THE HAGUE - As his trial for genocide and war crimes opened on Wednesday, May 16, Bosnia Serb general Ratko Mladic taunted Muslim survivors of Europe's worst massacre since World War Two.
By the time Mladic and his troops murdered thousands in Srebrenica, prosecutor Dermot Groome told the court as cited by The New York Times.
They were well-rehearsed in the craft of murder.
Mladic was the commander of the Serb forces during the 1992-95 Bosnia civil war.
He faces charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes for his role in the Srebrenica massacre and the bloody siege of Sarajevo, in which more than 10,000 people were killed by snipers, machineguns and heavy artillery.
At the beginning of his trial, Mladic taunted Srebrenica Muslim survivors, running his hand across his throat in a gesture of defiance, Reuters reported.
In the packed public seating area, a mother of one of the Srebrenica victims whispered "vulture" several times as prosecutors opened their case.
Later, Mladic made eye contact with one of the Muslim women in the audience, running a hand across his throat, in a gesture that led Presiding judge Alphons Orie to hold a brief recess and order an end to "inappropriate interactions."
Wearing a dark suit and tie, he sat, spectacles in hand, listening intently and jotting notes as prosecutors made their opening remarks.
Srebrenica was a UN-protected Muslim enclave until July 11, 1995, when it was overrun by Serb forces.
More than 8,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered and buried in mass graves.
The Srebrenica massacre has been termed genocide by the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Tribunal.
Displaying a series of maps and charts in the courtroom, the prosecutor said the Serbs had pursued policies of ethnic cleansing to redraw the geographic and demographic outline of the areas under their control to ensure the separation of the Serbian people from the other two national communities of Bosnian Muslims and Croats.
Ethnic cleansing was the purpose of military action rather than a consequence of war, he said, citing the strategic objectives embraced by the Bosnian Serb authorities.
The case has stirred up deep emotions in the Balkans and Wednesday's proceedings were broadcast live on big screens in Sarajevo.
"I hope that many of those who are disillusioned and believe that Mladic is a Serb hero will change their minds, and that the trial will demonstrate that he was just a criminal and a coward," Fikret Grabovica, president of the association of parents and children killed in the siege of Sarajevo, told Reuters.
"My father is gone and the agony continues for the victims," said Bosnian Muslim Sudbin Music, who represents a group of wartime prisoners.
"Even if Mladic lives until the verdict, it will bring only mild satisfaction for the victims of Srebrenica and hundreds of other places in the Serb Republic.
Video footage of the Srebrenica massacre showed Mladic mingling with Muslim prisoners.
Shortly afterwards, the men and boys were separated from the women, stripped of identification, and shot.
The dead were bulldozed into mass graves, then later dug up with excavators and hauled away in trucks to be better hidden from the world, in dozens of remote mass graves.
Outside the court in The Hague, two dozen mothers of victims of the Srebrenica massacre gathered.
"Mladic, the greatest murder of innocent people and children," read a sign held by one of the Muslim mothers.
Kada Hotic, who lost her 29-year son, husband and two brothers, said she was worried Mladic might not live long enough for the verdict, like the late Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who died during his trial.Mladic's mentor, Milosevic, the architect of the Balkan wars, died in detention in 2006, a few months before a verdict in his trial for genocide and other war crimes in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.