11 minute read
Bruce W. Nelan

If Richard Holbrooke is half as good at investment banking as he is at nose-to-nose negotiating, he must be doing very well for his Wall Street firm. After an acrimonious second session–this one 10 hours long–with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic at an official residence outside Belgrade last week, Holbrooke emerged with an agreement that promises to rescue Bosnia and Herzegovina’s national elections, which are scheduled for Sept. 14. The former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State had slipped back into his role as special envoy to the Balkans. His assignment was to sit down with Milosevic and persuade–or bully–him into ousting Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, first from power and then from sanctuary in Bosnia. Under the terms of the peace agreement Holbrooke pounded into place in Dayton, Ohio, last year, anyone indicted for war crimes cannot take part in elections or hold political office.

Threatening to bar the Serb Democratic Party, which Karadzic headed, from the election and renew international economic sanctions against Serbia, Holbrooke scored at least a half-success. Milosevic and senior Bosnian Serb leaders forced Karadzic to resign his party post and step out of public life. “We fell short of our maximum goal, which is to have Karadzic out of power and out of the country,” Holbrooke said in an interview with TIME. But he emphasized that the accord will allow the elections to go forward. Karadzic and his lieutenants have agreed to the text’s statement that “[Karadzic] will not appear in public, or on radio or television or other media…or participate in political life in any way.” Says Holbrooke: “If they don’t comply, we retain leverage.”

Karadzic is still protected in the Serb half of Bosnia. But he is also an international fugitive from justice, twice indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity. A year after Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Karadzic and his military chief, Ratko Mladic, seized the U.N.-declared safe area of Srebrenica and slaughtered thousands of Muslims, both soldiers and civilians, the corpses are finally being exhumed. Hundreds have been dug up, many with their wrists wired together, their bones shattered by bullets. An indictment by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague says Karadzic’s crimes are of “almost unparalleled cruelty.” He denies the charges, and his Serb compatriots profess to believe him. His support by Bosnian Serbs remains close to the 68% approval rating found in a poll two months ago by the U.S. Information Agency.

With his sweeping gull-wing hairdo, bombastic manner and pseudo-reasonable arguments to the world’s press, Karadzic is a very recognizable figure. But who is he really? What made the physician turned politician into an enigmatic “ethnic cleanser”? In search of answers, TIME’s correspondents spent several weeks interviewing Karadzic’s friends and colleagues, tracing his origins and his life before infamy.

Karadzic grew up a hill-country peasant boy in a society ripped apart by World War II and ferocious ethnic battles. His path to power was winding, complicated and unlikely. Born on June 19, 1945, in a tiny mountainside hamlet in the republic of Montenegro, he tended the farm animals and listened to traditional songs of brave battles against the Turks–learning nationalism by osmosis. His father was away during those early years, imprisoned for his wartime deeds as a member of the Chetniks, nationalist guerrillas who fought Nazi occupiers and Marshal Tito’s communist partisans alike. After eight years of primary school in Montenegro, Karadzic in 1960 joined the flood of young peasants moving to the cities. He had big hair even then, but no money, and thought of himself as a poet. His decision to study medicine in Sarajevo, however, was eminently practical, as medicine was a likely path to security and status.

At medical school he had a romance with a classmate, Ljiljana Zelen, the daughter of an old and wealthy family. Karadzic married Ljiljana, and they lived in a downtown apartment building at 2 Sutjeska Street, where her parents also resided. Some of Karadzic’s friends thought his new wife was unattractive and domineering. “We never understood why he married her,” says one. “Maybe it was the typical calculation of a poor peasant boy. She could provide him with housing, food and money.” Karadzic pretended not to notice his comrades’ disdain and called Ljiljana his “Creole beauty.” They have two children, a daughter and a son, both in their 20s.

During the 1960s Karadzic’s life-style offered a complete contrast to what came later. He was charming, well liked, friendly, a bit shy. In keeping with Sarajevo’s multicultural past, he lived in an ethnically diverse neighborhood, had several Muslim and Croat friends and never showed any sign of friction with them. “I could not have had a better neighbor,” says Ismail Hodzic, 64, a Muslim who still lives next door to Karadzic’s former apartment. Karadzic mixed with the Bosnian capital’s young bohemians, writers and poets who stayed up all night discussing life, literature and art. Some of them were Serb nationalists, and two of them, both poets, later joined Karadzic’s Cabinet.

He wrote poetry as well, though his former friends are contemptuous of his efforts. One poem from 1971, apparently an attempt to capture the feelings of Yugoslav peasants, was called, “Let’s Go Down to the Town and Kill Some Scum.” Says writer and essayist Marko Vesovic, 51, a fellow Montenegrin who has known Karadzic since 1963: “His poems didn’t have character. He imitated the style of whoever impressed him.” But Karadzic’s buddies sympathized with him because, says Vesovic, “while we were studying literature, he was dissecting stinking bodies” in medical school.

Vesovic and another friend, Nikola Koljevic, now a Bosnian Serb vice president, spent a week editing and improving a book of Karadzic’s poems. It was published, and Karadzic neither objected nor thanked them for the changes they had made. Vesovic, who is planning to write a biography of Karadzic, says his former friend’s only good book was a volume of poems for children. “He seemed to have understood children; he had this intuitive ability to grasp other people’s minds if he wanted to.”

Karadzic’s life took a turn toward darkness during the 1970s, when Tito’s communist government mounted a loyalty crackdown. Sarajevo’s young writers, subject to repeated interrogations by the police, concluded that there had to be an informer in their midst. After checking the timing of police visits and the things interrogators seemed to know, Vesovic began to suspect Karadzic. Vesovic claims that a senior Communist Party official confirmed the suspicion to him, and he says some friends broke with Karadzic then.

