SARAJEVO, Apr 19: The most wanted man in the Balkans is being portrayed on the big screen this month as a vindictive army captain obsessed with gardening in a tragicomic film set during the dying days of Yugoslavia.
Fugitive Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic, indicted for war crimes by the U.N. tribunal in The Hague, has been caricatured as Captain Rade Orchid in the film ''Karaula'' (''Border Post'') by Croat director Rajko Grlic.
The film has attracted attention across the Balkans as the first co-production by republics of the former socialist federation since its collapse in the 1990s.
Newsreels have shown Mladic as the bombastic commander of the Bosnian Serbs in the 1992-95 Bosnia war, smiling as he gave sweets to the children of Srebrenica hours before 8,000 of their fathers and brothers were massacred.
Movie-goers in Skopje, Belgrade, Sarajevo and Zagreb who went to see ''Karaula'' this month saw Mladic portrayed as a neurotic army captain obsessed with gardening, who forces soldiers to tend to his orchids and weed his lawn.
Audiences were unaware that Captain Orchid was based on Mladic until former conscript Jurica Pavicic wrote an article about having to do weeding for the obsessive gardener.
Pavicic, a Croatian journalist who did his military service under Mladic in the Macedonian lakeside town of Ohrid in the mid-1980s, told his story to writer Ante Tomic, who used it in the screenplay of ''Karaula''.
''The motif of obsession with flowers and gardening is really based on Mladic,'' Pavicic told Reuters. ''But of course the character is shaped by the screenplay and acting.'' The film's chief producer Ademir Kenovic confirmed the bizarre captain was based on Mladic, but said the film was about more than just one man.
The movie centres on a Yugoslav army unit guarding a border post in 1987 on the Albanian-Macedonian frontier, spending their days idly until their commander, another officer prone to absurd behaviour, discovers he has caught syphilis from a prostitute.
To buy time until he is cured and can go home to his wife, he invents an imaginary threat from Albania and orders his unit to prepare for an attack.
Some of those who attended the film's premiere in Sarajevo were surprised to learn the burlesque Captain Orchid was based on a man seen in Bosnia as a monster. ''It is weird. Rade Orchid is almost a funny character,'' said Elda Hodzic, an unemployed agronomist.
The United Nations war crimes tribunal has indicted Mladic for the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre and the 43-month siege of Sarajevo which caused more than 10,000 civilian deaths.
The court says he is protected by hardliners in Serbia. His handover is crucial to Belgrade's efforts to join the European mainstream after the wars of the 1990s, in which it was widely seen as the aggressor, and to become a member of the European Union.
Serb authorities say they do not know where Mladic is.
However, the Hague tribunal says Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has promised to hand him over by the end of April and Kostunica says he is ''very, very close'' to keeping the pledge.
Pavicic remembers Mladic as a demagogue who revelled in media attention, showed traits of sadism, fawned on superiors and terrorised subordinates.
''He was extremely ambitious, only at that time nobody was thinking of war,'' Pavicic said. ''He was already displaying intolerance, like not allowing the Macedonians to speak their own language in the barracks.'' Pavicic said he was not surprised by the role Mladic came to play in the Yugoslav wars -- ''he had no scruples.''
BROTHERHOOD AND UNITY
''Karaula'' features famous actors from Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia. It starts as a comedy and finishes as a tragedy, the end of a fairy tale of ''brotherhood and unity'' like the break-up of Yugoslavia itself.
Kenovic, a Bosnian, said the success of the movie across the region proved people wanted to face the past.
''The fact that over 100,000 people have seen the film in less than two weeks shows it's laying a foundation for future communication, something we desperately need,'' he said.
In the successor states of Yugoslavia, nostalgia for the old country is tinged with resentment over real or imagined slights borne by each nation in the days of the socialist federation and also with anger at the atrocities and aftermath of the wars.
When the film was shown in Sarajevo, the audience sighed when they heard old hits by popular rock bands of the 1980s.
Serbian actor Bogdan Diklic, who plays Captain Orchid, refused to talk about his role, alluding to tensions still provoked by wartime issues.
''I have made a principled decision to freeze my contacts with the media,'' Diklic told Reuters.
The veteran actor also appeared in the Bosnian film ''Grbavica'' which won top honours at the Berlin Film Festival.
Serb actress Mirjana Karanovic, who played the lead role of a Muslim rape victim, was called a ''Serb traitor'' by some media.
Kenovic said that, although the bizarre captain was based on Mladic, the film was more than the story of a man who was a ''criminals' tool, a technician''.
''I hope Mladic will be in The Hague soon. I'll be happy,'' the producer said. ''I'm more concerned about the mind-set that supported and still supports Mladic than about the man himself.''