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THE EDGE OF MADNESS
The experience of Bosnia's war of the early 1990s was a life-changing one and, finally, one of its three principle architects is where he belongs: facing justice. After 13 years on the run, Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader, is on his way to The Hague to face charges of genocide and masterminding the bloodiest carnage to blight Europe since the Third Reich. For all its shortcomings, I have been a supporter of the Hague tribunal and have testified, as a duty, against war criminals of middle and low rank. But, apart from the tragicomic farce of the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, there was always that vacuum at the top, a vacuum called Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, now half (but only half) filled. And that man looking like Santa Claus was him, Karadzic! The man who arranged the mass murder of 100,000 people and the enforced deportation of two million? All those incinerated homes, the mass rape camps, the mass deportations at gunpoint. But the fact that he has been practising alternative medicine is no shock - his pretensions and self-delusions knew no bounds, whether he was talking to us in Pale, near Sarajevo, about the tribulations and sacrifices of the Serbs down the centuries, or tending to the ailments of his patients. I wonder if they knew who he was, and whether they cared.
Karadzic has a weak handshake. I met him in August 1992, when he greeted me and a team from ITN outside his hotel headquarters in the mountain spa town of Pale, which Karadzic had made the capital of the viciously carved "Serbian Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina", of which he proclaimed himself president. But while his vision was one of violence, his hand was limp, and his gaze vague, eyes rolling into mid-distance as he began to speak, running fingers through that mop of hair in a manner more like an eccentric professor than a mass killer.
This was just three months into Bosnia's war, after Karadzic the politician and his military commander Mladic had unleashed a murderous hurricane across half of Bosnia, terrain upon which they wanted Serbs, and only Serbs, to live. Its Muslim and Croatian populations were eradicated by death, internment and mass deportation, and all memory of their existence incinerated. We had flown by military helicopter from Belgrade to meet him, affording an aerial view of eastern Bosnia, and what Karadzic stands accused of having ordered: town after town, village after village, burned, lifeless and empty.
The appointment had been arranged in London, some days beforehand. Karadzic was visiting the British capital for the latest round of the peace talks to which he was regularly invited by western diplomats. At that time there were reports of a gulag of concentration camps over the other, northwestern, side of the country, markedly that at Omarska. Deportees pouring into Croatia talked of mass murder, torture and beatings in the camps, but Karadzic denied the allegations and said that if we insisted, ITN and I could come and "see for ourselves" - I have never understood why, and his guards did stage a mock ambush of our convoy to try to dissuade us from proceeding. When we met him on the steps of his headquarters, though, Karadzic made no pretence about his authority over the camp: on his personal word, he said, we would enter what he insisted on calling a "centre".
Most of his rambling, however, was about the tribulations of the Serbs throughout an epic history of suffering and struggle, and were it not so deadly, Karadzic's sense of melodrama and his faux academic veneer would have been pathetic. And were it not for what we found two days later, upon entering Omarska: men in various states of decay, some skeletal, ushered from a hangar, blinking into the sunlight and drilled across the yard into a "canteen" under the eyes of a beefy gunner atop his post. There, they devoured watery bean soup like famished dogs, dry skin folded over their bones like parchment. Under the eyes and guns of their captors, they were too scared to talk, apart from one man called Dzemal Partusic, who said: "I don't want to tell any lies, but cannot tell the truth." ( I met him a decade later, living in Borehamwood, so strange is life.) When the camp commander refused to let us inside the hangar to see the inmates' quarters, we started walking towards it. The commander, who was recently convicted by the war crimes court in Sarajevo, blocked the way while his henchmen slipped the safety catches of their guns. We protested that Karadzic had guaranteed that we could inspect the camp, to which the translator for the local Serbian authorities, Nada Balban, retorted: "[Karadzic] told us you can see this and this, but not that." When we tried again, we were bundled out of the camp.
We had seen very little, and only with time and trials at The Hague of lower-ranking Bosnian Serbs, did it become clear what Karadzic did not want us to see. Scenes of routine sadism such as that described by survivor Halid Mujkanovic, concerning a prisoner forced to perform fellatio on a fellow inmate, then ordered to bite off his testicles while a live pigeon was stuffed down his throat to stifle his screams as he died. The victim was Fikret Harambasic and the man was forced to castrate him in order to save the lives of his roommates, threatened with execution if there were no "volunteers". The crowd of guards who oversaw this entertainment "looked as though they were attending a sports match, supporting a team", said Mujkanovic.
"You can see this and this, but not that", indeed. Karadzic was all the while back in Pale with his endless recitals of Serbian epic poetry, some of it his own, his ancient maps - he was always the man with the maps, deciding "that's ours" - and crazy dreams. But the reality was that Harambasic's death was but one among an estimated 100,000.
Karadzic was born in the village of Petnjica, in the wild, mountainous, forested country across Bosnia's border with Montenegro, where he shares a surname with most gravestones in the little churchyard. Bosnians call this rugged terrain the "Vukojebina" - literally: where the wolves fuck.
