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Karadzic fingered at last, but what about those who left him to it?

This is a guest post by Daniel Simpson

I never met Radovan Karadzic, though like many in the Balkans, I did once pretend to try and find him.

His trademark bouffant vanished long before I first set foot in Bosnia, a decade too late to see Serbs douse Sarajevo with anti-aircraft cannon, if not the “armed trees” of Dr Karadzic’s warped poetic prophecy.

A psychiatrist, his delusions started early. Born in a Montenegrin stable, as World War II spawned Socialist Yugoslavia, his role model wasn’t just his father Vuk, a Serbian militiaman who fought both the Nazis and the Partisan resistance. In time, he grew to see himself as heir to a far more celebrated Vuk Karadzic: the poet, folklorist and father of Serbian orthography.

By the outbreak of war in 1992, this linguist namesake’s spirit had long since possessed Dr Karadzic, who was lured into politics in the 1960s by an infamous nationalist writer. Visitors to his mountain redoubt were regaled with folk tales of Serbian suffering, as well as claims that Bosnia’s Muslims were slaughtering themselves, or fleeing their homes in gratitude to join ethnic kin elsewhere. Some were even treated to his singing. From a lopsided gawp, the Bosnian Serb leader would wail about his people’s historical woes, mawkish epics backed by a single-stringed lyre called a gusle, the traditional grating accompaniment to Balkan laments.

The peasants these anthems eulogised were all that remained when I arrived. And they weren’t about to betray their hero to prying outsiders, even for a $5 million bounty. For years, Dr Karadzic had roamed the wilds of Serb-run eastern Bosnia, unhindered by thousands of NATO soldiers who’d been sent to police the peace. He’d disguised himself as a priest, some said, shorn of his grey shock and sporting a beard. Others reported “sightings” worthy of Elvis: in cafés, at funerals, and even poetry readings. But if they’d phoned them in to NATO, the response had never been swift enough to threaten capture. Rewards seemed no match for the smuggled loot that bought Europe’s most notorious fugitive freedom to do as he pleased.

Or did it? While there’s little doubt Dr Karadzic stole a fortune, having been convicted of fraud and embezzlement before the war, he wasn’t just an outlaw holed up with mercenaries, defying wary pursuers to take casualties. The weather-beaten folk he went to ground amongst had been reared on tales of centuries of relentless oppression. Even if they loathed the man they loved his cause: the avenging of bygone misfortunes, by wanton aggression if needs be.

“They can look for him as much as they want, but they’ll never find him,” a gap-toothed woman told me a few years ago, in one of the shacks that comprised a place called Celebici, where Dr Karadzic was said to have stayed. “He was a good man. People will protect him.”

He also had friends in higher places than these remote mountain hamlets, whether in Serbia or further afield. According to his wife Ljiljana, who still runs the Bosnian Serb Red Cross, when he went to ground in 1997 it was because “he had an agreement with Richard Holbrooke.” Bill Clinton’s Balkan envoy denies this was part of the deal he struck to end the war, but she claims Mr Holbrooke promised “the U.S. would leave him alone if he withdrew from the post of president of the Bosnian Serb Republic,” despite his indictment for genocide.

Serbian officials said the same. Others pointed fingers at pro-Serb France, whose legionnaires patrolled the wilds where Dr Karadzic hid, before he slipped across the border and moved to Belgrade, only to be arrested now that Serbia’s bid to join the European Union seems viable.

Occasionally there’d been shoot-outs, and rumours of attempted raids, but NATO mostly targeted Mrs Karadzic and her son, whom it dubbed the renegade leader’s “support network”. When the French said in 2004 they were preparing to pounce, Serbia asked them to transfer Dr Karadzic to The Hague, recalled the spokeswoman for the tribunal’s former prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte. However, she wrote in her memoirs, this aroused “the great displeasure of the Americans, who intervened to suspend the operation.” Once again this was promptly denied, along with several similar allegations, variously levelled at Washington, Paris and Moscow.

Whatever the truth of them, NATO troops were effectively told not to look for Dr Karadzic, or other suspects, but to arrest them only if encountered “in the course of their normal duties”. Since there’s only one dirt road into the south-eastern border mountains, and it passes through a Serb town synonymous with war crimes, all of which the police chief denies happened, this seemed somewhat improbable.

The NATO commander at the time, an American general called John Sylvester, conceded as much when I met him. “When we go in there, obviously we are recognised as ‘them,’ ‘they,’ ‘somebody else,'” he said. “That makes it difficult to go in on his turf and find him.” Still, he insisted, “we’ve been looking real hard now for about three years”. That was 2002.

“Of course,” Ms Del Ponte said last year, “Karadzic could have been easily arrested until 1998, but no one wanted to.” The reason was simple, she said: “The fear of renewed unrest, which could have put our own soldiers in harm’s way.”

A year earlier, Britain’s Ambassador to Bosnia had sought permission to talk to Dr Karadzic, believing he could persuade him to surrender before he vanished. “I would have been the first senior international Serbian speaker he would have met,” said the envoy, Charles Crawford, who has since retired from diplomatic service. The foreign secretary Robin Cook liked the idea, Crawford said, but “allowed himself to be bamboozled” by mandarins, who urged him to ask his counterpart in Washington. Cook duly “consulted Madeleine Albright, who said no.”

Another American denial. What lies behind it, like all the others, remains unclear. Perhaps once Dr Karadzic goes on trial, we’ll finally get to hear about what’s been keeping him.

Daniel Simpson was a reporter for the New York Times in the Balkans in 2002 and 2003