Genocide’s Epic Hero

On Oct. 14, 1991, Radovan Karadzic spoke at a session of the Bosnian-Herzegovinian Parliament, which had been debating a referendum on independence from the rump Yugoslavia. Mr. Karadzic was there to warn the Parliament members against following the Slovenes and Croats, who had broken away earlier that year, down “the highway of hell and suffering.”

He thundered, “Do not think you will not lead Bosnia and Herzegovina into hell and the Muslim people into possible annihilation, as the Muslim people cannot defend themselves in case of war here.” Throughout his tirade, he clutched the lectern edges, as though about to hurl it at his audience, but then let go of it to stab the air with his forefinger at the word “annihilation.” The Bosnian president, Alija Izetbegovic, a Muslim, was visibly distressed.

It was a spectacular, if blood-curdling, performance. Mr. Karadzic, who was arrested last week after 13 years in hiding, was then president of the hard-line nationalist Serbian Democratic Party, which already controlled the parts of Bosnia that had a Serbian majority, but he was not a member of the Parliament, nor did he hold any elective office. His very presence rendered the Parliament weak and unimportant; backed by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav People’s Army, he spoke from the position of unimpeachable power over the life and death of the people the Parliament represented.

Watching the news broadcast covering the session, neither my parents nor I could initially comprehend what he meant by “annihilation.” For a moment or two we groped for a milder, less terrifying interpretation — perhaps he meant “historical irrelevance”? For what he was saying was well outside the scope of our middling imagination, well beyond the habits of normalcy we desperately clung to as war loomed over our irrelevant lives.

Then I understood that he was wagging the stick of genocide at the Bosnian Muslims, while the unappetizing carrot was their bare survival. “Don’t make me do it,” he was essentially saying. “I will be at home in the hell I create for you.”

The Parliament eventually decided a referendum was the way to go. It took place in February 1992; the Serbs boycotted it while the majority of Bosnians voted for independence. In March, there were barricades on the streets of Sarajevo and shooting in the mountains surrounding it. In April, Mr. Karadzic’s snipers aimed at a peaceful antiwar demonstration in front of the Parliament building, and two women were killed. On May 2, Sarajevo was cut off from the world and the longest siege in modern history began. By the end of the summer, nearly every front page in the world had published a picture from a Serbian death camp. And so it would go for far too long.

There is little doubt, of course, that Mr. Karadzic would have happily sped down the hell-and-suffering highway regardless of the outcome of the parliamentary session. The annihilation machine was already revving, everything had already been put in place for genocide, whose purpose was not only the destruction and displacement of Bosnian Muslims but also the irreversible unification of the Serbs and their ethnically pure lands into a Greater Serbia. I wondered later why he staged that performance before the Parliament, since peace and coexistence were never a possibility for him. Why did he bother?

The point of that performance, I eventually concluded, was the performance itself. Unbeknownst to most of us interested in peaceful coexistence, the war in Bosnia had already started and Mr. Karadzic was already cast in the role he would perform throughout the war, up until his 1996 ouster from the Serbian political leadership and his subsequent new life on the run. His performance was far less for the beleaguered Bosnian Parliament than for the patriotic Serbs watching the broadcast, ready to embark upon an epic project that would require sacrifice, murder and ethnic cleansing.

Mr. Karadzic was showing to his people that he was a tough and determined leader, yet neither unwise nor unreasonable. He was indicating that war would not be a rash decision on his part, while he was capable of recognizing the inevitable necessity of genocide. If there was a job to be done, he was going to do it unflinchingly and ruthlessly. He was the leader who was going to lead them through the hell of murder to the land where honor and salvation awaited.

The model for Mr. Karadzic’s role as leader was provided by Petar Petrovic Njegos’s epic poem “The Mountain Wreath” (“Gorski vijenac”). Published in 1847, it is deeply embedded in the tradition of Serbian epic poetry and is a foundational text of Serbian cultural nationalism. Set at the end of the 17th century, its central character is Vladika Danilo, the bishop and the sovereign of Montenegro, the only Serbian territory unconquered at the time by the powerful and all-encroaching Ottoman Empire. Vladika Danilo has a problem: some Montenegrin Serbs have converted to Islam. For him, they are the fifth column of the Turks, a people who could never be trusted, a permanent threat to the freedom and sovereignty of the Serbs.

He summons a council to help him determine the solution. He listens to the advice of his bloodthirsty warriors: “Without suffering no song is sung,” one of them says. “Without suffering no saber is forged.” He listens to a delegation of Muslims pleading for peace and coexistence, who are instead offered the chance to save their heads by converting back to “the faith of their forefathers.” He speaks of freedom and the difficult decisions it requires: “The wolf is entitled to a sheep/Much like a tyrant to a feeble man./But to stomp the neck of tyranny/To lead it to the righteous knowledge/ That is man’s most sacred duty.”

In the lines familiar to nearly every Serbian child and adult, Vladika Danilo recognizes that the total, ruthless extermination of the Muslims is the only way: “Let there be endless struggle,” he says. “Let there be what cannot be.” He will lead his people through the hell of murder and onward to honor and salvation: “On the grave flowers will grow/ For a distant future generation.”

Mr. Karadzic was intimately familiar with Serbian epic poetry. A skillful player of the gusle, a single-string fiddle traditionally accompanying the oral performance of epic poems, he clearly understood his role in the light cast by Vladika Danilo. He recognized himself in the martyrdom of leadership; he believed that he was the one to finish the job that Vladika Danilo started; he saw himself as the hero in an epic poem that would be sung by a distant future generation.

Indeed, while in hiding in Belgrade in recent years, Mr. Karadzic frequented a bar where there were weekly gusle-accompanied performances of Serbian epic poetry, where wartime pictures of him and Gen. Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serbs’ military leader, proudly hung on the wall. A Belgrade newspaper claimed that on at least one occasion Mr. Karadzic, undercover as a New Age charlatan, recited an epic poem in which he himself featured as the main hero, performing epic feats of extermination.

The tragic, heartbreaking irony of it all is that Mr. Karadzic played out his historical role in less than 10 years. In the flash of his infernal pan hundreds of thousands died, millions were displaced, untold numbers paid in unspeakable pain for his induction into the pantheon of Serbian epic poetry.

Before he became the leader of Bosnian Serbs and after he was forced out by his supporter and fellow nationalist, President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, in the wake of the Dayton peace accord, Mr. Karadzic was a prosaic nobody. A mediocre psychiatrist, a minor poet and a petty embezzler before the war, at the time of his arrest he was a grotesque mountebank. It was only during the war, on a blood-soaked stage, that he could fully develop his inhuman potential. His true and only home was the hell he created for others.

Which is why, after the initial exhilaration, many Bosnians find Mr. Karadzic’s arrest less satisfying than one would expect. Though he might spend the rest of his life in the comfortable dungeons of the Western European prison system, he will live eternally in the verses of decasyllabic meter written by those for whom the demolition of Bosnia was but material for the grand epic poetry of Serbhood.

Bosnians know he should have been booed and run off the stage at the peak of his performance. He should have been seen for what he really was: a thuggish puppet whose head was bloated with delusions of grandeur. He should have let us live outside his epic fantasies. Justice is good, but a peaceful life would have been much better.

Aleksandar Hemon, the author, most recently, of The Lazarus Project, a novel.