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War criminal Radovan Karadzic shows what happens when you give in to the politics of fear

From time to time, foreign correspondents will find themselves writing about someone they loathe. For me, Radovan Karadzic was that guy.

Ex-Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic sitting in the court of the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia in the Hague on March 24.
REUTERS/Robin van Lonkhuijsen

Try as they might for balance and fairness, many foreign correspondents will from time to time find themselves writing about someone they simply loathe.

For me, Radovan Karadzic was one of those people. 

Last week, the Bosnian Serb leader was finally convicted of genocide and other war crimes by an international court after a trial that lasted eight years. Karadzic, now 70, was one of three main leaders of Serbs during the wars that tore apart the old Yugoslav federation a generation ago. Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian president, died in the court’s custody in 2006. The Bosnian Serb military leader, Ratko Mladic, is still on trial. 

The Balkans have suffered periodic outbreaks of horrific sectarian bloodletting throughout their history, and it was from that memory that Milosevic, Karadzic and Mladic built a sense of victimization and fear that exploded across the region in the 1990s.

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It’s an extreme example, for sure, but one worth keeping in mind today, when anger and fear of the other dominate the political climate in Europe and the U.S. The best leaders inspire people to overcome those feelings. The worst feed that alarm, and then exploit it for political gain.

The Serbs had legitimate concerns in the wake of the breakup of Yugoslavia. There were few leaders who were both effective and well-intentioned. Still, there is also a reason why these three men were the highest-profile targets among 161 people indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. 

Milosevic was the mastermind of the Serb venture, a blustering man capable of answering a single question with a half-hour monologue. His meaty hands seemed built for grabbing political power by any means — in his case, keeping Serbs in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia together into one country — under his leadership. Mladic was about his military exploits, no matter how brutal they might turn out to be.

Karadzic, a onetime psychiatrist and a wannabe poet with an unruly head of hair, was the shy but ambitious country boy who came to Sarajevo determined to make it big. He lived in the city for 30 years, built a career there — and then led a three-year siege that left more than 11,000 of its people dead.

I worked in Sarajevo during the siege, a time when you could watch television reports from the other side showing Karadzic’s forces firing mortars, machine guns and anti-aircraft guns in your direction; when you had to time the hair-raising run down Sniper Alley for when you hoped the gunmen on the hillsides were tired, hung over, or in the process of handing off to a new shift.

I would see the casualties in Sarajevo and elsewhere — including my own colleagues in the media — being rushed into an operating room, their skin a pinkish-gray color strangely reminiscent of a newborn kitten. I tried to report fairly, but striving for “balance” came to feel pointless, even reckless, when one side was committing genocide.

What made Karadzic seem particularly loathsome was the intellectual veneer he pasted on the worst human instincts, and his “what-world-are-you-living-in?” justifications for horrific violence.

As The New York Times’ John Burns recalled, Karadzic would claim that the Bosnian Serb forces expelling Muslims from their homes at gunpoint were actually helping them go home. Someday, he said, they would build statues in his honor.

And after a horrific massacre caused by a mortar that landed in a crowded outdoor market, Karadzic told an incredulous Mark Danner that the Bosnian military had shelled its own people, and that many of the bodies had ice in their ears because they had been taken out of a morgue to make the death toll seem higher.

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According to prosecutors at the war crimes trial, Karadzic once said: “Sarajevo will be a black cauldron, where 300,000 Muslims will die. It will be a real bloodbath.” According to Karadzic, he was a tolerant man who should be rewarded for reducing suffering.

While many Bosnian Serbs — particularly in Sarajevo and the other big cities — had no use for Karadzic, plenty others fell under the sway of propaganda.

It made you wonder: Why would people set aside their own experiences of living normally with their neighbors to accept a world view imposed from the outside?

The answer was fear. The past was over but not completely forgotten. Could you really trust your neighbor? How much were you willing to risk?

In a report on propaganda in the Balkan wars for tribunal prosecutors, French academic Renaud de la Brosse quotes one of Milosevic’s collaborators, Borisav Jovic, as saying the Serbian leader was adamant about controlling the media: “What is not published, has not happened at all — that was Milosevic’s motto.”

Equally important were the things that didn’t happen but were publicized as fact. Like the report on Karadzic-controlled Bosnian Serb TV, also cited by De la Brosse, that Sarajevans were feeding Serbian children to the hungry lions at the zoo.

Serbian TV later apologized “to the citizens of Serbia and those of neighboring countries who were subject to insult, slander and what would now be termed as hate speech.”

On March 24, Karadzic was convicted on 10 of 11 counts, including genocide in the massacre of an estimated 8,000 men and boys after the capture of the Srebrenica safe zone in July 1995. 

I visited Srebrenica a few months after the massacre, as well as the former Dutch U.N. military outpost where the town’s residents were handed over to Mladic.

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It was a place of overwhelming sadness, a palpable sense of evil. Imagining the scene again 20 years later brings it all back.