Respond to this Article January/February 2004

Catch Me if You Can

If snaring Saddam was so important, why is Radovan Karadzic allowed to remain free?

By Russ Baker

Celebici is a remote gnat of a place. A few dozen houses and a church, a couple of hours up a rough road from the ragged Bosnian hills, surrounded by forested peaks. But it was as big as the headlines it generated when NATO-led forces staged Operation Daybreak there in February 2002, ostensibly hoping to net Radovan Karadzic, the still-at-large Bosnian Serb leader who had been indicted by the Hague's War Crimes Tribunal for helping lead a genocide in 1992-1995 that killed up to 200,000, mostly Bosnian Muslims. Helicopters disgorged black-masked troops who kicked in doors and blew open locks as they conducted a door-to-door search. They left empty-handed. Operation Daybreak remains the only serious action the West is known to have conducted to pick up Karadzic.

The international peacekeeping troops, known as SFOR, maintain an ongoing interest in Celebici. They reappeared the day after the initial February raid, and then again that summer--which seems a little strange since even if he was once there, Karadzic was hardly likely to return to a place that's already under such scrutiny. During my visit, villagers were initially wary, but ended up sharing salami and a cheese spread called kajmak with me, and talking freely about their life in a fishbowl. Within half an hour of my arrival, almost on cue, an SFOR vehicle entered the village and parked by the tiny church. But when I chatted up the German officers inside, they turned out to be on what certainly looked more like a sightseeing tour than a sophisticated operation, even if getting to Celebici takes some resolve and a lot of bouncing up a challenging path. They admitted to me that most SFOR troops know very little about Bosnia, and are hardly equipped for, or looking forward to, a vigorous action of the sort necessary to bag Karadzic. After talking with locals and Western officials in Bosnia, I started to suspect that the troops still hang around Celebici because they don't have any more current idea of where Karadzic might be.

Five years ago, Karadzic's capture seemed imminent. In 1998, the-then international High Representative to Bosnia, Carlos Westendorp, declared that Karadzic's power base was shrinking rapidly and that he probably would surrender within a month. Elisabeth Rehn, the U.N. envoy to Bosnia, said she suspected Karadzic would be in the Hague "quite soon." Like Osama bin Laden, Karadzic is well-known and physically distinctive: A tall man with a big belly, a dimpled chin, and a dramatic gray bouffant, he ought to be difficult to hide. But for a seeming eternity, he's eluded some of the most technologically sophisticated man-hunting teams in the country. Now, with American intelligence drained from the area to support the military in Iraq, the prospects for his capture look dimmer than ever. The evidence suggests that Americans and their Western allies have simply given up the hunt.

One really shouldn't engage in atrocity one-upmanship, but it's arguable that compared with such more famous current and recent fugitives as Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, Karadzic, wins the odiousness sweepstakes. A remarkably public front man for genocide in the former Yugoslavia, the disarmingly avuncular Bosnian Serb leader dispensed lies to packed press conferences while his soldiers laid siege to Sarajevo (where he previously worked at the main hospital) and went village to village, locking families inside houses and setting them afire, bringing women to detention camps where they could be mass-raped. Along with his general and fellow fugitive Ratko Mladic, Karadzic is accused of responsibility for all manner of atrocity, most notably the 1995 massacre of about 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the U.N. safe area of Srebrenica, the single worst crime committed in Europe since World War II.

Now that U.S. troops have captured Saddam Hussein, and the Bush administration has trumpeted that capture as both a justification for the war and a key step toward winning the peace, it has become logically impossible to justify why Radovan Karadzic is allowed to roam free. Like Saddam, he is a genocidal murderer. Like Saddam, his most horrible crimes were committed a decade ago. And like Saddam, the fact that he remains at large is an enormous obstacle to democracy and a cause for instability throughout a strategically crucial region. If Saddam in jail is a victory for human rights, Karadzic on the lam is an affront to them.

