A Fugitive To Some, But a Hero To Others
Karadzic's Flight Keeps Bosnian Hatreds Alive
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 26, 2004; Page A13
SOKOLAC, Bosnia -- When Milovan Bjelica, a Bosnian Serb nationalist, invites visitors to speak with him, he chooses a windswept hill cemetery that he calls his office.
Meeting people among the dozens of white crosses marked with photos of young soldiers and some civilians gives him comfort, he said. The setting reminds him of the sacrifices of the 1992-95 ethnic war in Bosnia, which by his account was a sacred struggle for the right of Serbs to live apart from Bosnian Muslims.
The cemetery also allows him to avoid the prying eyes of international peacekeeping troops who suspect him of helping hide Radovan Karadzic, the president of the Bosnian Serbs' breakaway state during the war and now in his ninth year on the run from war crimes charges.
"If I visit with someone in a private office, then that office and its owners will become tainted," he said in a conversation at the cemetery. "They will be harassed for letting me in. So I meet with people here. Here I am among Serbs who cannot be bothered anymore."
The manhunt, including occasional raids on suspected hideouts and detentions of suspected associates, has failed to collar Karadzic. A U.N. war crimes tribunal accuses Karadzic of responsibility for the deaths in 1995 of more than 7,000 Muslim captives in the Bosnian hamlet of Srebenica. He is also charged in connection with the shelling of the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, and the capture of international peacekeepers for use as human shields.
Karadzic's continued flight has set back efforts to end the bitter hatreds of Bosnia's three-sided Muslim-Serb-Croat ethnic war and put the country on the path to joining the European Union. In June, NATO delayed Bosnia's membership in the Partnership for Peace, an apprentice program for full membership in the Atlantic alliance, pending Karadzic's detention.
Similarly, the fruitless hunt for Karadzic's former military commander, Ratko Mladic, has complicated the E.U. aspirations of the neighboring country of Serbia and Montenegro, where he is believed to be hiding. The country's new president, Boris Tadic, has promised to cooperate with international efforts to apprehend him.
International officials who help administer and police Bosnia say the fugitives remain at large in part because many Serbs see them as heroes who protected their ethnic community during the upheavals of the 1990s. Some people help them actively; others help passively by keeping quiet.
In May, soldiers from the NATO-led contingent known formally as the Stabilization Force (SFOR) detained Bjelica and held him a month for interrogation. International officials say he has funneled money to Karadzic and helped maintain his security detail.
Bjelica denies such a role and says that NATO is simply flailing with frustration. "Does this look like a real manhunt to you? If they are really trying to find him, they will. They have the troops, the technical ability, everything," he said.
The nine years of futility has eroded belief among Bosnia's citizens that NATO is really trying. Now the search for a man whose harsh nationalist rhetoric and mass of gray hair were familiar symbols of Serb militancy has entered a phase of finger-pointing among the international agencies tasked with bringing him to justice.
In mid-July, Florence Hartmann, a spokeswoman for chief U.N. war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte, accused NATO peacekeepers of failing to follow up on leads about Karadzic's whereabouts.
Last February, Hartmann said, tribunal investigators determined that Karadzic was in Zaovine, a hamlet near the Bosnian border, and gave the information to commanders of the peacekeeping force. "We didn't see any further steps," she said. "We were not happy with this experience."
"You can never be 100 percent sure about the information," she said. "But NATO just stalled. They asked for more information instead of checking things out themselves."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company