Karadzic's father was ostracised even within this little hamlet after reportedly raping and killing a cousin before Karadzic was born, and a grandfather murdered a neighbour in an argument over cattle. Now, however, Karadzic's relatives and neighbours worship him and, as he awaits trial, are planning a biennial literary festival where they can read Karadzic's poetry and prose. It is strange stuff, extravagantly praised by his publisher Miroslav Toholj, who, when I met him in Belgrade last year, enthused: "When I saw Radovan's latest novel I was reminded of Joyce's Ulysses by Radovan's style and evocation of the subliminal." Sitting at the same table, drinking, Brana Crncevic, a former member of the Serbian cabinet of President Milosevic, likened Karadzic's "language of his fathers" to Chekhov. One poem is entitled Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital to which Karadzic is accused of laying a long and murderous siege: 'I hear misfortune's threads / Turned into a beetle as if an old singer / Had been crushed by the silence and become a voice. / The town burns like incense / In the smoke rumbles our consciousness.'
But it was not poetry that took the diligent young Karadzic from the Vukojebina to Sarajevo. The country boy trained as a psychiatrist in the city and worked as a consultant and physio for the local football team but was never really accepted by the city's cosmopolitan circles. The big chance for a man desperate to be admired came with Milosevic's quest to break up Yugoslavia and unite the Serbs into an ethnically "pure" community across the borders of Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Kosovo. By the time Bosnia voted to secede from Yugoslavia in spring 1992, Karadzic had become leader of the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), which pledged to ensure that the Bosnian Serbs would live not in the complex ethnic weave that had endured for centuries, but on racially "pure" land aligned with Serbia. Karadzic pulled himself and his party out of its headquarters in the Holiday Inn downtown, withdrew to nearby Pale in the hills above, and proceeded to besiege and torture the city, as his companion Mladic put it, "to the edge of madness".
Our meeting in Pale, and the discovery of the camps, was but the beginning of Bosnia's war. For three more bloody years, although the atrocities Karadzic is accused of ordering were reported across the world and the siege of Sarajevo played out on television almost nightly, Karadzic's hand was eagerly clasped by the world's diplomatic leaders beneath the chandeliers of London, Paris, Geneva and elsewhere. And this is what will make the Karadzic trial so compelling, among many other things: that he is dangerous in the dock to those who dealt with him, and can tell the world what the world told him, and guaranteed him, over those three years.
Karadzic was no fool; he spoke the diplomats' language, and, in return, Britain, France and the UN led the prevalent international policy of calculated refusal to stop him, thereby advancing his aims. The governments of Britain and France especially - as well as the United Nations leadership - saw in Karadzic not the war criminal they call him today, but a fellow politician with whom to do business. Karadzic dealt - directly or indirectly - with Lord Peter Carrington, Malcolm Rifkind, Lord David Owen, Cyrus Vance, Douglas Hurd and Dame Pauline Neville-Jones as an equal deserving full diplomatic protocol. A recent book by the lawyer Carole Hodge finds Karadzic, in return, praising Britain's "refined diplomacy". To the private hilarity of the Serbs, western diplomats accepted Karadzic's endless, empty guarantees and his posturing and fleeting "ceasefires". They agreed to turn back aid to the desperate "safe areas" declared but betrayed by the UN. They connived in maps and "peace plans" that gave Karadzic everything he had won by violence and tolerated the siege of Sarajevo, which he is accused of personally overseeing.
During a meeting in Belgrade last year, Karadzic's ferociously loyal brother, Luka, described Radovan as "a doctor, poet and humanist", adding: "If he is a war criminal, why did the west negotiate with him all those years?" He has a point. "He was a tough negotiator," said Luka. "I know that from the talks I attended - and they understood each other, my brother and the western diplomats, especially Vance and Owen."
Karadzic was indicted by The Hague in 1996, and his continued liberty had been a crushing embarrassment to the international community, studiedly impotent during the Bosnian war and unable for 13 years to perform a basic task of detection. "How can the most powerful alliance in the world tell us that they can't find two Serbs?" pondered Jacques Klein seven years ago, when he was coordinator of the UN mission to Bosnia. The former chief prosecutor at The Hague, Carla Del Ponte, called Karadzic and Mladic "the bones in my throat" and their liberty during her watch as her "terrible disappointment".
In the years after the war, from 1995, while 60,000 foreign troops patrolled Bosnia, the fugitive Karadzic lived openly in Pale and moved across the country, waved through Nato roadblocks. I once saw his immediately recognisable car, with blacked-out windows and personalised number plate, parked overnight outside a hotel in Banja Luka in 1996, the local Nato base showing no interest. After 1999, the effort got more serious, with raids on Karadzic's family and sanctions against their finances, and Karadzic disappeared. There were sightings in Belgrade and at monasteries of the Serbian Orthodox church to which Karadzic was so generous during his presidency. A dramatic raid by ninja-clad special forces on the remote village of Celebici near his childhood home missed him by 2km, and another sighting by the Hague tracking team near Visegrad was not followed up. In the event, it was Serbian political strategy, not an international manhunt, that delivered him.
