by Maggie O’Kane
published in The Guardian, February 20th 2001
He inhabits a wasteland of snow, mountain cabins and churches. A wild empty space of silence on the Vucevo mountain range, where icicles two metres long hang like spiky white beards at the entrance to the mountain tunnels. It was here that the White Eagles, the last bitter fighters against Tito, survived for almost 15 years. “Radovan,” says his mother, Yovanka Karadzic, “Has gone back to his own people – the people he protected.”
Dr Karadzic, 53, Serbian nationalist, psychiatrist and poet is the man the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague describes as number one on its list. “There’s not a day goes by when when his name doesn’t come up,” says Graham Blewitt, the deputy prosecutor. In the last six years 40 indicted war criminals have arrived at the international court in the Hague.
Today 35 of them, mostly Bosnian Serbs, are detained at Schveningen prison facing trial or awaiting sentence, but there is still no sign of Karadzic. Without him, the Hague is Nuremburg without Rudolf Hess or Albert Speer. When it comes to the architects of Bosnia’s destruction, those still alive are Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, their general, Karadzic is the only one within Nato’s reach in Bosnia.
Karadzic’s Kingdom is an area between the villages and towns of Rudo, Cajnice, Visegrad and Foca. Most of the time he is in the mountains – where the Serbian Orthodox church gives shelter to their own – just as the Catholics did with the Nazi fugitives in South America.
He is watched the old fashioned way. Spies recruited by the Allied Military Intelligence Bureau run by a US intelligence colonel at the international base at Butmir camp in Sarajevo. The American-led intelligence operation is code-named Amber Star. Two years ago the hunters went as far as sending US special operations to Germany in preparation for a swoop on Karadzic, but it was abandoned when senior US military officials found the operation too perilous.
In his home town of Pale, his wife and daughter Sonja have moved out of the family house where a lonely, friendly doberman wanders up and down inside the gates. They are watched round the clock by Nato spies, doing their best to avoid the cameras by moving from flat to flat in the town. Radio St John and TV Astra, once owned by his daughter Sonja, are up for sale and there are rumours that they are running out of money; that the old supporters who benefit from dirty dealings in black market cigarettes, whisky and petrol won’t keep the old man fed and protected in the mountains forever.
Nature protects him. In winter, the few cars that make it up the mountains skid along the roads, perilously close to ravines. The only traffic is the trucks of the illegal loggers stripping the mountain forests. Karadzic does not have to try too hard to evade Nato soldiers: just 300 troops out of a force of 21,324 are in the area where he is hiding. “Round here you get the impression that picking up these guys isn’t the first priority,” says Lieutenant Andreas Kerl, at the German base near Foca. “Nobody really mentions him.”
The US ambassador to Sarajevo, Thomas Miller, uses the phrase “that’s operational” a lot when asked about Karadzic and says this could be a “very short interview”. But he looks genuinely frustrated at the accusation that the Americans are doing nothing to catch him. “We’re working on this … we’re doing a lot. I hope sometime I can sit down over a coffee with you and explain just what we’re doing.”
The problem is that Miller’s coffee-drinking days in Sarajevo are coming to an end and his successor, a George W Bush appointee, is not expected to be hot on war criminals.
“We’re worried about the way things are going,” says one of Sarajevo’s most experienced diplomats. “This is going to be a good year for Radovan. I think we missed the chance to lift him and now there is no longer the political will.”
It is mostly former policemen from the old Bosnian police force who are paid to watch and photograph Karadzic skimming across the mountain tops. At times, they say, he has used an old orange Zastava, occasionally a military Jeep. They have watched him set up camp in a 19th-century granite church in the village of Rudo; identified his bodyguards from black-and-white photos as the same men who have looked after him since 1992 (he has 80 and at any one time there are no more than 20 men around him); seen him call briefly on the good monks of the Pivski Manasteri or the church at Cajnice where the village merges across the Montenegrin border.
At home in Niksic, in Montenegro, his 78-year-old mother is chain-smoking through a thin, brown plastic cigarette holder, her compromise following three strokes and angina. She is not keen on compromise: “I’d rather Radovan put a bullet in his own head than handed himself over to the Hague,” she says. “God will judge him, not the Hague, and what I know of my son is that he wouldn’t squash an ant.” She smooths out the folds of her lace tablecloth as she talks. The mother of one of the world’s most wanted men twinkles gruffly through the interview teasing, prodding.
“I never went to school a day in my life, but God was good to me and gave me four sons and a daughter. Of them all, he was the most talented. We recognised that in him early and worked hard to get him to university. He didn’t want to be a politician but the people needed him and he couldn’t refuse them. Handsome isn’t he?”
