The rise and fall of a genocidal leader
When I first met Radovan Karadžić in Sarajevo in 1990, the psychiatrist-turned-politician seemed to prefer reciting his poems to talking politics. I thought his poetry was bad, but maybe Serbian epic style was lost on me as a reporter covering Yugoslavia. His jowly face was topped by a flying shock of salt-and-pepper hair. Karadžić said he wanted Serbs to have equal rights in Bosnia-Herzegovina, one of six republics in the defunct communist federation which was holding its first multiparty elections.
Then, Karadžić fancied himself an urban intellectual. But he was born and raised in Montenegro, and to Sarajevo's elite he always remained an outsider. Karadžić had already caught the eye of Serbian nationalists who saw in him a charismatic true believer.
Over the next year his nationalist rhetoric escalated sharply as it became apparent that Yugoslavia was hurtling towards disintegration. In an address to Bosnia's parliament, he warned that the republic's Muslims would “disappear” if Bosnia tried to break away from Serb-dominated Yugoslavia. My friends in Sarajevo did not believe that war was inevitable. But doom seemed to hang over the Bosnian capital.
Once in the café of a Belgrade hotel, Karadžić casually drew maps for me on plain white paper showing how he would partition a country whose population of 4.3 million Muslims, Serbs and Croats was so mixed that any division meant war. His maps always left Bosnia's Muslims wedged in a stranglehold between Serbs and Croats in a statelet that had no prospect of survival. Many times over the next few years, I saw similar maps, sometimes done by Croat nationalists, sometimes done by Serbs.
In August 1992, on the eve of a tour around detention camps in Serb-held parts of Bosnia, we ate dinner together in the mountain capital of his self-proclaimed Bosnian Serb state. Karadžić said the tours would convince the world that he had nothing to hide. Stick-thin Muslim men standing shirtless against barbed wire fences too scared to say a word told another story. Tens of thousands of Muslims were held in these wretched camps, and it later would emerge that thousands were summarily murdered.
Over glasses of wine and dinnner, he offered to turn off the electricity in the hospital so that I could have light in my hotel room, and he bragged about how big his country had become. By then, his forces controlled some two-thirds of Bosnia and Herzegovina, displacing a million and more Muslims and Croats.
As the months of war dragged on with Serb guns targeting Sarajevo, Karadžić took to donning a camouflage uniform. He struck proud poses with visiting fellow nationalists from Russia as they took turns firing shots into the capital, where more than 10,000 people were killed during the siege.
Outside the war zone, Karadžić liked fine suits and apparently had a taste for late nights of gambling. Much of the summer of 1993 was spent in Geneva, where international mediators brought the country's leaders together for peace talks. One day, I was waiting impatiently for an interview in front of his swanky hotel suite. Karadžić was late. His bodyguards paced up the corridors. Finally, they agreed I could go inside. He was half-dressed and his face was still puffy and creased with sleep.
This was not a man who cared about the success of the peace talks. He had slept right through the morning negotiations.
Endless rounds of peace talks in different European cities followed as the war dragged on month after month. Karadžić seemed to enjoy the change of scenery.
In 1995 came the event that made Western military intervention inevitable: the attack on Srebrenica, a mining town in the Drina River valley, which was home to 40,000 Muslims, mostly refugees, who were supposed to have been enjoying United Nations protection. Karadžić and the Bosnian Serbs’ top military commander, General Ratko Mladic, allegedly ordered the execution of about 8,000 Muslim men and boys who had been taken captive, their hands bound in wire ligatures, and blindfolded.
The international tribunal indicted Karadžić and Mladic in mid-1995, and the counts against them were later expanded to include the Srebrenica killings. He did not go underground immediately; he seemed to thumb his nose at the indictments. But soon after the Dayton peace agreement that ended the war in Bosnia (to which Karadžić and his allies were not a party), he was forced by Western mediators–led by American envoy Richard Holbrooke–to withdraw from political leadership. At the outset, people rallied around him, protecting him. Posters appeared with his image in Serb-held towns.
He disappeared in 1998, becoming the most elusive of the long roster of suspects indicted by the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. During Karadžić's twelve years on the run, I sometimes wondered how this man from a tiny mountain village who so desired to be in the center of world attention coped with a life in disguise, reportedly hiding out in monasteries or caves. But no one suspected that he was living in Belgrade practicing alternative medicine, operating his own web site to market some mysterious concoction called Human Quantum Energy, supposedly able to cure a panoply of diseases from cancer to multiple sclerosis.
The banality of his capture–on a bus between Belgrade and a garrison town on its outskirts where Serbian police once tried to hide the bodies of Albanian civilians they had killed in Kosovo–should not have come as a surprise. Isn't everything that touches genocide banal? Looking like a bloated Leo Tolstoy, Karadžić the poet, Karadžić the former leader of a country of his own proclaiming, surely did not want to be captured in this way.
Karadžić's arrest shows that the authorities in Serbia, under President Boris Tadic, are serious about being a full partner with the European Union and the United States. As importantly, the arrest demonstrates to the Serbian people that their government is confident enough in its legitimacy to risk a nationalist backlash by bringing a war criminal to justice. For the people of Bosnia, whose lives were upended, Karadžić's arrest is a vital step in healing the wounds of a not-so-distant past.
My phone rang late Monday night in New York. It was past midnight in the Balkans. An old friend from Sarajevo, called, asking if it was too late. Only 12 years too late, I said.
Laura Silber, co-author of “Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation,” covered the Balkan wars for The Financial Times. She is currently senior policy adviser at The Open Society Institute.