"Even if I had seen him, I wouldn't tell you," said a rangy middle-aged man leaning over the fence of the house that until Thursday housed Europe's most-wanted man, Ratko Mladic. He spread his arms wide and grinned widely. "A great Serbian!" he said.
Mladic was among friends in Lazarevo. It was outsiders who finally secured his arrest at 5.30am on Thursday. Mladic was about to venture out for a pre-dawn walk when four men in fatigues leapt over the fence, bundled him into the house that belonged to his cousin Branislav and forced him to the ground. "I'm Ratko Mladic," he said, when told to identify himself, according to police officials.
The routine raid was the culmination of a long hunt for the once-feared Bosnian-Serb military leader. It was the first time the house had been searched. Security forces had no specific intelligence that Mladic had made the house his final bolthole during his years on the run – at first openly, and then, as the clamour for his arrest grew, covertly. He had been there before, arriving in one of several cars to go hunting with his cousin, according to Serb media reports, staying for several days at a time.
Mladic lived openly, without fear of arrest, until the downfall of his political protector, the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, and was seen in restaurants in Belgrade. In 2006, Mladic was believed to have been hiding for the most part in a suburb of the city where a large number of retired military officers stayed. Aides are said to have rented apartments and transferred him from flat to flat when they feared his arrest. They regularly changed his phone's SIM card and gave him food, medicine and his own cook. He allegedly walked around the flats wearing only socks so he was not heard by his neighbours.
As the net closed in on him, officials seized a video during a raid on one of his homes. It showed him dancing with his wife at his son's wedding in 1997 and cuddling a newborn granddaughter.
Footage from 2008 (when he was already walking with a stick) shows him laughing as his wife and daughter-in-law threw snowballs at him. But he remained at large. The Minister of the Interior, Ivica Dacic, claimed yesterday that Mladic had been in Lazarevo for several years, where he thought he would be safe, living in relative anonymity.
The one-storey house is as ordinary as the village, with beige pebble-dash walls, a red roof, and rusty brown gates leading to a yard which opens on to a small meadow at the back. At the front, some pink roses.Despite the intense interest yesterday, the family had stayed put with shutters half closed. Branislav Mladic, a bearded and sinewy man wearing a grey flat cap, returned from the fields just after noon in his tractor with a trailer packed with bales of clover.
It was clear why Mladic had decided to call the village home. Lazarevo, with a population around 3,000, is a pleasant settlement, neat and orderly, with attractive tree-lined streets and an air of civic respectability. The community noticeboard reveals it to be an essentially agricultural place. While there is a Fiat Punto for sale, and a computer, and a poster for a concert in a neighbouring village, most of the hand-written advertisements are for livestock and produce: corn, meat, lambs, goats, and no fewer than seven separate notices offering piglets for purchase.
The only sign of political activism is a yellowing poster stapled to a tree for a rally of the right-wing Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) in neighbouring Zrenjanin. A wall bears the slogan "Justice for Uros", in support of a Red Star Belgrade fan who attempted to stuff a lit flare into a policeman's mouth. It is incongruous in an otherwise well-kept and orderly place. But scratch the surface and it's clear that Mladic was among friends. A local Orthodox priest, who asked not to be named, said that he had visited Branislav Mladic's house on 15 April, and had seen no sign of Europe's most-wanted man.
The priest led a special mass on Thursday night to pray for "the health of all Christians, and amongst them Ratko Mladic". The ceremony was unusually well attended. Tears were shed and candles lit for Mladic's well-being.
Resting under the shade of a sycamore, outside the Mala Gospodina Church, the priest and his friend, Momcil Zivkovic, described the mass as a "peaceful protest".
Zivkovic, a thick-set unemployed man aged 61, articulated the view held by many Serbs of all ages, including, it seems, much of Lazarevo – that Mladic is a great man, wronged by the Serbian government and the international community. "He's not the first Serb to go to The Hague," Zivkovic said. "We're used to it. They're fabricated allegations."
He added that Branislav Mladic was a "decent, ordinary man" and the family "decent, respected, real Serbs".
The view was confirmed by a driver of a van who pulled over as if preparing to shout abuse. "Write that he was a hero! A hero!" he shouted.