Aura of invincibility

To begin with, Karadzic's liberty serves as an irritant to the open wound that is Bosnia. Eight years after the Dayton Peace Accord commenced a process that was supposed to lead to reunification, and despite the efforts of hundreds of foreign aid workers and the expenditure of more than $5 billion dollars, the "country" remains fractious and fractured. Efforts to create unity and long-term peace have been frustrated by the continued dominance in the ethnic Serbian state-within-a-state (known as Republika Srpska), of a corrupt clique. This cartel, which is said to be controlled by Karadzic and to be dedicated largely to obstructing the reforms essential to his capture, has frustrated efforts to create unity and long-term peace. The poison spills across national boundaries--there are even believed to be ties to the March 2003 assassination of the reformist prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, next door in another country, the rump of the former Yugoslavia, now called Serbia and Montenegro. And, of course, the fate of the entire area holds lessons for other Western efforts at democracy and nation-building, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

To skeptical observers, the strategy of Karadzic and his supporters is to outwait the international community, and then, when the foreigners leave, to annex the Serbian enclave of Bosnia to Serbia proper, despite the fact that it once housed huge numbers of ethnic Muslims and Croats, who have been slowly returning to their prewar homes.

Karadzic's continued freedom gives those returnees a sense that all has not yet been put right, while his aura of invincibility has grown among Serbia's Serbs and the 700,000 Bosnian Serbs. Among Bosnian Muslims, constant speculation and conspiracy theories abound--especially the belief that the international community leadership does not want Karadzic caught.

Indeed, when the United States and the United Nations were working to end the Bosnian war in Dayton in 1995, Richard Holbrooke, deputy secretary of state and Clinton's chief negotiator, led Karadzic to believe that if the Serb retreated from the political scene, he would not be arrested. U.N. High Representative Carl Bildt has said publicly that he was the one who made the deal with Karadzic. But Holbrooke and other officials have since said repeatedly that the United States ought to lead the hunt to get Karadzic, who, by playing the role of a political puppetmaster, has undermined the stability of the region. It is NATO, especially the American military, that has been most resistant to taking the risks necessary to catch Karadzic.

"When we first went in, the Pentagon thought that what we had to do was hard enough," said retired Gen. William Nash, former commander of U.S. forces in Bosnia and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. NATO became slightly more aggressive, and caught some war criminals, after Gen. Wesley Clark took over in 1997, but never got Karadzic--and never seemed willing to risk a single casualty. The Bush administration came to office initially intending to leave the Balkans altogether. That never quite happened, but in the wake of September 11 and the war in Iraq, most U.S. troops in Bosnia have been pulled out.

Oblique Frenchmen

Everyone in Bosnia, it seems, can describe with certainty Karadzic's current circumstances. Want to know how he's protected? Karadzic is guarded at all times by 90 heavily-armed, itchy-fingered veterans. Wait. Take Two: He's largely on his own, with a tiny entourage. His location? He lives in the woods. Correction: He lives in an apartment in a small city. His cover? He goes about disguised as a priest. Um, actually, he's had plastic surgery. What about his family relations? He hasn't seen his wife in years. Wrong: He sees her regularly.

The rumors, sometimes published, and sometimes attributed to "reliable sources," insist that Karadzic only moves about at night, that he stays close to the borders, that decoy look-alikes ( la Saddam) abound, that he's cocooned by a security system comprising a corps of bodyguards in his immediate vicinity and two outer layers of locals and police serving as an advance warning system in the event of a capture attempt.

There are many obstacles to finding Karadzic, some of them substantial. He is traveling in a region largely hostile to outsiders in which he is a kind of ethnic folk hero. He is well funded, and, through his political party, SDS, and the remnants of the Bosnian Serb army, he has a complex infrastructure at his disposal, largely dedicated to keeping him out of the reaches of westerners. But perhaps the largest obstacle is that the United States and its allies have not dedicated real resources to chasing him down.

Many of SFOR's soldiers--13,000 troops from 35 countries, down from a high of 60,000 after the war--share no common language, and those few who can speak to contingents from other countries aren't necessarily inclined to do so. Each contingent has gotten a reputation. American troops--now just 1,500, all national guardsmen, dentists from Ohio and laborers from New York--are not exactly Special Forces quality, and tend to stay pretty close to base. Italian and French troops like to live it up and have perhaps gotten too cozy with some locals. The Brits are the most enthusiastic about actually doing something. And, given their experience amongst a hostile, armed population in Northern Ireland, they're the best prepared--and show it through deft use of intelligence, and lightning fast raids. So far, they have apprehended most of the war criminals--half of the 24 arrests officially reported by SFOR to date have come in their zone.

