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.
I’ve seen it myself while working on my 2005 book, They Would Not Hurt a Fly, about war criminals on trial in The Hague. War criminals come from all social strata, from all kind of backgrounds. They are academics, writers or mechanics; waiters, bank clerks, peasants. One is tempted to call war criminals like Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic or Slobodan Milosevic “monsters,” because this is the easiest way out of the terrible thought that we, too, might be capable of committing or ordering atrocities. But there are no monsters. Ordinary people–poets, presidents and mailmen–have the capacity to do both good and evil. We have a choice. Radovan Karadzic chose power, and to possess power in a time of war comes with a high price, which he is now about to pay.
Looking at BBC video clips accompanying Karadzic’s arrest, I again saw faces of Franjo Tudjman, Alija Izetbegovic, Slobodan Milosevic, Zeljko Raznatovic (a k a Arkan.) They are all dead now, yet it seems only yesterday that they were deciding our destiny. The younger generation in Serbia, kids born in, say, 1990, might not even know who these warlords were. With Karadzic’s arrest, they have a chance to learn that part of their history.
One of the most problematic facts about the thirteen years after the Dayton Agreement is that Serbia–along with Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo–was the least capable of confronting its role in the wars in the Balkans. And Serbs continue to live in denial. They claim that they, themselves, were victims. Indeed, they were victims of Milosevic’s politics of nationalism and war, victims of US bombardment in 1999. However, this does not absolve them from voting three times for Milosevic, from cheering Serbian tanks, for supporting Vojislav Seselj’s fascist party, for turning their backs to Europe and the world.
The fact that Karadzic has finally been captured in Serbia is a chance for them to turn the new–though not altogether blank–page. There will be euphoria abroad and Serbia’s new government will be hailed as brave. But it is up to Serbian citizens (and, nota bene, the citizen of Republika Srpska, whose president he was and whose citizen he still is) to see this as a chance for themselves, too. The must look into their own lives and their own contributions to the poisonous politics of the last twenty years.
Perhaps the most important effect of this belated arrest is another one: Karadzic’s trial will contribute to the truth about war. Regardless of political controversies about the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, in every trial a piece of truth becomes evident. What people in Belgrade and in Zagreb and in Sarajevo as well as in Pristina need most is truth. Without truth, there is no justice; and in the case of these wars, without justice, there is no truth.