It was genocide on a scale not seen in Europe since the holocaust.
In July, 1995, a Serbian-backed paramilitary unit slaughtered 8000 men and boys in the small Bosnian town of Srebrenica.
The man who ordered the massacre was General Ratko Mladic - known, for his terrible cruelty, as the Butcher of Bosnia.
The hunt for Mladic has taken 16 long years and it was two determined Australians who finally brought one of the world's most notorious war criminals to justice.
LIAM BARTLETT: Srebrenica is a pretty town nestled in a quiet valley in Bosnia. But in the early 90s, it was the scene of racial hatred and wholesale murder, when ancient religious rivalries exploded into full-scale war. Friends turned on friends, life-long neighbours became mortal enemies.
DEAN: It’s a war which as an Australian, I’ve always said and still don’t, ‘I don’t understand it.’ I mean, in Australia if we woke up one morning and they said ‘look, all Presbyterians are bad or all Catholics are bad’ and our Government said, ‘you must go out and kill those people’ we’d say, ‘You’ve lost the plot. Are you for real?’
LIAM BARTLETT: But it was General Ratko Mladic, commander of the Bosnian Serb Army, who turned civil war to genocide when he stormed into Srebrenica in 1995 and ordered one of the most brutal war crimes in history – a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Bosnian Muslims on a scale not seen since the days of Adolf Hitler. Mladic came down this road as what, part of a victory parade?
DEAN: Exactly, He actually said that he had taken back Srebrenica from the Muslims. He’d recovered the city and gave it as a gift to the Serb people.
LIAM BARTLETT: Dean Manning, an Australian Federal policeman, has spent six years as an investigator in one of the biggest crime scenes in the world, preparing the case against General Mladic. He will testify how Mladic incited his men to hunt down, capture and execute Muslims.
DEAN: He said that here in front of his men.
LIAM BARTLETT: What does that mean to his men?
DEAN: ‘Take revenge – kill them’ and that’s what they did.
LIAM BARTLETT: The murderous directive was carried out with such cold-blooded efficiency, it was over in just three days – some of it even recorded by the killers for their home videos. Srebrenica was sealed off, women were raped and 8,000 men and boys executed.
DEAN: What they intended to do was destroy the population – they took the men and killed them and they took the boys – so they couldn’t become men – and they killed them.
LIAM BARTLETT: The males were separated into groups and held at various staging points, like this warehouse on the outskirts of town. Despite the clear evidence on video, Dean must prove forensically that Mladic masterminded the atrocity.
DEAN: They were shoulder-to-shoulder packed into this warehouse. They were killed here. They were executed by small-arms fire and grenades. There are explosive marks on the wall, there are bullet strikes, there are human remains, there are pieces of skin and hair and they’re still here on the wall.
NURA: That’s him.
LIAM BARTLETT: That is Azmir? The evidence being uncovered is actually giving some comfort to mothers and widows of Srebrenica. This videotape, agonising to watch, provided Nura with the first glimpse of her son after he disappeared. Do you watch this video often?
NURA: In the evenings about twice a week, I look at these pictures. I still want to see him. Even though he is dead, I still want to see him.
LIAM BARTLETT: Azmir was 16, he wanted to be a doctor. He ran away from the advancing Serbs but returned home to collect some food.
NURA: I gave him some corn bread and he ran away with all the others. But soon after that, he came back and I asked him, “why did you come back, son?” And he said, “I forgot to kiss you and give you a hug.” I knew straight away I would never see him again.
LIAM BARTLETT: Soon after that, Azmir fell into the hands of the Scorpions, a notorious unit of the Serb Army. He and other Muslim teenagers were taken to a lonely valley and one by one, shot in the back.
BOB: It’s chilling, absolutely chilling. I’m just thinking, ‘what has this world come to…Just to see people just mowed down and just executed in cold blood,’ you know? And they were no threat whatsoever to anybody.
LIAM BARTLETT: As head of the investigative team at the War Crimes Tribunal in Holland, former Sydney detective Bob Reid led the manhunt for General Mladic. The General was dubbed the ‘Butcher of Bosnia’ in a conflict between Yugoslavia’s three ethnic groups – Orthodox Christian Serbs, Roman Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosnians.