But the areas where Bosnians suspect Karadzic is hiding are controlled by Italian, French, and German troops, none of whom seem eager to fire their guns. The Germans I met in Celebici made clear that it would absolutely not be desirable, for obvious historical reasons, to have Germany in the forefront of a bloody international military incident that involves capturing someone accused of murdering large numbers of innocent people. The French, technically in charge of the area, have been historically close with the Serbs and opposed the creation of the Hague Tribunal. Their personnel have already been accused on several occasions of compromising operations. In 1996, the United States called off a planned military operation because of suspected French leaks, and a French army officer was jailed in 2001 for handing the Serbs NATO military information in 1998 that was relevant to upcoming bombing raids in Kosovo. On the morning of the Celebici raid, according to military sources, a French officer took a call from a Bosnian Serb policeman inquiring about an unusually large SFOR presence. In the conversation, which was monitored by peacekeeping forces, the Frenchman obliquely referred to the area being of interest, "today in particular."

Perhaps as troubling, tours of duty are fairly short, so most SFOR troops leave right about the time they're starting to know their way around. The secretive SFOR intelligence units, comprised largely of American and British agents, have been decimated by redirection to Iraq, and those who remain are tasked largely with keeping tabs on groups that have ties to Islamic guerillas. No one is more frustrated than the staff of the Hague Tribunal. With no authority over SFOR, they can't tell it what to do, and SFOR sends out mixed signals all the time, sometimes claiming that capturing Karadzic is a priority, sometimes noting that capturing him is the responsibility of the local police.

The latter idea is a laugh, of course, as I learned on my visit to Pale, Karadzic's wartime capital just outside Sarajevo, and home to his wife, Ljiljana. The friendly folks at the European Union Police Mission, whose job is to monitor and guide the development of an honest, effective police force, knew nothing about where I might find Mrs. Karadzic. Next door at the town police station, the deputy commander said that monitoring her whereabouts was a priority, but when I asked where Pale's most famous resident currently lived, the commander had to consult a subordinate, who came up with two addresses. Both turned out to be wrong. At the radio station owned by Karadzic's daughter, I was told that she--perhaps together with her mother--was away on holiday. Holiday! Did any authorities have any idea where they were vacationing? Or whether they might not be spending quality time with a tall gray-haired man with a cleft chin?

Capturing Karadzic is especially challenging because ordinary people revere him and because some extraordinarily bad and powerful people are joined with him at the hip.

Everywhere one travels on both sides of the border between Bosnia and Serbia, and in neighboring Montenegro, where Karadzic was actually born and raised, one finds Karadzic a kind of folk hero, celebrated for ostensibly defending orthodoxy against Muslim aggression and thereby playing a righteous role in what amounts to a 500-year-old quarrel. The Hague's evidence of his war crimes is dismissed as exaggerated, biased, or trumped up. His calls for a single country uniting all ethnic Serbs, coupled with his credentials as a psychiatrist and author of poems, folk songs and children's books, have been used effectively to polish his local image as a hero. (His former information minister is even publishing a book of children's poetry that he says was written by Karadzic in hiding.) Calendars of Karadzic hang at bus stations; on Christmas Day, 2002, thousands of Bosnian Serbs received a text-message holiday greeting from Karadzic on their mobile phones. And last year, pro-Karadzic posters mysteriously appeared all over Banja Luka, though authorities, undoubtedly worried about the reactions of Western forces, had them removed within hours.

Ordinary people throughout Republika Srpska--and particularly in the eastern portion where Karadzic is believed to be--are petrified of showing the slightest sympathy with the goals of the Hague Tribunal. "At the Hague Tribunal, some [Bosnian Serb] witnesses have admitted to participating in war crimes, but there was completely no reaction here," I was told by Branko Todorovic, president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Republika Srpska. "War crimes are still seen as something positive, as a success, especially on the local level. Look at the work of people in the media, of intellectuals, the statements of political and religious leaders --you will not be able to see any serious attempt to deal with this topic or criticize the happenings in the war. Because on the local level we have people who are the decision-makers now and who were directly involved in those war crimes."