Last year, the farce of the hunt for Karadzic became the subject of a Hollywood movie: The Hunting Party starring Richard Gere. The film - and a subsequent book by Florence Hartmann, for many years assistant to Del Ponte in The Hague - fuelled theories that Karadzic was offered immunity from prosecution at The Hague because he knew too much, and so long as he left political office. Karadzic's daughter Sonja, over lunch in Pale last year, recalled a meeting with western secret service agents in Athens in the spring 1995, guaranteeing her father immunity. He summoned the family, she says, and told them that he would be leaving office in exchange for his guaranteed liberty. Of the politicians who dealt with her father during the war, Sonja observed: "These are often people who boasted about their diplomatic achievements in books which left out things which supported what we were saying at the time, and they do not want those things in the open now. My father and they are the only ones who know what those things are and there is no secret better kept than the one everyone is still trying to guess." In court, Karadzic has the chance to spill every secret he knows.
One of Karadzic's confidants during the siege of Sarajevo and "ethnic cleansing" (Karadzic's term) of Muslims to the east of the city was Miovan Bjelica, known as "the Kitten", who last year recalled that throughout the war, western diplomats "always took Radovan seriously, treated him with respect and as the president of a small country [referring to his self-proclaimed statelet]. The highest people came to see him, and what they agreed he knows and they know. I'm sure he was promised many things that they would not want to hear him say now, were he to go to The Hague".
So Karadzic and Mladic were granted three years' free rein after our meeting in Pale, before bringing the war, according to the indictments against each, to its nadir: the massacre at Srebrenica, which has been established as genocide, and which Karadzic and Mladic are accused of ordering. The "safe area" was easily overrun in July 1995, as Dutch troops mandated to protect it stood by and the UN commander, General Bernard Janvier, refused to intervene from Sarajevo, having dined with Mladic a few days previously. Women and children were separated from men and boys while UN troops looked on, and the latter taken away to sites such as a warehouse, a dam and a schoolhouse for summary execution. Thousands more who fled through the forests on what has become known as the "road of death" were likewise rounded up and shot. Over five days, 8,000 were murdered.
Only a handful of men - no more than 15 - survived at the mass execution sites to which the men of Srebrenica were shipped by bus and truck. One of them was Mevludin Oric, wan and thin, whom I met in a scrappy flat in Sarajevo. First, his truckload was taken to a gym, where "it was so hot, people were fainting. They gave us water, but we fought over it so that it spilled, and men were licking it off the floor". Then, "they took us to a field", he recalls, "and when they stopped the trucks and said 'Line up!' I knew what was coming. I could see bodies in the field. They were cocking their guns. I took my nephew Haris by the hand. He asked, 'Are they going to kill us?' I said no, then they started shooting. Haris took the bullet and we both fell. Nothing hit me. I just threw myself on the ground. My nephew shook, and died on top of me."
Mevludin remained lying, face-down. "I could hear crying and pleading, but they kept on shooting. It went on all day, until the killers became tired and drunk, still shooting by the light of the bulldozers. Finally, they turned off the lights. I started to move a little. I got my nephew off me. I arose and saw a field full of bodies, everywhere, as far as I could see. And I cried, I could not stop myself."
But Karadzic is charged with ordering so much more during those three years between Omarska and Srebrenica - the latter being iconic of so much atrocity in so many places that Srebrenica's notoriety now tends to distract from, rather than draw attention to. Atrocity in places whose names are barely known and soon forgotten in the world outside. Who talks now about Bosnian Serb massacres at Zvornik, Vlasenica, Brcko or Bijeljina? (Or, indeed, sites of Croatian atrocities, such as Ahmici, or the Bosnian Muslim camp at Celebici.) When Karadzic arrives in The Hague, he will be tried in the courtroom next to that in which a man he knows well is accused: Milan Lukic, from a town called Visegrad, who was one of the trusted members of the so-called "Preventiva" circle charged with protecting Karadzic when he was on the run. Lukic quarrelled with Karadzic's inner circle, however, and fled both their wrath and an indictment in the Hague to Argentina, where he was finally arrested in 2005.
Visegrad nestles in the river Drina valley at a particularly beautiful moment in its flow, and the fugitive Karadzic was spotted there in 2004. Spanning the river is a glorious Ottoman bridge, iconic of Bosnia, which the Bosnian Serbs turned into a slaughterhouse. Night after night, truckloads of Bosnian Muslim civilians were taken down to the bridge and riverbank by Bosnian Serb militiamen, allegedly on Lukic's orders, unloaded, sometimes slashed with knives, sometimes shot, and thrown into the river, dead or in various states of half-death, turning the Drina's turquoise current red with blood. As well as the slaughter on the bridge, hundreds of Muslims including women, children and babies were packed into houses and incinerated alive. When he was arrested, Lukic said: "Mladic has always been and will remain the true hero and idol, and Karadizic the leader of my people." Guardian