Some 25 years after I first met him, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic stands convicted on 10 genocide and war crimes charges for his role in decimating the former Yugoslavia, and for overseeing what became known as “ethnic cleansing” in the first war in Europe since the Nazi period.
Mr. Karadzic looked pale and slightly gaunt as he stood in the Hague tribunal court to receive a 40-year sentence.
Indeed, he, like the small but savage fratricidal war he helped engineer in Bosnia, has mostly been forgotten in the wake of figures like Osama Bin Laden and larger wars on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the Russian incursion into Ukraine, and the horror of Syria.
Yet in Mr. Karadzic’s heyday, in the early and mid-1990s – a period that started with great hope for peace and amity after the fall of the Berlin Wall – this self-styled poet-psychiatrist was a Page 1 figure. He dictated terms to UN and EU diplomats and NATO officials. And, as the late US diplomat Richard Holbrooke wrote, he helped tie up the Clinton administration and the State Department for years in what some US officials termed “a problem from hell.”
The war Karadzic helped launch, mostly on the orders of his boss in Belgrade, Serb President Slobodan Milošević, was a direct challenge to the liberal and civil values proclaimed by the West for decades during the cold war, including the “never again” brought on by Auschwitz. Karadzic gave the orders for Serb snipers to shoot grandmothers in the street of a European capital that was a short flight from Geneva and Brussels, in a siege that lasted 1,500 days.
Yet prior to the outbreak of shooting, what many observers often spoke of was how utterly surreal the project of brotherly hatred in the Balkans seemed to be. No one could imagine these tin-pot leaders actually being taken seriously.
I first interviewed Karadzic on the streets of Sarajevo in August 1991, a year before the war. He was a local Serb party leader with dramatic hair whom no one had paid much attention to. But that was starting to change.
The first phase of the war had just ended, with villages burned out on the Slavonian plain in Croatia. The day I met him, Karadzic had just given one of a series of press conferences downtown that electrified Sarajevo reporters – laying out reasons why ethnic Serbs deserved more land and ethnic Muslims and Croats deserved less. People were shaking their heads in disbelief.
Outside on the sidewalk, Karadzic answered my questions and smiled and winked and spoke with great confidence. If anything, he came across more as a used-car salesman than a leader of any gravitas. He described new ethnic maps his party had drawn up that redressed historical grievances and injustice against Serbs. He wanted to partition Bosnia. He openly stated it was time for Serbs to come together.
The message however was chilling, since these matters could only end with a takeover of the city by Serbs and the expulsion of other ethnic groups.
No one in Yugoslavia had ever spoken like that before and remained out of jail. Under the late strongman leader Josep Broz Tito, everyone was nominally equal, served together in the military, lived cheek by jowl, and got along. Ethnicity was sublimated.
In Sarajevo, the atmosphere was even more rarefied. Sarajevo was a poster child for multi-ethnic virtues, with its Ottoman-built minarets and shopping bazaars; its Catholic, Protestant and Jewish houses of worship; its famous writers' club and library. The UN described it as a model of ethnic harmony. Rock bands, soccer clubs, and comic-book political satire flourished. The people were Slavic, and as Noel Malcolm writes, had shared this patch of land for centuries. In Sarajevo, nearly 40 percent of marriages were mixed.
As Gordana Knezevic, a Serb journalist married to a Croat at the newspaper Oslobodjenje, said, “I’ve been a happy Yugoslav for 40 years, it is too late for me to become a patriotic Serb.”
Yet this cosmopolitan identity is exactly what Karadzic seemed to hate. Born into a rural mountain Montenegrin family, he came to Sarajevo as something of a country bumpkin. He held a grudge. He wrote poetry about setting Sarajevo on fire. As he began to drink from the fountain of virulent Serb nationalism, Karadzic seemed ever bolder in his persona.
Finally, a year later in 1992, he would besiege the city from the surrounding hills. His paramilitary Serb forces also began attacking majority Muslim villages along the Drina river, shooting town leaders and the educated in order to create a stampede of fear that caused an exodus. A young foreign service officer in Washington reading the cables coined the phrase “ethnic cleansing” to describe what he saw.
For Europe, the war was terrifically inconvenient. British and French leaders sat on their hands for years and many hoped the Serbs would quickly win. But the idea of a multi-ethnic Bosnia persisted.
The leading Serbian human rights lawyer Srdja Popovic, horrified by what was being done by Karadzic and Mr. Milosevic in the name of Serbia, framed the issue for the Monitor in 1993:
The question is how much of the stink of genocide can Europe take? At what point does one … defend, and these are big words but let’s use them, the dignity of human beings? … In Bosnia we are watching the inside of a concentration camp. … Someone is beaten but I keep quiet. One is asked to accept a Darwinian world or be called naïve.
The war ended when the US intervened in 1995. The Clinton administration apparently could not take the stink of the slaughter of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men in Srebrenica, a story broken by the Monitor. Shortly after, Bosnia got partitioned along ethnic lines during the Dayton accords. Since then, Bosnia has remained a frozen conflict with those lines intact.
Karadzic was captured on a bus in Belgrade in 2008, posing as a new age healer. Now the chief judge at an international court of justice has passed a verdict of genocide on the most senior protagonist of the war still alive.