To the last, there was no contrition, no plea for forgiveness, no scintilla of regret for the 100,000 lives lost and tens of thousands of families crushed in the blood bath in Bosnia that his obsessions unleashed nearly a quarter of a century ago.
When Radovan Karadzic stood last week to hear the verdicts of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, he might as well have been back in Sarajevo as the psychiatrist he once was, listening to a seriously delusional patient, pondering how to deal with such mad abandonment of a reality that only he could see.
His wavy white hair fashionably trimmed, his natty dark suit not quite meeting at the waist, his televised countenance seemed beyond impassive as the court returned guilty verdicts on 10 of 11 counts encompassing genocide, persecution, extermination, murder, deportation, unlawful attacks on civilians, hostage-taking and other crimes against humanity.
It was the most damning judgment of its kind since the Nuremberg trials of Nazi Germany’s leaders after World War II, and the 40-year sentence suggested that the 70-year-old Mr. Karadzic, barring appeal, will die in prison.
But the verdicts stirred barely a flicker of the eyelids from Mr. Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader whom historians have blamed for the overwhelming preponderance of the war’s casualties, including 8,000 Muslim men and boys slaughtered in July 1995 in Srebrenica. At the trial’s outset, Mr. Karadzic had called Srebrenica “a fiction.” Now, the downturned set of his mouth, his baleful stare, suggested contempt, even pity, for those sitting in judgment on him.
“I am astonished,” he was heard to tell his lawyers — a reaction familiar to those of us who came to know Mr. Karadzic during the Bosnian killing. His perplexity echoed the alarming state of denial he often displayed when questioned about the gut-wrenching cruelties committed by Bosnian Serb forces.
From the start of the war, I was among a few Western reporters commuting regularly across the siege lines the Bosnian Serb paramilitaries had thrown around Sarajevo to his headquarters at an old skiing lodge in Pale, a mountain village. There we came face to face with Mr. Karadzic’s casual indifference to the killing.
It was hardly a novel experience for a foreign correspondent to encounter political leaders with appalling records of repression and brutality, and find them, often enough, genial, good-humored, even gracious. Talking in the 1970s to John Vorster, prime minister of apartheid South Africa, or to Zhou Enlai in China, I had to make an act of will to remember that these were men with the grimmest of histories, with the facade of civility.
But few were ever as unsettling as Mr. Karadzic, who appeared to live in a parallel universe — sealed off entirely from the ghastly realities lived by those outside his political and ideological thrall. He was ever the welcoming host, eager to persuade visitors of his generosity of purpose. That fed a sense that he was perhaps the weirdest of all the unsavory leaders I have known.
I first glimpsed the extent of the disaster he presaged for Bosnia when we met in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, six weeks after the first shots were fired in Sarajevo. Nothing I’d seen of him in Sarajevo and Pale prepared me for the frightening world of disconnected, madcap reasoning that poured forth as we sipped Turkish coffee at a table overlooking a shopping mall’s splashing fountains and modish boutiques.
He sketched the idyllic future he planned to create with separate homelands for Bosnia’s Serbs, Muslims and Croats. He embellished his vision with snatches of his execrable poetry, which had been widely mocked in the intellectual salons of prewar Sarajevo. But large-scale killings and displacement of Muslims by Bosnian Serb militias had already begun at Bijeljina and Zvornik, alongside the murderous artillery bombardment of Sarajevo. I had witnessed both.
Still, Mr. Karadzic disavowed any malice. “Hatred really damages the one who hates, not the one who is hated,” he said.
Much later, when my reporting had made me deeply unpopular in Pale, senior American intelligence officers in Europe warned me that an intercepted message suggested that Bosnian Serb forces on the mountain road between Pale and Sarajevo had discussed a plan to arrange a fatal accident for me. When I told Mr. Karadzic of the American warning, he laughed and promptly offered guarantees of safe passage through Serb-held territory for the duration.
But perhaps the most telling encounter came one bitterly cold night after Bosnian Serb gunmen turned me and other reporters back at gunpoint from a mountaintop roadblock outside a besieged Muslim enclave, notwithstanding a pass signed that day by Mr. Karadzic. We returned indignantly to Pale, where we were placated by a night of sharing a bottle of hair-curling slivovitz with Mr. Karadzic.
His concern that night was with articles I had written about ethnic cleansing, a term I’d first heard when Bosnian Serb gunmen took me captive during the killing and displacement of Muslims from the picturesque town of Zvornik. I’d seen the militiamen herding hundreds of women and children at gunpoint into the mountains with pitiable bundles of possessions, with many of their men and teenage sons left lying dead along streets and riverbanks.
Mr. Karadzic rebuked me, saying I’d misrepresented ethnic cleansing as a policy of forcing Muslims from their homes. The essence of the practice, he said, was to open the way for them to “go home” to their rightful habitat in other Muslim-majority areas. That was his description of a journey by foot of as much as a week. Many died along the way. But he insisted that Muslims would in time build statues to him in his honor. “They will love me,” he said.
About the same time, he began propagating another theory: Bosnia’s Muslims were not Muslims at all, but Serbs who had lost their way when they converted to Islam under Ottoman occupation. In that, too, he could help them “come home,” he said, shedding a “false faith” for the Serbs’ Orthodox Christianity.
It was ideas of this kind, denying Muslims an identity that had defined them for centuries, that translated in the minds of gunmen at Sarajevo and Srebrenica and a host of other killing grounds into a conviction that the Muslims were worthless apostates and non-persons, for whom death under Serb guns constituted the proper verdict of history.
John Fisher Burns, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, received a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Balkan wars.