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For Mladic's victims, justice is long overdue

By Ian Williams, NBC News Correspondent

I never thought I'd see the day that Ratko Mladic was finally brought to justice.

I witnessed his Bosnian Serb underlings at their most cruel and barbaric, reporting in 1992 on the horrific detention centers in which Bosnian Muslims were incarcerated – bringing back memories of Nazi concentration camps in scenes we thought we would never again witness in Europe.

The sheer terror in the faces and voices of those herded behind the wire is something I will never forget.

Over the years, I have kept in touch with many of those who survived the camps. Dr. Idriz Merdzanic, a doctor in one of the camps I reported from, is one of the bravest men I have ever met.

He took photographs of some of the appalling injuries he had to treat in the Trnopolje concentration camp in northern Bosnia and, in the face of enormous personal danger, gave the film to my ITN colleague Penny Marshall to smuggle out.

He's now in Germany, where he started a new life. He still sends me Christmas cards, asking about my family. He says he'd like to return one day, but the scars from that period will take a long time to heal.

The television reports from Marshall and I were the first to expose the horror of the camps set up by the Bosnian Serbs. (Click on the video link above to see the original 1992 report).

Kevin Coombs / Reuters file

International forensic experts examine dozens of bodies, believed to be some of the 8,000 missing persons who fled Srebrenica in July 1995, in a mass grave in the Serb entity of Pilicer, Bosnia in a September 18, 1996 file photo.

I still recall roaming around the camp, trying to interview the terrified prisoners. They desperately wanted to talk, to expose what was happening there, but they – and I – knew that for them to speak too openly was a death sentence, as their guards watched and listened. So they spoke in coded English, only hinting at the horrors they faced.

I worried terribly afterward that I might somehow have made things worse for them, but have been enormously grateful over the years for all the letters from former inmates saying how things improved after the worldwide outrage that followed our reports – that our reports helped save lives.

I never met Mladic, I just saw his handiwork. 

The Bosnian Serb wartime army commander is facing international war crimes charges, including some stemming from the slaughter of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica during Bosnia's 1992-95 war. After 16 years on the run, he was arrested Thursday in a northern Serbian village. A Belgrade court ruled on Friday that he will be extradited to a U.N. tribunal at the Hague.

Over the years, I also met many of those who had tried to track him down. In Iraq I came across a group of British special forces who had been tasked with grabbing Europe's most wanted man in the mid-‘90s. They described weeks of undercover work in Serbia, which culminated in their grabbing the wrong man – an innocent farmer, whom they quickly released after arranging some quick compensation for the rattled Mladic lookalike.

Those I have kept in touch with had largely given up hope that Mladic would ever be found. His capture probably reflects the changing political situation in Serbia. It’s hard to imagine that his whereabouts were not known over the years. His capture will never erase the appalling memories of those who suffered and lost loved ones at the hands of his thugs, but it will bring some relief that he is at last to face justice.

Related links:

See a Channel 4 report on Ian Williams' reporting on the concentration camps in 1992: Ratko Mladic arrest: life-saving journalism

Opportunity lost: How U.S. backed off in hunt for Mladic