A most unusual monk

Many of the Serbs who defend Karadzic may be motivated less by nationalist fervor than by self-interest. Karadzic sat--and presumably continues to sit--at the nexus of an intricate web of political, legal, military/police, and financial power that gained considerable wealth through wartime profiteering and favorable treatment from the Karadzic and post-Karadzic regimes in Republika Srpska.

"The outcome of the entire war, and the cause, is a few businessmen who took advantage of nationalism to get rich," says a former high-ranking Bosnian Serb law enforcement official. Those businessmen, most of whom have close ties with Karadzic's ruling SDS, have moved on to illicit and black market activities, which constitute a considerable portion of the entire economy. Many government officials, including cabinet ministers, are deeply involved in the underground economy, and would potentially face charges and long prison sentences if the semi-independent republic were ever cleaned up.

Bosnian Serb military officials loyal to Karadzic have been repeatedly implicated in all manner of scandal, from supplying weapons and expertise to Saddam Hussein's regime to spying on SFOR troops and monitoring NATO forces throughout the Balkans. In the past year or so, Western forces in Bosnia have moved to crack down on the most corrupt among the army's top brass, but the institution remains loyal to Karadzic. Republika Srpska is the only part of the former Yugoslavia that has yet to arrest a single war crimes suspect --despite being required to do so under the Dayton accords.

Last year, Karadzic's political party, the SDS, gave in to NATO demands and announced that they were expelling Karadzic and others suspected of war crimes from their membership. But that expulsion was widely seen as strictly for show. According to local officials and intelligence sources, Karadzic continues to run the party, relying on trusted lieutenants to collect intelligence for him and transmit his written instructions through couriers to the party and government leadership. One top politician reported receiving a note from Karadzic chastising him for going to a mosque's foundation-laying ceremony.

Karadzic's cronies spend about $200,000 a month protecting him, according to foreign diplomats. A sort of medieval tithing system, enforced by tough guys, includes a "tax" collected by civilians carrying police identification and skimmed profits from foreign electricity sales. U.S. intelligence services have tracked gas from Saddam Hussein's Iraq to merchants and distributors with close links to the SDS leadership and Karadzic. Republika Srpska also makes donations to the Orthodox Church for the ostensible purpose of rebuilding religious structures destroyed in the war--donations that, by law, cannot be monitored or even audited; officials in the ethnic Serb capital of Banja Luka and foreign diplomats believe that some of this money finds its way to Karadzic.

Many Western officials believe the Orthodox Church is actually housing Karadzic. Several SFOR operations focused on church properties before being halted, presumably to avoid inflaming religious tensions. In March, Hague Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte said that monitored telephone communications had revealed that Karadzic was hiding at a mountaintop Orthodox monastery in Ostrog, northwest of the capital. Church officials denied sheltering Karadzic but praised him nonetheless.

Catch can

What is most disturbing about Radovan Karadzic's continued life on the lam is how well we understand its parameters. We know who supplies his funding and who coordinates his logistics. We know the region he is likely holed up in. We know the institutions (his party SDS and reactionary elements within Serbia) that provide him support, institutions which have sent initial signals that their support for Karadzic is beginning to wane. We even know, from the success of British troops and intelligence in bringing war criminals to justice, those methods of pursuit and bribery most likely to work in this part of Bosnia and Montenegro. Compared to Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein, finding Karadzic seems, if not easy, a comparatively attainable goal.

If capturing Saddam was as important a milestone for Iraq's future as the White House says it is, then what conceivable reason can there be for not putting some small fraction of that energy into getting Karadzic? Today, despite its professed commitment to tracking down dangerous tyrants and doing the right thing, the Bush administration parses the vague, malleable notion of "national security" to make one monster fair game, and another irrelevant. In the end, then, Radovan Karadzic, a war criminal of virtually unsurpassed atrociousness who continues to destabilize a volatile region, is allowed to roam free--not because we can't get him but because we have chosen not to.

Russ Baker is a New York writer.


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