AP Exclusive: Boy in Mladic video looks back
PROHICI, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — The video horrified the world: a grinning Ratko Mladic patting a young Muslim boy on the head and assuring him everyone in the Srebrenica area would be safe — just hours before overseeing the murder of 8,000 Muslim men and boys.
The boy in the video is now a 24-year-old man. He clearly recalls the sunny day in July 1995 when he met the Bosnian Serb military commander who gave him chocolate.
"I was 8 and I didn't know what was going on or who Ratko Mladic was," Izudin Alic told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview.
Mladic, 69, was captured May 26 by Serbian intelligence agents after 16 years on the run and the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague plans to try him on charges of genocide and war crimes.
In 1995, Alic was among thousands of Bosnian Muslims who fled to the Srebrenica area seeking the protection of U.N. troops. That July evening, he joined other kids flocking to a field where they heard an important soldier was handing out chocolate.
"I went there with other children and took that chocolate bar from Ratko Mladic," said Alic, a lanky man with sunken eyes. "He asked me what my name was and I said 'Izudin.' I was not afraid. I was just focused on the chocolate."
Alic's grandfather had forbidden him to go, but he sneaked out of the factory where the family was hiding because he couldn't resist the lure of chocolate.
He was devouring it with gratitude while his father, Sahzet, was being hunted down by Mladic's men in the nearby woods. His father had fled the night before along with 15,000 other Srebrenica men, moving through mountains and minefields. Mladic's troops soon caught up with them.
"He was found years ago in one of the mass graves," Alic said, flipping through a photo album showing the family in a garden in front of their home.
The video that captured Mladic patting Alic on the head generated worldwide revulsion because of the contrast between the military commander's feigned benevolence and the reality of the massacre to come. Mladic paraded among Bosnian refugees, smilingly promising evacuation with his soldiers handing out chocolate to kids.
In the video, Mladic asked Alic his age, and Alic responded, "Twelve." He says he lied to appear older, not realizing the risks. The youngest known Srebrenica victim was 14.
The whereabouts of the boy in the video have been a mystery for years, even though he clearly stated his name in the footage as Izudin. Some thought he was dead, others that he had emigrated. The Association of Mothers of Srebrenica even suggested at one point that reporters search for him among Srebrenica refugees in the United States.
The AP began searching for him after Mladic's capture.
A break came when the AP came across a group of young men who claimed to have been among the children given chocolate by Mladic. They identified the boy from the video as Alic, a Bosnian Muslim in the village of Prohici — and AP tracked him down there.
He and his mother, Fatima, showed an AP reporter family photo albums of Alic as a boy bearing a striking resemblance to the youth in the video. He also was shown the famous video and identified himself as the youth patted on the head by Mladic.
The United Nations had declared the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica, besieged by Serbs throughout the conflict, a protected area for civilians. When Mladic's troops overran the enclave, 20,000 people flocked to the U.N. base outside Srebrenica for protection.
So did the Alic family — young Izudin, his two sisters, his mother and his grandfather.
When Serb troops reached the base, the outgunned and outnumbered Dutch peacekeepers never fired a shot, and Mladic's troops began separating out the men and older boys for execution.
The family returned to settle in Prohici, just outside Srebrenica, a few years after the war.
Alic earns a living as a construction worker and making sandwiches at a fast-food stand. He often prays at his father's grave in the town's memorial center, where thousands of Mladic's victims — unearthed from mass graves — were finally laid to rest.
For Alic and his family, some solace came when Mladic was captured in a village north of Belgrade.
"I was glad," Alic said. "He should get the biggest sentence possible. He killed my father, my uncle and so many of our people."