The fierce loyalty Mladic commanded during the war was undiminished in the former Bosnian Serb stronghold of Pale, in mountains close to Sarajevo.
“He was an honest and dignified officer, who taught us to defend our land and our people,” said Novica Kapuran, a decorated Serb war veteran. “He never told us to kill anyone, to slaughter anyone. Even when we captured a Muslim soldier, he used to tell us to hand him over to intelligence services, so this guy could be exchanged.”
Though Mladic appeared to speak with some difficulty, his stare was as steely as during the war when he was the strutting leader of the Bosnian Serb army, and he appeared to understand the proceedings clearly.
Mladic’s one-time political boss, former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic, also appeared Friday in a neighboring courtroom for his own trial on identical charges of masterminding Serb atrocities.
Mladic and Karadzic were indicted together in 1995. Karadzic was arrested on a Belgrade bus in 2008 and his trial began 18 months ago.
Mothers and widows from Srebrenica were among the dozens of people watching the arraignment from a public gallery separated from the courtroom by a wall of bulletproof glass. “Butcher! Monster!” shouted one woman as the hearing was adjourned. Mladic could see but not hear her through the glass partition.
One man stood outside court with a white banner emblazoned in red letters with the text: “Mladic, butcher of Srebrenica!”
While Mladic said he wanted to “live to see that I am a free man,” the war survivors expressed fears he may be too ill to survive a trial that is expected to take years.
That fate overcame former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who died of a heart attack in his cell in 2006 before his trial could finish.
Munira Subasic, head of the Mothers of Srebrenica Association, said she had mixed feelings about Mladic’s appearance.
“Happy to be here to see, once again, the bloody eyes of the criminal who slaughtered our children in 1995,” she said. “And I am sad because many mothers didn’t live to see this — mothers who found bones belonging to their children, buried them without heads and hands and the only wish they had was for him to be arrested. But they didn’t live to see it.”
In the gallery, Subasic became emotional as Orie read out details of the Srebrenica massacre, sighing deeply, holding her head in her hands and wiping her eyes.
Mladic finally was arrested last week by Belgrade security authorities in a move expected to speed Serbia’s accession to the European Union.
AP writers Arthur Max in The Hague, Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Eldar Emric and Radul Radovanovic in Bosnia contributed to this report.