THE HAGUE, Netherlands - The prosecutors confronted Slobodan Milosevic with Balkan wars and ghosts, dissected the murky history behind his country's bloody collapse and accused the former Yuglosav president of overseeing campaigns of murder, torture and genocide.
It was only after the black-robed prosecutors at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia played a videotape yesterday that Milosevic dropped his poker face and slyly grinned, watching his 1987 declaration in Kosovo that his fellow Serbs would never be beaten.
The first war crimes trial in history against a former head of state began with Milosevic facing charges of crimes against humanity and genocide with silence and a quick, dismissive smile.
Separated from spectators by bulletproof glass, Milosevic sat between two policemen as the history he helped fashion was replayed in detail by prosecutors whose monotone voices could not obscure the righteous rage of their prose.
"We should just pause to recall the daily scenes of grief and suffering that came to define armed conflict in the former Yugoslavia," chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte said. "The events themselves were notorious, and a new term, 'ethnic cleansing,' came into common use in our language. Some of the incidents revealed an almost medieval savagery and calculated cruelty that went far beyond the bounds of legitimate warfare."
The 60-year-old Milosevic is charged with crimes against humanity for his alleged role in conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, and charged with genocide in Bosnia. The ethnic wars of the 1990s ripped apart Yugoslavia, led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and displaced more than 2 million others.
Milosevic, who does not accept the legitimacy of the court, plans to act as his own defense attorney and is expected to give an opening statement today. He took several pages of notes but had no opportunity to speak yesterday.
Prosecutors prepared the three judges for an arduous and lengthy case as they seek to show Milosevic acted in a "joint criminal enterprise."
"The case against the accused will be complex," said Del Ponte, a Swiss national who made her reputation taking on mobsters and white-collar criminals.
"It will be broad in its scope, reflecting the nature of the charges, and yet it will be detailed, as criminal cases must be, where specific features of the evidence require to be explored in depth," she said. "This case will certainly test the criminal justice process itself, and will challenge the very capacity of a modern criminal court to address crimes which must extend so far in time and place."
Del Ponte said the court "will receive testimony from high-ranking military figures, diplomats, government representatives and other persons of rank and function who, for different reasons ... cannot be named today. Such persons do not commonly appear in the criminal courts, and receiving their evidence challenges equally the witnesses and the court."
She also made it clear that an individual - not a country - was on trial.
"No state or organization is on trial here today: The indictments do not accuse an entire people of being collectively guilty of the crimes, even the crime of genocide," she said.
Del Ponte said "collective guilt forms no part of the prosecution case." She said prosecutors intended "to explore the degree to which the power and influence of the accused extended over others."
Del Ponte said she recognized "this trial will make history and we would do well to approach our task in the light of history."
She then gave way to a deliberate British barrister, Geoffrey Nice, the principal trial attorney for the prosecution.
In a halting style, Nice read the judges what amounted to a history lesson about the Balkans, to dissect Milosevic's methods and personality in pursuit of power.
"A great deal has been written about this man but this trial starts with a blank sheet of paper, and writes on it only that which can be spelled out by evidence," Nice said.
Milosevic was a man "who would leave no traces if he could avoid them," who preferred "one-to-one encounters" to hide his control. He said "from first to last," Milosevic wanted "as much as he could get, as much as he could get away with and as much as he could keep."
Nice said Milosevic "thought he could have it all."
In the end, Milosevic was left with a country devastated by war.
A part of Croatia was taken over by Milosevic's Serb surrogates in 1991-1992. The Crotian city of Vukovar was reduced to rubble, and much of its population was expelled. Ancient Dubrovnik was bombarded. Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, was besieged, and the country's ethnic Muslim population was ravaged in the bloodiest fighting in Europe since World War II.
Before NATO bombing forced the withdrawal of Serb forces from Kosovo in 1999, thousands of Kosovar Albanians were killed and hundreds of thousands of others fled.
Nice provided a few samples of the brutality that raged in the region and which will be discussed at the trial.
"He did not confront his victims," Nice said. "He was able to view what was happening through the distance of high political office."
Nice laid out the signposts of Milosevic's career, his rise from Communist Party functionary to leader of the Serbs and of Yugoslavia. Using charts, the prosecutor sought to show that all levers of power in conducting conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia led back to Milosevic.
Nice is expected to complete his opening statement today by describing Milosevic's role in Kosovo, which he claimed "featured first to last" in the tragedies.
Nice detailed and played several communication intercepts of conversations between Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic, president of the self-proclaimed Serbian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. One tape recorded the men discussing arming the local Serb population in Bosnia. Karadzic has been indicted for war crimes but has eluded arrest.
The prosecutor also sought to show links between Milosevic's regime and Zeljko Raznatovic, the feared warlord known as Arkan whose "Tigers" were a bloodthirsty paramilitary unit that wreaked havoc in the region.
Arkan was gunned down after the 1999 Kosovo conflict. But in a video clip, he could be heard bragging that no prisoners in a captured village would be taken alive. The prosecutor said a witness will reveal how Arkan and other paramilitary leaders and Serb military leaders "answered directly to the Serbian authority."
Nice also discussed the charge of genocide. "The accused intended to destroy the Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croat communities in order to fulfill the aims of the objectives of the criminal enterprise," he said. Milosevic's goal, prosecutors said, was to hold onto power, regardless of the cost to his countrymen.
"An excellent tactician, a mediocre strategist, Milosevic did nothing but pursue his ambition at the cost of unspeakable suffering," Del Ponte said.
Outside the courtroom, a cluster of protesters showed up to demand that others indicted by the tribunal be sent to The Hague.
Officials who have so far avoided extradition to The Hague include Yugoslav military officer Ratko Mladic and four men indicted with Milosevic.