BOB: I mean, we’re talking about people who lived together for centuries.
LIAM BARTLETT: Side by side.
BOB: Yeah. Where Muslim married Croat who married Serb and they were all intermingled.
LIAM BARTLETT: Srebrenica was under the protection of the United Nations – a peacekeeping force of 200 Dutch soldiers based at this old factory that served as their compound. But they were hopelessly outnumbered and when the Serbs began rounding up the men and boys, feared they’d be next.
CROWD SPEAKER: For independent television in Belgrade, what’s going on here today? You know what’s going on.
LIAM BARTLETT: Hasan Nuhanovic knew exactly what was going on.
HASAN: It was clear to me that the Serbs started killing the men outside of the compound.
LIAM BARTLETT: For two years, he’d worked here as a UN interpreter and was safe inside the compound gates. Hasan begged the UN soldiers to also shelter his father Ibro, mother Nezir and his younger brother, Mohammed.
HASAN: The only thing I was thinking about was how to keep my family inside.
LIAM BARTLETT: How to keep them alive?
HASAN: Staying in the compound meant you stay alive. Leaving the compound meant you get killed.
LIAM BARTLETT: But the UN soldiers decided only Hasan could stay – his family was ordered out of the compound.
HASAN: So, I was saying at that moment that I was going to go out with them and my brother turned around and he screamed at me. He said, “you’re not coming. You can stay, so you stay.” And I never saw them again in my life.
LIAM BARTLETT: Hasan and thousands like him would never know the fate of their loved ones, if not for dedicated investigators like Dean Manning. This is where Hassan’s brother and father were brought to die?
DEAN: Exactly. They took them off in groups and they shot them in groups and we know that. So, if you’re sitting on the bus waiting your turn to die, you’re hearing the executions and you know what’s going to happen to you. You know what’s next. And we’re talking boys of 12 years of age. You’re talking a 10-year-old, a 12-year-old, his father, his uncle, his brother, his grandfather.
LIAM BARTLETT: While his foot soldiers carried out the killing, General Ratko Mladic was back in Srebrenica deciding who would live and who would die. The killings were a total humiliation for the UN – within weeks NATO planes bombed the Serb forces and brought the war to a sudden end. But General Mladic had vanished and it was a Sydney cop’s dogged detective work that finally tracked him down.
BOB: The message needs to be sent out that it doesn’t matter what you do during a war, if you breach the Conventions, if you commit crimes, then you will be tracked down and you will be tried.
LIAM BARTLETT: On the wanted list for 16 years, the General was finally tracked down to this little street about an hour out of Belgrade and the home of his cousin, Branye. Now, when investigators turned up at 5:45am, they found a very different Ratko Mladic hiding inside. Gone was the tough guy strut, the hard man of the war. When the arresting officer asked him who he was, he meekly replied, “Congratulations, I’m the one you’ve been looking for.”
LIAM BARTLETT: It was on a farm like this that your cousin murdered 2,000 people. How do you feel about that? Branye was busy feeding his pigs. But when he saw we weren’t going away, he did what his killer cousin did all those years ago – he bolted. How long were you sheltering your cousin?
BRANYE: Five years.
LIAM BARTLETT: Now 70, Mladic may spend whatever years he has left in this prison in Holland, where he’s now standing trial.
JUDGE: Mr Mladic, would you be so kind to focus your attention on the chamber and remove your cap please?
LIAM BARTLETT: In his first appearance, the once mighty General staged a childish tantrum – a futile act of defiance against the War Crimes Tribunal.
JUDGE: Mr Mladic, the Court orders that you be removed from the courtroom.
MLADIC: This is not a court. Who are you?
LIAM BARTLETT: Even after 16 years, thousands of Mladic’s victims remain unidentified. But one by one, their bodies are being pieced back together, their DNA matched with living relatives.
FORENSICS OFFICER: This is a male aged between 35 and 45.
LIAM BARTLETT: For Dean Manning and Bob Reid, it’s a case of piecing together the evidence that will not only see Mladic convicted, but reveal to the world the full horror of those three days in Srebrenica.
DEAN: What I want to see is a trial where the world is shown what he did. I want to see the truth come out and be shown to the world that he murdered people. I want to see him sitting in that courtroom and hear the verdict.