BOZANOVICI, Bosnia (Reuters) - The sign nailed to a tree marking one of the few paved roads bears the name of the village’s favourite son: “General Mladic Street”.
In a garage that serves as the makeshift tavern, his portrait looks down on the men who spend the day sharing a bottle of brandy.
Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military commander who will hear his verdict on charges of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity next week in the Hague, is one of the highest profile war crimes suspects in Europe since Nuremberg.
In the international court where his trial began more than five years ago, he is accused of ordering the killing of 8,000 unarmed Muslim men and boys after the capture of the town of Srebrenica, and raining artillery on civilians during the siege of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo.
But here in his home village, where barely two dozen people -- mostly his blood relatives -- still remain in the hardscrabble countryside of the Bosnian hills, Mladic is, as the slogan on his portrait above the drinkers declares, “a hero”.
“He did not do such things. Others did it. The general is a colossus, a great and good man,” said Zoran Mladic, one of several villagers who identify themselves as cousins of the ex-general.
Mladic, who was captured in 2011 after a decade and a half on the run, is still revered in the Serb sector of Bosnia as a hero and defender of the nation during the 1992-1995 war that killed more than 100,000 people.
In his native village of crumbling cabins scattered across the slopes, every home has his portrait. Villagers pay him the ultimate compliment: he was a good worker, who often came back to visit, and a useful hand bringing in the harvest as a reaper in the fields.
“He did not kill people. During the war he gathered our Muslim neighbours from a nearby village and warned them in time to leave,” said Dusko Mladic, another cousin, sitting in the tavern, who said he was a childhood playmate of the general.
“I still often go to that village, work with Muslims and don’t have any problems,” he said.
The villagers are mainly farmers who keep cattle and sell produce in Sarajevo, which Mladic’s forces kept under a 43-month siege, bombing its citizens daily and depriving them of water, power and food.
Today, as in much of the countryside, the younger generation has largely abandoned the village to go to Sarajevo in search of jobs. Those left behind barely survive on small pensions and the sale of milk and meat, disappointed at the lack of support by the Bosnian Serb authorities.
They fear Mladic will be convicted and remembered as a war criminal.
“I would be happiest if he died before the judgement,” said another cousin, Mile Mladic. That was the fate of Slobodan Milosevic, the former leader of Serbia, who died four years into his own genocide trial, ending it without a verdict.
“We would then raise a large monument for him in the village and write the truth. All this that is happening is not the truth. It is a lie. The general is not guilty.”
Writing by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Peter Graff