"Thank god you have come," Hasan Djanarovic told me, eyes watering. "We have seen no one in eight months. There are 70,000 of us here – no water, no food – people are dying."
Eighteen years ago, in November 1992, along with a party of journalists I got into Srebrenica, the besieged Muslim enclave in eastern Bosnia that has become synonymous with the savagery of General Ratko Mladic, the self-styled saviour of Serbia whose capture yesterday brings to a close one of the longest manhunts in recent history. Around the world, his arrest and forthcoming trial before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia have been greeted as an event that will hopefully bring "closure" to the bloody Balkan wars of the Nineties.
I doubt Hasan's relatives will feel much "closure" – though what precisely happened to him after 1992 I never knew. General Mladic, whose forces had then been besieging the town for eight months, was furious about the decision of his political superior, Radovan Karadzic, to let reporters into Srebrenica. The place was virtually sealed off from then on until July 1995, when Bosnian Serb troops finally rolled in past a token force of UN Dutch peacekeepers. What happened then has passed into history as by far the worst single atrocity of an otherwise atrocious three-year war between Bosnia's Serbs, Muslims and Croats.
Mladic ordered the systematic execution of every male his men could get hold of – about 7,000 in all. It was no orgy of bloodlust, carried out in a moment of passion. The mass murder of the men, and boys, of Srebrenica took at least six days to accomplish from 13 to 19 July, during which time he sent out decoys into the surroundings, combing the forests, calling for the men hiding there to come down.
Most of these decoys were elderly Muslim captives, marched through the forests with a gun at their heads, parroting lines their captors ordered them to shout out. All the men in hiding had to do was surrender and hand over their weapons, they said. In return, they would be escorted to the Muslim-held Tuzla, further west. Tragically, many took the bait and were shot along with all the rest, their bodies dumped in mass graves or thrown into ravines.
Chilling film footage still survives of Mladic on his victory parade in Srebrenica, looking victorious but somehow avuncular. Portly and sweating in his tight uniform in the summer heat, he can be seen patting Muslim children on the head with pudgy hands, handing out a few sweets and telling the children's terrified-looking parents – milling helplessly round the UN base in Potocari – that they had nothing to fear.
Quite why he then had the men and a good many small boys of Srebrenica killed in such a systematic, indiscriminate fashion is a mystery. It is one of the questions tormenting the members of survivors' groups such as the Women of Srebrenica, who don't just want some belated justice done on behalf of their dead sons, husbands and brothers – they also want to know why.
Srebrenica was a fly in the Serbian ointment, a half-starved, inaccessible and inhospitable place, perched in the mountains. Cut off by miles from the rest of Muslim and Croat-held territory in Bosnia, it posed no military threat to the Bosnian Serb forces that had overrun 70 per cent of the former Yugoslav republic at the start of the Bosnian war in spring 1992.
True, the embattled townsmen, under their commander, Naser Oric, made sorties into the Serb-held countryside and numbers of Serb villagers were killed on these raiding parties conducted primarily in search of food. But by the grim standards of the Bosnian war nothing had happened in and around Srebrenica to merit or explain Mladic's decision, seemingly his alone, to earmark the people of Srebrenica for mass liquidation.
Psychologists in Serbia and Bosnia have since tried to place the massacre in some kind of personal context, sourcing Mladic's desire for revenge on a grand scale in childhood memories of the Second World War, when many members of the Mladic family were killed in Bosnia.
None of these explanations truly convinces. Mladic was born in spring 1942 and was three when the war ended, so those supposedly traumatic memories can have been only second hand, and in any case, the persecutors of his family were Yugoslavia's Nazi German occupiers and their Croat Fascist allies. The Bosnian Muslims were bit players in the war, some supporting the Croats, some backing Tito's Communist partisans, most keeping their heads down.
The irony of Mladic's butchery in Srebrenica is that the result was the polar opposite of what he and his ally in Belgrade, President Slobodan Milosevic, intended – a knockout blow that terrified the Muslims into all-out surrender, so ending Bosnia's war on Serbia's terms.
For three years, the West had dithered, wrung its hands over Bosnia and done little. Srebrenica changed everything. Shocked by the carnage, the US abruptly took its muzzle off Croatia, which within weeks, in early August, launched a massive offensive against Serb positions in Croatia. A simultaneous, combined Croatian-Bosnian Muslim attack in Bosnia itself – coupled with heavy Nato air strikes on Serb positions round Sarajevo – routed Mladic's allegedly invincible army in days. With the Croats poised to march into the main Bosnian Serb city of Banja Luka, the Serbs hurried to the negotiating table they had once scorned. The outcome was the November 1995 Dayton Ohio peace deal, which closed the war in Bosnia and Croatia on terms radically different from those that Mladic and Milosevic had conceived.
The Serbs paid a huge price for Mladic's bloodlust in Srebrenica – the loss of every inch of Serb-held territory in Croatia, and the creation of a mere autonomous Serbian "entity" in 49 per cent of Bosnia. Mladic's great massacre destroyed the nationalist dream of a greater Serbia. Mladic, in that sense, left Serbia smaller than he found it.
Lord Ashdown, who was High Representative to Bosnia from 2002 to 2007, said Mladic's trial would "be a chance for the whole Balkan region to put the past behind them". Would it were that simple. Justice may be done to Ratko Mladic – at last – but the damage he inflicted on so many lives is more than his own belated trial can repair.