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The Search For Bosnia’s Ghosts

8 minute read
Andrew Purvis/Foca

Wedged between the turbulent Drina River and a dark mountainside in eastern Bosnia, the town of Foca is not a place that welcomes strangers. In the early 1990s it was the site of some of the worst atrocities of the Bosnian war. Muslims were driven from their homes, raped, robbed and murdered. Some were dumped in the caves that lace the crags above the town; others were dropped in the river, where at night, according to a resident, corpses could be heard hitting the surface “like logs.” Recalls an elderly Serb, insisting on anonymity: “The rapes, the atrocities, everything they say is true. I saw them.”

Today Foca’s main street is a gallery of despair. Limping war veterans drink hard liquor from a can, scrutinizing every new car that strays into town and gruffly cutting off questions before they are asked. Local thugs in leather coats scowl as a visitor approaches. In 1998 a Human Rights Watch report estimated that no fewer than eight indicted war criminals lived here. A Muslim U.N. investigator who worked in Foca for two years felt compelled to spend the night a few miles down the road. At dusk, he says, “a shadow” descends on the town. Foca, he says, “has no spirit.”

But it does. One spirit haunts Foca and other towns and villages in eastern Bosnia’s autonomous Serb Republic: that of Dr. Radovan Karadzic. Following the transfer in June of Slobodan Milosevic to the Hague, Karadzic, the Bosnian-Serb leader during the war, is the U.N. war-crime tribunal’s most-wanted man. Reports have placed him in these remote, cloud-draped mountains or just across the border in Montenegro. In Foca, he does not lack support. “I am in love with him,” says a woman in her 50s who refuses to give her real name. “If he is arrested, we will rise up.” She gestures at a portrait of “my man,” displayed on a back wall, alongside Serbian-orthodox icons of Mary, the baby Jesus and St. Sava. “He is not a war criminal,” she says, gazing at Karadzic’s picture. “He is a saint.”

Such attitudes help explain why Karadzic and other indicted war criminals like Bosnian-Serb General Ratko Mladic have eluded capture for six years. Mladic is widely believed to be moving between the Serb Republic and Serbia under the protection of his former comrades in the Bosnian-Serb and possibly Yugoslav armies–a charge officials from both armies deny. Sheltering among the people whose cause they claimed to represent, the indictees have managed to stay one step ahead of those trying to bring them to justice.

But the pursuers may be closing in on their prey. The transfer of Milosevic to the Hague and Serbia’s new willingness to cooperate with the court have renewed pressure on what a representative for chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte calls the “last safe haven” for war criminals in the Balkans. Meanwhile, NATO troops in the region, widely criticized for their failure to nab Karadzic and Mladic so far, have recommitted themselves to the task. Rumors that a snatch may take place soon swirl around the region. DON’T TOUCH HIM! warn posters of Karadzic pasted up recently by a Serb cultural group in nearby northern Montenegro. Zoran Zuza, a well-informed Bosnian-Serb journalist and political analyst in the former wartime stronghold of Pale, says Karadzic “realizes that he has never been in such dire straits.”

For Karadzic, the beauty of the Serb Republic has been the influence of his Serb Democratic Party. The ranks of the government and police include hard-liners who fought with him during the war and remain loyal. But the party’s standing is on the wane. The new Prime Minister, Mladen Ivanic, is a moderate. He visited the Hague shortly after Milosevic’s transfer and said, “We are ready for extradition. If I were Karadzic, I’d turn myself in.” Last week Ivanic introduced a bill in the local parliament designed, he said, to prepare the way for the transfer of war-crimes suspects, more than 20 of whom are said by U.N. prosecutors to be hiding in the Serb Republic. A vote is due in September.

Still, before anyone can be sent to the Hague, he has to be caught. And while Bosnian-Serb police are unlikely to turn on their own anytime soon, NATO troops responsible for apprehending war criminals say they are taking a tougher line. A former U.S. official told TIME on condition of anonymity that last year “there were failed efforts” to nab Karadzic. “We had some big disappointments,” the official said. On a visit to Sarajevo in July, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson underscored his commitment to arrests. “There is no safe haven, and there is no statute of limitations,” Robertson said. “They will be hunted down.”

NATO will not officially discuss any operations that may compromise its objectives. But in Pale, rumors are flying with unusual intensity. NATO intelligence operatives, it is said, have been grilling Karadzic’s former associates. German and French patrols tour the rutted back roads around Foca and other towns. A U.N. source told TIME that British and French commando units began training in Bosnia in mid-May. Following Robertson’s visit, a pro-Serb-Montenegrin newspaper claimed that British commandos had been killed in a snatch attempt. NATO officials went through the roof. “Absolutely twisted,” said a senior British officer, denying the report as utter fabrication. But when NATO promptly launched an apparently routine 1,200-man exercise in the part of eastern Bosnia where Karadzic and others are rumored to be hiding, speculation in local cafes about imminent arrests reached new levels.

Karadzic seems to feel something is afoot. According to reports in Pale, he recently changed his bodyguard; the detail is now believed to consist of about a dozen hard-core paramilitaries, or no more than can travel in three vehicles. NATO officials say Karadzic is moving around regularly. He travels in and out of the Serb Republic and across to neighboring Montenegro, where he was born and which can be reached by trails across the mountains.

Any snatch operation would probably be carried out by elite units, like the French squad that last year nabbed Karadzic’s top lieutenant, Momcilo Krajisnik, from his home in Pale. A spokesman for the NATO force in Bosnia, Captain Andrew Coxhead, concedes that ordinary peacekeepers who encounter him during a routine patrol might not be equipped for the job. “You don’t want to mess with these guys without sufficient force,” he says, remembering an incident in Foca when an attempt to bag a suspect went wrong; the fugitive blew himself up with a hand grenade and injured four German soldiers.

Still, the problems with an arrest of Karadzic are ones NATO would like to have. In Sarajevo in July, Robertson was emphatic. “We don’t know where he is,” said the Secretary-General. “If we knew, he would be arrested. Make no mistake about that.” That line is echoed–less credibly–by officials in the Serb Republic, who claim that they have no useful intelligence and that, in any event, Karadzic isn’t on their turf. Nonsense, says Del Ponte. “At any given time, the authorities of the Serb Republic know, or are in a position to know, the whereabouts of our most-wanted fugitives.”

Why should the world care about a man wandering the mountains of eastern Bosnia? One reason to do with the past and one concerning the future: Karadzic’s capture would help settle who precisely ordered the murder of as many as 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995, the worst atrocity in Europe since 1945. It would also send a signal to other war criminals that they can no longer expect to play an open part in Bosnian society. U.S. Ambassador Thomas Miller says an arrest would “help change the way business is done in Bosnia” by undermining the communist-era system of patronage and corruption that Karadzic and his party have fostered.

Don’t look to the Serbs in Foca for help. Pictures of Karadzic in wartime remain prominently displayed in the local offices of his party, along with stickers proclaiming–in English–HE IS PEACE. HE MEANS FREEDOM! Several in the top ranks of the local police have been accused by human-rights groups of ethnic cleansing and of brutally interrogating inmates at a local concentration camp. Drug barons loiter at the town’s dilapidated hotel; foreign aid is nonexistent. Whether Karadzic is found soon or not, the forgotten, unforgiving towns of eastern Bosnia are likely to remain places where the shadow of the past lies heavily on the silent streets.

–With reporting by Dejan Anastasijevic/Pale, Jay Branegan/Washington and Anthee Carassava/London

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