On her mantlepiece is a framed photograph of Karadzic. The same Karadzic who established the Omarska detention camp as part of his masterplan to “ethnically cleanse” the Muslims of Bosnia. In his book, the Tenth Circle of Hell, one survivor of Omarska, Rezak Hukanovic, recalls: “Thirst, hunger, gang rapes, exhaustion, skulls shattered, sexual organs torn out, stomachs ripped open by the soldier assassins of Radovan Karadzic. The torturers who ordered an old man to make love to a young woman in public. And the father forced to witness the torture of his son.”
Karadzic’s defence is that it all spiralled out of his control. Such brutality was never authorised by him. “Radovan knew about rights and conventions and those things. He spent all his money on books,” says his mother, lighting yet another cigarette. “That is why they choose him to be leader.”
Two years ago a Serbian film director was granted an audience with the man feared by the world’s strongest army. He wrote of the encounter in the Belgrade magazine, Profile: “The visitors always come at night to see him. He sits and drinks red wine. He’s pretty relaxed, like he was sitting in some restaurant. When he got up to embrace me I felt the holster under his shirt. At his hand are the TV controls, a table full of books, including the Bible and there’s also a computer. He kept flicking from one channel to another.”
So will he spend his life running in the mountains? Why not, his mother shrugs: “His people will protect him. Would you like coffee – we have espresso? He is well, you know. Mentally he is absolutely fine.” Three hours drive from his mother’s home is the town of Rudo and the tiny Orthodox church which was one of Karadzic’s lodgings last year according to those who watch him.
In these townspeople smile knowingly at the foreign visitor and ask why it is only the Serbs that are hunted for the Hague. They tell you that their problems as Serbs are part of an international plot against them that has to do with oil. And they ask a more troubling question: “Why, if all the stuff about the camps and Srebrenica is true, has nobody arrested Karadzic?” The lack of an arrest is being interpreted as a lack of a case to answer. As the time passes history is already been rewritten, memory lost.
When I went looking for Karadzic I stopped off at the Partizan Hall in Foca, at the top of a steep street called Smaoborska. Eight years ago, in the July 1992, I remember the door of the hall opening briefly on a hot afternoon and a glimpse of dozens of women held inside. Later that summer we heard how they had been systematically raped by Karadzic’s men. Last year three men from their town were convicted in the Hague of using rape as a weapon of war, but Foca is still in denial.
Now, the international forces, the international police, the outside world is like Zoran Mandic, the police chief in Foca, pretending that life is getting back to normal. “Of the town’s 20,000 Muslims who fled, 680 have come back and things are getting back to normal,” he tells me. A German officer laughs at the claim: “We have had only 15 Muslims return out of 20,000, and all of them are over 50,” he says. The Muslims of Foca are not ready to come home.
In 1996, Britain and the SAS began to get serious and swooped on alleged war criminals in their zones of control. But the indicted war criminals escaped from the British zone to the French zone, where the French troops ignored them until 1998 when Chirac also decided to get serious. The American body-bag phobia had meant that, while the US will pay bounty hunters and provide intelligence, they won’t send troops to snatch criminals themselves.
Now some of those seized by bounty hunters are challenging their arrests in the Hague and even these techniques are being put on hold. These days the new US administration is backing off, the French are relieved and a British government preparing for an election is wary of high-profile cock-ups. “Let’s just say everyone is getting the impression that the gears are being shifted down,” says one Hague investigator working in Bosnia.
In Omarska they are also in denial. Stojanke Plavsic, 69, leans on her gate, and looks across at the mineshaft, past the white house where the worst of the torture took place: “Here, nothing happened here. Didn’t hear anything. It was a couple of kilometres down the road you’re looking for. Go and ask the police.”
In the police station, they offer flat Fanta and brandy. “We weren’t here then,”says one. “Anyway it was just a refugee camp – a transit camp.”
Outside, an ice-cream van twinkles by, making delivers of La Barchetta to the local cafes, and just beyond them are the rusting railway carriages that brought in the Muslims. Women and children for transit – the men for beating and sometimes death. The memory is barely a whisper now.
Karadzic’s continued freedom and the collective memory loss may suit international politics now. President Bush has made no secret that he wants out of Bosnia as quickly as possible. Ambassador Thomas Miller, the keenest hunter of war criminals will be replaced in June with someone more in keeping with the new administration. Later this month the Polish/American colonel who has headed up the intelligence operation to find him for two years is leaving Sarajevo. The French, never very enthusiastic about picking up war criminals in their zone, can relax. And Karadzic can relax.
Ambassador Miller in Sarajevo likes to wave his hands in the air like the good attorney in Olive Stone’s movie, JFK: “Let justice be done though the heavans might fall.” But in Bosnia Karadzic is free, history is disappearing, memories are stolen. And it has only been nine years.