"The Belgrade authorities have knowingly taken the non-Serbs of Bosnia and Herzegovina on a path to hell, a path littered with dead bodies, broken families, lost youths, lost future, destroyed places of cultural and religious worship," Bosnian lawyer Sakib Softic told the court, reported Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Bosnia filed the case before the United Nations' highest court 13 years ago accusing Belgrade of committing genocide during the 1992-1995 war against the Muslims and Croats and demanding compensations.
The hearings are set to run until May 9. If Bosnia wins, it could seek billions of dollars in compensation. All rulings by the ICJ are final and without appeal, although the court has no real means to enforce its decisions. The 43-month Bosnian war claimed more than 200,000 lives.
It ended with the 1995 Dayton peace agreement, which divided the country into two highly autonomous regions -- a Muslim-Croat federation and a Serb Republic -- under a loose umbrella central government.
Legal observers say Bosnia faces a considerable challenge in arguing its case -- to prove Belgrade's direct responsibility. Phon van der Biesen, a Dutch attorney representing Bosnia, challenged Serbian claims that Bosnian Serbs were uncontrollable fanatics.
"This was not something a bunch of fanatics could just organize…there was only one in the driver's seat and that was Belgrade," he said. The ongoing trial of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, in which the prosecutor has tried to show that Belgrade controlled and supported the Bosnian Serb leadership, will also play a key role in the Bosnian case.
Serbia-Montenegro is expected to reiterate its claim that the ICJ has no jurisdiction to deal with Bosnia's claim as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), replaced in 2003 by the loose union of Serbia and Montenegro, did not become a member of the United Nations until 2000.
If Belgrade's jurisdiction arguments fail, it is expected to argue that Bosnia cannot blame Serbia for crimes committed by Bosnian Serbs and that the Serb government did not plan to commit genocide. Proving genocide requires establishing an "intent" to destroy a group in whole or in part as well as demonstrating that genocidal acts took place.
As the hearings began, dozens of Bosnian Muslims gathered outsides the ICJ seat carrying a banner with the names of the victims of the Srebrenica massacres. "We want justice and the truth to come out," Edina Krdzic, 22, and Edisa Suljic, 21, told AFP. Edina lost her father, two uncles and two cousins in the massacre while Edisa mourns both her grandfathers and an uncle.
The protestors, who carried the banner reading "Europe's Shame", said they wanted the world to remember the crimes committed against them. "We want to show all the nations, all the world ... that we Bosnians want justice," said protestor Mustafa Mesanovic.
At least 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed in Srebrenica when Bosnian Serb forces and irregular Serbian police units backed by Belgrade overran the town. The massacre aimed to ensure there were no Muslims to fight back or reclaim Serb-occupied land or homes in the future.
A low-budget touching Bosnian drama about the lasting impact of systematic rape of Muslim women won on Saturday, February 18, the Berlin film festival's top prize.
At least 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed in Srebrenica when Bosnian Serb forces and irregular Serbian police units backed by Belgrade overran the town.