For the women of Srebrenica – wives who lost their husbands, daughters robbed of their fathers and brother, mothers who buried sons – it was a day they thought would never come, as Radovan Karadzic appeared in the dock, accused of masterminding and marshalling a campaign of genocide against the Bosnian Muslims.
Shorn of his beard and spiritual healer disguise that helped him evade capture for more than decade, the Karadzic standing in The Hague before the UN War Crimes Tribunal yesterday cut a more familiar figure, if a more haggard one. His chin looked red and sore with stubble-rash, his eyes were hooded, and the salt and pepper bouffant had turned white. A new tic was evident, as he chewed his lip while the horrifying indictment was read to him.
His monosyllabic answers to the opening questions from Judge Alphons Orie seemed to hint at a more subdued character, but as the hearing unfolded Mr Karadzic became increasingly animated and it became clear his confidence and ability to grandstand was still there. Then came the resurrected revelations. The US had made a deal with him to go underground at the end of the Bosnian war, he insisted, and was trying to silence him even now. He said Richard Holbrooke, the senior US diplomat who crafted the Dayton peace accord that ultimately ended the war, had cut the deal. "I would withdraw from public life and make certain gestures and in return the US would fulfil its commitments," said the former Bosnian-Serb leader, psychiatrist and part-time poet. "My commitment was to withdraw and not to endanger in any way the implementation of the Dayton agreement, to withdraw even from literary life."
The judge interrupted before the 63-year-old could elaborate on the US side of the bargain, suggesting that this was not "the appropriate moment". But Mr Karadzic was undeterred. "I believe that it's very important for my fate, for my legal position," he went on. "I have to show why I'm appearing before this court only now, not in 1996 or 97 or 98 when I had the intention of appearing here. My life was in danger of being liquidated because I had made a deal."
Again the judge cut in, again to no avail. "This is a matter of life and death," Mr Karadzic said. "If Mr Holbrooke still wants my death and regrets that there is no death sentence in this court, I wonder if his arm is long enough to reach me here."
Similar allegations have been put forward by the defendant's family before, and denied by Mr Holbrooke. Yet, coming directly form the former fugitive, it made for an explosive start to what could be a marathon case. And the initial hearing offered a taster of his tactics. He has already torn a leaf out of the book of his former mentor Slobodan Milosevic, eschewing a defence lawyer. Responding to the judge's observation that he had no counsel in court yesterday, Mr Karadzic quipped: "I have an invisible adviser but I have decided to represent myself."
Dressed in a navy suit and patterned tie, a briefcase by his side, Mr Karadzic looked a little like a university professor past his prime. He remained composed and respectful of the court throughout the 70-minute hearing, but there are fears that he may be tempted to adopt the angry hectoring and lengthy invective favoured by Mr Milosevic. This was widely blamed for that trial dragging on for four years, and ultimately allowing the Serbian strongman to evade justice, dying in his cell in 2006 before a verdict could be delivered. Elizabeth Evenson, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch, said: "Self-representation is indeed a right but if Mr Karadzic uses that to obstruct trial proceedings as Mr Milosevic did, then the court should step in and take action."
Before the trial, prosecutor Serge Brammertz was keen to reassure the world that the lessons had been learnt and said he was "fully aware of the importance of being efficient". But Mr Karadzic yesterday voiced concern that there was too much of a focus on speed. "Speed matters in a showdown between gunslingers, but it has no place in court," he said. He declined to enter a plea in response to the 11 counts against him, crimes that prosecutors have described as "scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of history". These include the Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in five days and the 43-month siege of Sarajevo that killed 10,000.
Mr Karadzic confirmed his name, and two addresses, one for his wife's house in Pale, and the other in Belgrade where he lived under what he called his "unofficial assumed identity", as a spiritual healer, Dragan Dabic. Later, he complained that he had been "kidnapped" and held in an unknown location for three days before his arrest was officially announced by the Serbian authorities last week. And he said he had been denied a "telephone call or even a text message" to people who might have been "scouring the hospital and morgues for me". The judge advised him to submit his complaints to the tribunal in writing, and adjourned the case until 29 August, whenMr Karadzic must enter a plea or have a "not guilty" one entered for him.
In Srebrenica, where more than a third of the victims of the massacre are still missing, there was joy, and anger. "There is the trash," said one widow in the small office of the Association of the Mothers of Srebrenica when Mr Karadzic appeared on television. Three other women burst into tears. "I have not found one bone of my children yet and there he is, alive," said Ramiza Music, 52, who lost two teenage sons, a husband and two brothers in the Srebrenica massacre. "Today I feel there is a bit of justice in this otherwise really pitiful world."
Inside the 'Hague Hilton'
The 15 square metres that are now home to Radovan Karadzic have been dubbed the Hague Hilton. Kitted out with formica furniture, corner bathroom, television and computer; it's more college digs than high-security jailhouse.
The red-brick detention unit for the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal is housed in a Dutch prison compound, a 10-minute drive from the court and close to the seaside resort of Scheveningen. With the hour's outdoor exercise that Mr Karadzic is permitted each day, he should be able to smell the salt air blowing in off the North Sea.
His 37 fellow inmates, who have an average age of 57, are a mixture of former allies and old enemies from the Balkans wars. But testimony from released inmates suggests the ethnic rivalries that ripped the region apart have mellowed, and the prisoners play darts and table football together.