Bosnian Serb's Stronghold: You Can't Get There From Here

A former Alpine ski town, headquarters for indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic, is also home to an isolated people who say they've only been defending their culture

No wall separates Sarajevo from Pale. But at some point on the 10-mile mountain road that separates Sarajevo, the symbolic capital of Bosnia's multiethnic hopes, and Pale, the capital of Bosnian Serb nationalism, you pass into another world.

No car with Bosnian government plates would dare cross the border, just as no car with Serb plates would be found in Sarajevo. To get to Pale from Sarajevo, you must drive a car with foreign plates, walk, or have a taxi drop you at the last Bosnian point, walk 200 yards, and hope to find a taxi with Republic of Srpska (Bosnian Serb) plates. The sign at the mountain tunnel at the drop-off point should read: "Pale: You can't get there from here" - at least not very easily.

In Bosnia, your license plate is your destiny. As a pastime, people look at the two-letter abbreviations on license plates to figure out what city the driver is from. From the combination of the vehicle, the license, and where the driver is headed, you can deduce a surprising amount: the driver's home city, ethnicity, approximate war experience, political philosophy, profession, class, even family status.

Plates from the city of Mostar attached to a Mercedes suggest a certain type of Bosnian mafia. Sarajevo plates on a Yugo are typical of the middle class. Driving into places still a little unsafe - the Sarajevo suburbs, for instance - raises eyebrows. Plates from hostile Croatia are a subject of long speculation, or worse.

To make an appointment to interview Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb president and an indicted war criminal, journalists come in person to Pale's so-called International Press Center. It is a new three-story pine-and-cinderblock chalet off a dirt road in Pale.

The press center is run by Mr. Karadzic's daughter, Sonia. But before you can get to Ms. Karadzic, you must be interviewed by her young assistants.

Marko Marcetic represents something foreign journalists see little of: Serbian Bosnia's young fascist elite. Educated in Britain, Mr. Marcetic returned to help the Republic of Srpska (the name Serbs give to their portion of Bosnia) with its propaganda and public-relations needs. Wearing a polo shirt and jeans, and wearing glasses, Marcetic makes statements in proper British English such as, "Muslim men take our jobs and good Serb women." He tells a journalist that it is the Republic of Srpska's policy to charge journalists 100 German marks ($65) for every day they are in the republic's territory.

The International Press Center's team is completed by Tanya Subbotic, a young press officer with pale skin and long dark, curly hair. Ms. Subbotic politely asks journalists to fill out a form on which they state exactly what they want to see in the Republic of Srpska.

I write down the town of Srebrenica and interviews with the Bosnian Serb president and prime minister. Subbotic asks what exactly do I want to see in Srebrenica. Do I want to see mass graves? she asks, looking me in the eye. I say I have never been there, so I don't know what I want to see. Subbotic says she will try to arrange an interview with the mayor of the town.

Later, I am sitting with a group around a table at the Hotel Panorama, an Alpine-style hotel overlooking Pale's evergreen-topped mountains. Before the war, Pale was a ski town. The Panorama is now used as a meeting place, courthouse, and pub by Pale officials.

"I am the destroyer. I destroy mosques," says Radoslav Unkovic, a Bosnian Serb seated at the table who has the impossible-sounding title of director of the Republic of Srpska's Society for the Protection of Culture and Statues. Mr. Unkovic, a low-level official in the Pale government, studied to be a professor of Slavic languages in Moscow in the 1960s and served four years in the White Wolves, a Serbian royalist brigade, before World War II.

Sporting a wavy mustache and three-piece suit, he loosens up as the group talks. He checks behind him first, out of caution, and then begins to tell jokes about his leader, Karadzic.

One involves Croat President Franjo Tudjman, Karadzic, and Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic. They catch a fish who says he will grant each of them one wish. First the fish asks, "Alija, What's your wish?" Izetbegovic says, "I'd like all of the Serbs to disappear." The fish asks Mr. Tudjman what is his wish. Tudjman says, "I wish all the Muslims would disappear." Finally, the fish asks Karadzic his wish. Karadzic answers, "My wish is to fulfill both of their wishes."

More Karadzic jokes follow. Then Unkovic becomes serious. "This war was planned in 1054 by the pope and the Germans because they had to define the borders of the Catholic Church," he says. "They have to destroy [the Serbs'] Byzantine culture. And they were waiting for the right moment....

"The Serbs were forced to defend themselves against the Croats. I personally went as a volunteer in October 1991 to defend Knin. In Pale, women, children, old people, invalids, veterans, officials, they rejoiced when NATO bombed [us]. [NATO] used their Phantom [jet]s against our 40-year-old artillery. But the NATO pact couldn't destroy us."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Bosnian Serb's Stronghold: You Can't Get There From Here
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today