By this time Karadzic was a qualified doctor, having launched a career as a psychiatrist in the outpatient clinic of Sarajevo’s Kosevo Hospital. “We never really noticed him,” says a former colleague. “He just did the minimum the job required. He was a lazybones, and we often heard patients complain about him.” Perhaps he had other outlets for his skills. It was well known in Sarajevo that Karadzic padded his income by selling false medical diagnoses so his patients could dodge military service or receive early pensions.

But he could also be a good and caring doctor on occasion. “He saved me,” says Fatima Hodzic, 63, a Muslim neighbor and patient of Karadzic’s. She suffered from deep menopausal depression, could not get up for days and was thinking of suicide. He treated her at home with medication and therapy sessions. “He was very sensitive and understanding,” she says. “I always felt comforted.”

The early 1980s brought another phase in his restless search for success. Karadzic became the team psychologist for the popular soccer club Sarajevo, charged with boosting the players’ morale and spirit. “Before and after every match he used to talk to us,” says Predrag Pasic, a former team member. “But he wasn’t too successful. We were too young and crazy to listen to all his stories about a winner’s mentality.” Pasic says Karadzic used to complain that he was unsuccessful because Sarajevo was not his home and the city rejected him. Pasic says that it was not true, “only his excuse for his failures.” Karadzic also urged Pasic to switch to the Belgrade team, Zvezda. “He said as a Serb I should play” in Serbia. “That was strange at the time, because nobody else was thinking in ethnic terms.”

That was an early indication of Karadzic’s Serbian nationalism. He then went to Belgrade himself and tried to get a job with the Zvezda team. He had no luck and returned to Kosevo Hospital. Now he was openly hunting for a way to make it big. He went into business with Momcilo Krajisnik, the present speaker of the Bosnian Serb parliament, and ended up causing the collapse of a construction company in Pale. In the mid-1980s, he was held in custody for 11 months on suspicion of fraud. Karadzic claims this was an anti-Serb show trial. His poetry mentor, Koljevic, who had been earning hard currency teaching in the U.S., went home and bailed him out.

Karadzic returned to his hospital job and, an inveterate gambler, to late-night poker games. People in his neighborhood still thought of him as a “crazy poet.” An electrician who lived nearby says, “He was a great swindler but a nice man. And he loved to gamble.” Bosnians who know him say Karadzic today thinks nothing of wagering thousands in a night at a casino.

In 1990, with Yugoslavia coming apart, Karadzic plunged into politics. He dabbled with the ecologically concerned Green Party, then moved on to meetings of the Initiative for a Serb Democratic Party in Sarajevo. The militant faction was a response to the rise of Muslim and Croat national parties in Bosnia. Serbia’s President, Slobodan Milosevic, soon took control of the movement and gave it a mission that ultimately put the former Yugoslavia to the torch: creation of a Greater Serbia. Few respectable Serbs in Sarajevo wanted anything to do with the scheme, choosing to align instead with the multiethnic Reformist Party. The Serb Democratic Party seemed to include too many brutes and bullies. When the party was formed officially in July 1990, its organizing group chose Karadzic as president. Assuming that Karadzic was only a temporary front man, Milosevic approved. “The man of clay was their ideal student,” says Vesovic. “He did what he was told.” Karadzic turned out to have staying power.

That was the takeoff time for Karadzic. He bought new clothes, cars for his family, expanded his apartment. In 1992 he moved with his family to Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn, where his party had its headquarters, and when the war began in April they withdrew to Pale, 12 miles east. From there Karadzic ordered the siege and shelling of the city in which he had spent more than 30 years of his life, directing the killing of an estimated 10,000 former neighbors, colleagues and patients.

In July 1992 he told visiting reporters that the Muslims were sniping from Sarajevo and the Serbs had to reply with artillery. “Since our gunners are badly trained, they often miss and hit the wrong block,” he said blandly. “They need more practice. We’re working on it.” A BBC television feature produced in 1994 and presented as evidence to the tribunal at the Hague shows Karadzic leading a guest to a 50-mm gun on a hillside overlooking Sarajevo and offering him a chance to fire a few rounds into the city. The guest did so.

Does Karadzic now feel guilty about all that? No, says Vesovic. “He considers himself completely innocent. He sees himself as a man fulfilling his destiny, a tool of history, the man who has given the Serbs in Bosnia a state and pushed the Turks [Muslims] back. He has a criminal’s mind, like the Godfather in that Mafia movie. It’s the attitude of ‘Sorry, don’t take it personally, but my job requires me to kill you.'”

Karadzic’s former hospital colleague agrees, saying he must always have had the potential for brutality and aggression lurking within him. “Due to the circumstances,” she says, “it finally erupted.” That sums it up: Karadzic was made by circumstance. He was out for his big opportunity all along and tried various approaches. Nothing worked for him until he seized upon Serb nationalism and rode it to power.

Now he may have lost that power, though as long as he remains in Pale there is nothing to keep him from taking part in closed-door meetings of the party. “We wish and expect him to move from where he is,” says Holbrooke. The challenge is not only to get Karadzic out of Bosnia but to turn him over for trial at the Hague. The U.S. could use force to arrest or snatch him, but the European allies are not on board for that, and such an effort would probably spark retaliation and bloodshed. Renewed fighting is the last thing Bill Clinton wants in an election year, so Karadzic may not be going anywhere.

–Reported by Dejan Anastasijevic/Washington, Massimo Calabresi/ Vienna, Alexandra Niksic/Belgrade and Alexandra Stiglmayer/Sarajevo

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at