Standing with Slobodan Milosevic on the veranda of a government hunting lodge outside Belgrade, I saw two men in the distance. They got out of their twin Mercedeses and, in the fading light, started toward us. I felt a jolt go through my body; they were unmistakable. Ratko Mladic in combat fatigues, stocky, walking as though through a muddy field; and Radovan Karadzic, taller, wearing a suit, with his wild, but carefully coiffed, shock of white hair.
The capture of Karadzic on Monday took me back to a long night of confrontation, drama and negotiations almost 13 years ago -- the only time I ever met him. It was 5 p.m. on Sept. 13, 1995, the height of the war in Bosnia. Finally, after years of weak Western and U.N. response to Serb aggression and ethnic cleansing of Muslims and Croats in Bosnia, U.S.-led NATO bombing had put the Serbs on the defensive. Our small diplomatic negotiating team -- which included then-Lt. Gen. Wesley K. Clark and Christopher Hill (now the senior U.S. envoy to North Korea) -- was in Belgrade for the fifth time, trying to end a war that had already taken the lives of nearly 300,000 people.
These three men -- Milosevic, Mladic and Karadzic -- were the primary reason for that war. Mladic and Karadzic had already been indicted as war criminals by the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. (Milosevic was not to be indicted until 1999.) As leaders of the breakaway Bosnian Serb movement, they had met with many Western luminaries, including Jimmy Carter.
But, in a change of strategy, the negotiating team had decided to marginalize Karadzic and Mladic and to force Milosevic, as the senior Serb in the region, to take responsibility for the war and the negotiations we hoped would end it. Now Milosevic wanted to bring the two men back into the discussions, probably to take some of the pressure off himself.
We had anticipated this moment and agreed in advance that, while we would never ask to meet with Karadzic and Mladic, if Milosevic offered such a meeting, we would accept -- but only once, and only under strict guidelines that would require Milosevic to be responsible for their behavior.
I had told each member of our negotiating team to decide for himself or herself whether to shake hands with the mass murderers. I hated these men for what they had done. Their crimes included, indirectly, the deaths of three of our colleagues -- Bob Frasure, Joe Kruzel and Nelson Drew, who had died when the armored personnel carrier they were in plunged down a ravine as we attempted to reach Sarajevo by the only route available, a dangerous dirt road that went through sniper-filled, Serbian-controlled territory.
I did not shake hands, although both Karadzic and Mladic tried to. Some of our team did; others did not. Mladic, not Karadzic, was the dominant figure that evening. He engaged in staring contests with some of our team as we sat across the table. Karadzic was silent at first. He had a large face with heavy jowls, a soft chin and surprisingly gentle eyes. Then, when he heard our demand that the siege of Sarajevo be lifted immediately, he exploded. Rising from the table, the American-educated Karadzic raged in passable English about the "humiliations" his people were suffering. I reminded Milosevic that he had promised that this sort of harangue would not occur. Karadzic responded emotionally that he would call former president Carter, with whom he said he was in touch, and started to leave the table. For the only time that long night, I addressed Karadzic directly, telling him that we worked only for President Bill Clinton and that he could call President Carter if he wished but that we would leave and that the bombing would intensify. Milosevic said something to Karadzic in Serbian; he sat down again, and the meeting got down to business.
After 10 hours, we reached an agreement to lift the siege, after more than three years of war. The next day, we finally were able to fly into the reopened airfield in Sarajevo. The indomitable city was already beginning to come back to life. Two months later the war would end at Dayton, never to resume.
But while the Dayton agreement gave NATO the authority to capture Karadzic and Mladic, an arrest didn't occur for nearly 13 years. Finally, one of these dreadful murderers has begun the trip to The Hague. It is imperative that Mladic follow Karadzic on this one-way journey.
His capture is all the more important because it was accomplished by Serbian authorities. Serbian President Boris Tadic deserves great credit for this action, especially since his good friend Zoran Djindjic, then prime minister of Serbia, was assassinated in 2003 as a direct result of his courage in arresting Milosevic and sending him to The Hague in 2001. Karadzic's arrest is no mere historical footnote; it removes from the scene a man who was still undermining peace and progress in the Balkans and whose enthusiastic advocacy of ethnic cleansing merits a special place in history. It also moves Serbia closer to European Union membership.
Karadzic's capture is another reminder of the value of war crimes tribunals. Even though 12 years-plus is an inexcusably long time, the war crimes indictment kept Karadzic on the run and prevented him from resurfacing. In far-away Khartoum, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who was indicted last week by the International Criminal Court, should be paying close attention.
Richard Holbrooke, the chief architect of the Dayton Peace Agreement who writes a monthly column for The Post.