Keeping Karadzic at a safe distance

Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader, tried everything to postpone his trial at the international criminal court for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. However, it will go on – even without his presence. And, it is to be hoped, it will expose him as one of the architects of the war in Bosnia, of the "ethnic cleansing" of Muslims, of genocide and war crimes committed in that country from 1991 to 1996. Karadzic is charged on 11 counts, including responsibility for the mass killing of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica, as well as ordering the siege of Sarajevo, which resulted in about 12,000 civilian deaths.

Like Slobodan Milosevic, he has claimed that the tribunal lacks jurisdiction and, again imitating his idol, has decided to represent himself. In the pre-trial hearings, he pathetically insisted that in 1996 – in exchange for leaving politics – Richard Holbrooke, then the US peace envoy in Bosnia, promised him immunity. Needless to say, Holbrooke denies any such deal.

Disguised as "Dr Dabic", an alternative physician with overgrown white beard and long white hair, this maverick lived in hiding in Serbia for 11 years. He was arrested in Belgrade and brought to justice in July 2008. If anything was shattered by his arrest, it was the myth that he was a hero whose capture would shake Serbia and Republika Srpska to the core. Why? His arrest and extradition to The Hague was apparently an easy trade-off for Serbia. Born in Montenegro and living mostly in Sarajevo, he was neither a Serbian citizen nor regarded as a Serbian hero like General Ratko Mladic. By arresting Karadzic, Serbia considerably increased its political capital.

So Karadzic was more or less hung out to dry – the Serbian government was not keen to demonstrate that he had been acting under Milosevic's direct supervision. That must have been a bitter blow to the erstwhile Bosnian-Serb leader – especially as the same fate has not befallen his comrade-in-arms Mladic, the former commander of his army. Karadzic knows all too well that the arrest of Mladic remains a very different story, as both the Serbian army and the government protect him.

The most interesting question, however, is: what happened to the man who had been a physician and psychiatrist, as well as an accomplished poet? How was it that for six years, between 1990 and 1996, he behaved as a completely different person? What changed in him?

Even if his transformation from humane, educated doctor to merciless mastermind of ethnic cleansing seems dramatic, it was determined by the same set of circumstances that changed the lives of so many others. Take, for example, Biljana Plavsic, also a war leader of Republika Srpska and convicted war criminal, who, after serving two-thirds of her sentence in prison, was recently set free. Plavsic was an university professor with a PhD, a renowned scientist – yet she turned into the most radical nationalist politician. What really changed was the fact that the war happened and they both became politicians.

Karadzic's ambition and vanity turned him into a president who ordered civilian massacres; yet this was, in his own mind, consistent with his conviction that both the siege of Sarajevo and the mass killings were for the benefit of the Serbs, his people: they needed their "Lebensraum".

We like to believe that poets and academics – that is, educated people – are too fine, too noble, to commit horrible crimes, crimes against humanity. But it has been proven thousands of times that educated people have no higher moral standards than ordinary people. There is no mystique in their mutation: every human being has the potential for acting in good or bad ways, even if we fondly prefer to distance ourselves from that insight by labelling people like Karadzic or Plavsic "monsters".

In reality, such people are only our own reflection in a mirror.

Slavenka Drakulić, a Croatian writer and publicist who currently lives in Sweden.