praised Serbia’s pro-Western President Boris Tadic for having Mladic arrested, but also rued how long it took to detain Europe’s most-wanted war crimes fugitive, who was first indicted in 1995 while war was still raging around him.

“Sixteen years is a long time to wait for justice,” Brammertz told reporters at the court. “It has happened very late, but not too late.”

Mladic “was the most powerful military figure in Bosnia during the war and he is charged with crimes that shocked the conscience of the international community ... and symbolize the brutality of the war in Bosnia,” Brammertz said.

The 1992-95 Bosnian war left about 100,000 people dead and forced 1.8 million to flee their homes.

Hocking said he discussed with Mladic how he would mount his defense against the charges, but said Mladic has not yet indicated his plans.

Several high-profile leaders prosecuted at the tribunal, including former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, have acted as their own defense attorneys and used their trials as platforms to spread their political message.

Mladic was captured Thursday at the home of a relative in a Serbian village. Judges in Belgrade rejected his appeal to delay his transfer on grounds of ill health, and the Serbian justice minister authorized his handover to U.N. officials in The Hague.

Of the 161 suspects indicted by the U.N. court since its establishment in 1993, only one remains on the run — Goran Hadzic, a leader of rebel Serbs in Croatia.