Let’s admit it, Radovan Karadzic, arrested for war crimes, after twelve years on the run, is different. For one, he looks different from all the other criminals–the stocky, greasy Balkan politicians; the pudgy unshaven generals; the foxy-eyed thugs, the taxi drivers turned secret policemen. Karadzic is a tall, well-built man with a strong chin and large eyes. His wild, graying mane makes him look more like a rock star than a politician. One could easily imagine him onstage, microphone in hand. In fact, he often appeared that way–although not in the capacity of a rock star. He had a personal flair, a certain charisma. Now, looking at the latest, rather ridiculous photos of the bearded old man who was taken into custody, it is hard to believe all that.
His life story is surely material for a movie–a guy born in a tiny Montenegrin village who made it to the city of Sarajevo, to a university, to fame as a poet and, finally, to President of the Republika Srpska–and fame as one of the world’s most wanted war criminals. Combining the traditional characters of hajduk (robber) and guslar (poet), Karadzic was known to recite epic verses while accompanying himself on a stringed instrument. But all his intellectual achievements were insufficient: what he wanted was power. Karadzic became a war criminal out of sheer vanity. Vanity itself is not a crime, unless it pushes you in the position where you can–and indeed, you do–order the extermination of almost 8,000 Muslim men in Srebrenica in 1995, to mention only one of his offenses against humanity.
Whenever I think of Radovan Karadzic, one picture remains my mind. It is from a documentary shot during the siege of Sarajevo, in which he arrives at Pale, on a hill above Sarajevo, from which the military of Republika Srpska was shelling the city. Karadzic arrives with a guest, the Russian poet Eduard Limonov. Besieged Sarajevo lies in the valley below, and they can clearly see every building, every street, every tree: an ideal position for shooting. Dressed in a black coat, with a shawl around his neck to ward off the winter chill, Karadzic gallantly offers his guest and a fellow poet a “special treat” befitting an arbiter of life and death. He asks Limonov to try a shot from a machine gun pointed at the city. Just like that; just for fun. Just like in the movies, when a king offers a gun to his guest to shoot the wild beasts. Only down in that besieged city are not beasts, but people.
Limonov takes the challenge, kneels behind a machine gun and shoots. Everyone is delighted: this man is one of them! Despite the fact that he is a poet, he is not a sissy. Like their own poet, Limonov proved he was a real man–as if to be a poet in the Balkans–or to be a psychiatrist or intellectual, for that matter–doesn’t really count. Then the two of them drink sljivovica with the soldiers and dine on roasted pig, apparently unconcerned about whether Limonov shot someone or not.
How is it that an intellectual, poet and psychiatrist like Karadzic could do such a thing? It took me time to understand that this is the wrong question. It is wrong because it takes for granted that people like this–the educated ones, the sophisticated ones, the artists, for God’s sake–should know better. Don’t they have higher moral standards that ordinary people? The answer is no.