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It's Time To Test The Karadzic Myth

July 22, 2008
By Aleksandar Hemon

In Sarajevo, Radovan Karadzic lived in a building across from my high school. I only found that out recently, as I don't remember ever seeing him in those days. Granted, this was a while ago -- I attended Gimnazija Ognjen Prica from 1979 to 1983, but now it seems to me that I should have noticed him: the huge head, the gray mane, the stern jaw, the deep dimple, the eyes that seemed incapable of producing a nonmurderous gaze.

Not remembering him, however, is hardly surprising, as it is only with the after-knowledge of his crimes that I began thinking I might have been able to detect the karadzic-ness in Karadzic.

The fact of the matter is that Karadzic, at that time and right up until before the war, was just an inconspicuous denizen of the city he would set out to destroy -- indistinguishable from his environment. In his brilliant essay on Karadzic ("Stocking Hat" in "Sarajevo Blues"), Semezdin Mehmedinovic writes about thumbing through a 1991-92 Sarajevo phone book and finding 21 entries under the family name Karadzic. In addition to Radovan, there were "10 Muslims, nine Serbs, and one Croat."

The first time I heard Karadzic's name was when he became the (huge) head of the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS). As far as I was concerned, he came out of nowhere. Later, I learned that he was a psychiatrist and a poet, one of those who spent a lot of time in the "kafana," drinking, gossiping, and reciting Russian poets, thus reaffirming the alleged existence of the "Slavic Soul."

I was familiar with some of the other SDS founding fathers: Nikola Koljevic, Slavko Leovac, and Vojislav Maksimovic, all of whom were my ex-professors; Aleksa Buha, a philosophy professor at the Faculty of Philosophy, which I had graduated from; Momcilo Krajisnik, who had worked with my mother at one point; Velibor Ostojic, a speech coach at Radio Sarajevo, where I had worked, to whom I had been sent in order to fix my mumbling.

But now they were planets in a different universe, all now revolving around Karadzic. In their public appearances they were in stark contrast with Karadzic and his mountain-esque crassness. The professors all looked like professors -- intellectual and somewhat out of place in the limelight -- while Karadzic reveled in the attention. He was the star of Serbdom, making grand gestures while speaking, making grander pronouncements of the impeding anti-Serb gloom and doom. He projected the image of comfortable ruthlessness, of someone who does not care what others might think, which is always fascinating and frightening to Bosnians, ever mindful of what the people ("svijet") might say.

I remember going to an SDS press conference in 1991. Karadzic was at the center of the desk facing the journalists, his long arms spread like wings, his hands resting on the edges, as if he were ready to lift the desk and hurl it at the leery press. Next to him was Koljevic: small, mousy, behind a large, goggle-like pair of glasses, clearly a supporting actor. Karadzic spoke sternly, unflinchingly, uninterested in charming the press, as if he were doing us all a favor by talking to us at all -- all but a few chosen press members were in his mind proven enemies of the Serbian people.

As usual, he claimed there was some kind of a threat to Serbdom, and if they didn't react with determination the Serbs would get "fucked." He did not apologize for using the profane word in public; indeed, he claimed that it was a legitimate word, often used by the Serbian people. His stubborn crassness suggested his resolve not to mince words, not to participate in all that fuddy-duddying, because there was a job to be done, the job of saving Serbdom at all cost.

It was the same forceful, blatant determination that he projected early in 1992, in the infamous, chilling speech to the Bosnian parliament convened to legislate the independence referendum. Exuding the same ruthless ease, he warned the parliament that the Muslim people risked extermination if they voted for independence. He appeared ready to work on their perishing, and his demeanor hinted that he didn't mind the work at all.

He behaved as if he were issuing a fair warning; he was generously trying to help. That was the first moment, I think, when he assumed the role of the master of life and death of an entire people; it was the commencement of the genocide. He could forgo genocide, he was suggesting, despite all the preparations, if the Muslims were willing to forgo independence, but he was nonetheless prepared to declare, much like Njegos's Vladika Danilo, "let it be what cannot be" and unleash the holocaust.

It was visible that he enjoyed that power. No wonder the Interpol arrest warrant listed "flamboyant behavior" as his only distinguishing mark.

It is a mistake to look for psychological continuity in the mind of a war criminal, to look for genocidal proclivities in his or her prewar life. War and genocide create identities -- a war criminal is a different person before and during wartime. Nevertheless, the identities of people like Slobodan Milosevic and Ratko Mladic had been determined by the structures they were part of before the war. The party taught Milosevic to detect, recruit, use, and dispose of allies -- one can imagine Milosevic, if the wars of Yugoslavia had not happened, toiling at party congresses to form useful alliances, quietly amassing wealth and power. Mladic would have continued to be a stern army officer, finding outlets for his murderous needs within the military structure -- which is easy for me to imagine, for I had seen him soldiering as the commander of the Stip garrison, where I suffered as a conscript in 1983-84.

Karadzic differed from them. He fully existed only when organizing the genocide. He was invisible and irrelevant before it, and has been invisible ever since. Karadzic's star shone only against the dark skies of a vast crime. This is why Karadzic is still popular among the Serbs in the Republika Srpska and Serbia proper: like a mythological being, he came out of nowhere to do what needed to be done -- wipe out the "Turks" and create an eternal, heavenly kingdom, completing the mythological job started hundreds of years ago at the Battle of Kosovo. He did not care what the world might say -- for the world is but a minor distraction in the eternal Serbian struggle to survive and live as the celestial people. He was ever willing to sacrifice even his moral well-being for the people.

While Milosevic's mythical aura waned because of his self-serving mishandling of the Serbian national project and while Mladic's aura never got too excessive because of his perceived military demeanor, Karadzic's aura was enhanced by his withdrawal into the woodsy, mountainous background after he abandoned all his political positions in 1996. Like a "hajduk," the mythological Serbian outlaw, he is a lone wolf preserving Serbdom from perishing, surviving in the face of a great enemy -- the "Turks" and the world itself -- willing to come again out of his heroic obscurity if necessary.

Karadzic in The Hague is a remedy to the Serbian nationalist mythology -- Scheveningen is not a mythological space, but a prison. There, Karadzic would be in the limelight that would dispel the darkness of the nationalist mythology. He would be at the center of a legal process, a trial based on documents and testimonies, which would demythologize his actions, and dismantle his criminal universe.

The man who thought he was bigger than the world, who believed he was entitled to dispensing divine retributions on behalf of his people, needs to be humbled by the human court of the world. It is time the myth of Karadzic was replaced by the truth of his crimes.

Aleksandar Hemon is a Bosnian fiction writer living in the United States. He is author of "The Question Of Bruno," "Nowhere Man," and "The Lazarus Project." This commentary was originally published by the website of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

Copyright (c) 2008. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org



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