Analysis: In this battle with Mladic, women of Srebrenica hold the edge

An elderly woman and her husband are treated for injuries inflicted by Serb military forces as they fled Srebrenica in July 1995.

Story highlights

  • Ratko Mladic seems almost eager to fight all comers to the bitter end, says Nic Robertson
  • Robertson: The women of Srebrenica occupy the moral high ground in this battle
  • In Bosnia, the war is an awkward topic and a bane to the nation's future, he says
  • Robertson: If justice isn't sufficient, then Bosnians will be hostage to their history

Seventeen years after the end of the war, Ratko Mladic gives the impression he is still on the battlefield in what was once Yugoslavia, staring down his enemy, glowering across the courtroom. Even gesticulating death threats.

What the former Bosnian Serb military commander hopes to gain and exactly what he is trying to defend are unclear. He may be the only one who expects an outcome other than guilty.

He seems almost eager to fight all comers to the bitter end.

The women of Srebrenica are in the Hague too. All these years later, they stand before him, with international justice on their side.

These women -- the widows, mothers, victims of one of the worst atrocities since World War II -- occupy the moral high ground. They will not be moved.

Mladic shows no remorse

But they have sunk so low in despair and desolation that even a bone unearthed in a mass grave raises spirits -- maybe something tangible from a loved one, something to cling to, a hint that truth and justice may not escape them.

Almost 1,000 miles away, most of Bosnia goes about its business with little talk of the war; life goes on. If a question is unwittingly asked by an outsider, it is met with grace, but it hangs awkwardly over the conversation, like an unwanted guest at a dinner table everyone would rather not be there.

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So back here, in a courtroom in the Netherlands, it is the women of Srebrenica who have the moral weight to slug it out. Eight thousand murders in Srebrenica alone. This is what gives their families such power: There are so many of them.

They've become a force Mladic must reckon with, by proxy of course. The international community, in the form of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), controls this courtroom battlefield. They are such a force, in fact, that the whole country must listen, too, awkward or not. No amount of reconciliation -- not that there is a lot -- can really happen until the women of Srebrenica and their families get the justice they are looking for.

Can their moral high ground be shared with other Bosnians? Can the country untether itself from the weight of this anchor on progress? If so, then a bigger battle will have been won in the Hague.

Ratko Mladic: Villain to many, hero to others

Will a guilty verdict in the battle still playing out in the courtroom here be enough to win -- Mladic vanquished to jail, banished from the battlefield by a long sentence?

If not, then no prison sentence will bring back the dead, rectify the wrongs, and Bosnians hopeful of a better future will be hostage to their history and to those who more than anyone deserve a better future, the families of Srebrenica.

      Ratko Mladic Trial

    • WITH AFP STORY BOSNIA-WAR-ANNIVERSARY (FILES) A 11 July 1995 file photo shows an elderly Muslim woman and her husband getting treatment for injuries inflicted on them by Serb military forces as they fled the east Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica as it was overrun by Bosnian Serb forces and saw some 7000 men go missing allegedly massacred in the hands of indicted war criminal Ratko Mladic. The man on the right died shortly after the picture was taken. Bosnia on April 6, 2012 marks 20 years since the start of a war that has left the country's Muslims, Serbs and Croats deeply divided as some warn it could become Europe's failed state. AFP PHOTO/Odd ANDERSEN (Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)

      With 8,000 murders in Srebrenica alone, the victims' widows and mothers of these atrocities occupy the moral high ground in this battle.
    • WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 2: David Scheffer, US Ambassador at large for war crimes points to a wanted poster showing Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic during a press conference 02 March 2000 at the US State Department in Washington, DC. The State Department is stepping up its efforts for the arrest and conviction of the three who were indicted last May by an international tribunal in the Netherlands for alleged crimes against ethnic Albanians in Kososvo. (Photo credit should read GEORGE BRIDGES/AFP/Getty Images)

      Mladic's arrest in Serbia brought to an end a 16-year manhunt for the highest-profile suspect still at large from the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
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