Editor’s note: Radovan Karadzic was one of the dominant figures of the Bosnian war, serving as president of the “Serb Republic” in Bosnia from 1992 to 1995. The International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague on Thursday found him guilty of multiple crimes, including the slaughter of about 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica. NPR’s Tom Gjelten covered the war in Bosnia, and Karadzic, for years.
Given all that has happened in the last 20 years, many people will not recall the war in Bosnia. Remind us what happened.
Bosnia was one of the six republics that constituted Yugoslavia, an ethnically mixed country in southeast Europe. The Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, a Serb nationalist, helped stoke ethnic tensions in the country that led to its breakup.
Serb nationalists in Bosnia, led by Karadzic, created a separate “Serb Republic” in Bosnia and attempted to “cleanse” the territory under their control of Muslims and other non-Serbs. The subsequent war in Bosnia resulted in the death of about 100,000 people, mostly civilians. About two-thirds of the victims were Bosnian Muslims.
You covered the war for NPR. What were your experiences there?
Nothing I’ve done in more than 30 years as an NPR correspondent had a greater impact on me personally. I was in Sarajevo for weeks on end when it was besieged and under near constant shelling. More than 11,000 people died there.
At the time, it was the most dangerous place on the planet. I witnessed some of the infamous “ethnic cleansing” operations in Serb-held territory, when non-Serbs were rounded up and held under horrific conditions in detention camps or killed outright.
I interviewed some survivors from Srebrenica, mostly women, who shared stories of what they had been through. For many in the West, the mass killings and concentration camps were reminiscent of what happened under the Nazis and made a mockery of the “never again” pledge that followed World War II.
The U.N. war crimes tribunal was established in 1993. Why have these prosecutions taken so long?
The first conviction came only in 2000. Karadzic was arrested in 2008, so his prosecution and trial took eight years and concluded more than 20 years after the crimes for which he was held responsible. His is the first high-profile conviction.
Milosevic was arrested in 2001 but died in custody before his trial was complete. Ratko Mladic, the commander of the Bosnian Serb Army, was arrested in 2011, and his trial is continuing. By contrast, the war crimes trials at Nuremberg, after World War II, were completed in a matter of months.
In addition to the Srebrenica killings, what else was Karadzic charged with?
He was also tried on genocide charges with regard to killings in seven other Bosnian towns, but the court found insufficient evidence in those cases to convict him.
He was, however, found guilty of nine other counts, including five counts of “crimes against humanity” for such things as murder, deportation and forced population transfers, and four other counts of violating the customary laws of war as set down in the Geneva Conventions.
Of special importance in those cases was the Sarajevo shelling and the taking of United Nations peacekeepers as hostages in an effort to thwart airstrikes against his forces. He has already indicated he intends to appeal his convictions.
What lessons can we take from this case?
First and foremost is that victims of war crimes have to be patient in their expectation that justice will be served. The process is maddeningly slow. Leaders of the opposition forces in Syria say they hope the Karadzic trial will lead to similar prosecutions and convictions of Syrian war criminals, but they are likely to be in for a long wait.
Did you ever meet Karadzic during your time in Bosnia?
Yes I did, on more than one occasion. He was a garrulous but strange figure, oblivious to the human suffering for which his forces were responsible, especially in Sarajevo. It was his hometown, and it seemed like everyone there had some recollection of him. He had a thick head of hair which he brushed back in these big swoops.
Before the war, he worked as a psychiatrist, and at one time he was hired by the Sarajevo soccer club to instill a “winning attitude” in the team. He also considered himself a poet and often told people he was destined to be one of the two or three greatest poets writing in the Serbian language. This was an example of his narcissism, rather than his ability as a poet.