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

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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

The Hague, Netherlands CNN  — 

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.

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.