Balkan Insight
Radovan Karadzic: Psychiatrist-Poet Who Led Bosnian Serbs to War
Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serbs’ wartime president, spent years on the run before he was caught and tried, and could now be jailed for the rest of his life when the Hague war crimes court delivers its final verdict next week.
March 14, 2019

Psychiatrist Radovan Karadzic

Radovan Karadzic was born in the village of Petnica near Savnik in Montenegro in June 1945, some 2,000 kilometres from in Scheveningen, near The Hague, where he is currently in custody at the United Nations Detention Unit while awaiting the final verdict in his trial for genocide and other wartime crimes.

Karadzic has had various different roles over the course of his life – psychiatrist, poet, political leader and ‘spiritual healer’ – but on March 20, he could be sentenced to spend the rest of it in jail.

The former Bosnian Serb president was found guilty by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in a first-instance verdict in March 2016 of some of the worst crimes in Europe since World War II, and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

The UN court convicted him of the genocide of Bosniaks from Srebrenica in 1995, the persecution of Bosniaks and Croats throughout the country, terrorising the civilian population of Sarajevo, and taking UN peacekeepers hostage.

However he was acquitted of committing genocide in several other Bosnian municipalities in 1992.

Karadzic appealed against the verdict, insisting that there was “no evidence for the accusations concerning the intention to implement ethnic cleansing”.

He also insisted that “very few civilians” were killed during the siege of Sarajevo. “Serbs were just defending themselves, while Muslims provoked incidents and accused Serbs in order to have international forces intervene,” he claimed.

The prosecution filed its own appeal, calling for Karadzic to be jailed for life.

Since the first-instance verdict, Karadzic, who is now 73, has complained to the Hague Tribunal several times about his health, and also repeatedly petitioned the court to allow him to use Skype in his cell.

There was also controversy when the presiding judge in the trial, Theodor Meron, voluntarily withdrew from the appeals procedure last September after the defence asked the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals to remove him for alleged bias against Karadzic.

The defence argued that judge Meron had delivered conclusions at previous trials held in The Hague that were related to Karadzic and crimes committed in Srebrenica, Sarajevo and other municipalities in Bosnia and Herzegovina which indicated he was biased against the former Bosnian Serb political leader.

‘A good neighbour’

Karadzic spent his childhood in Montenegro, going to school in the town of Niksic, before moving to the Bosnian capital Sarajevo to study at its medical high school. He continued his studies at Sarajevo Medical University and went on to specialise in psychiatry at the city’s Kosevo hospital.

Karadzic had two children with his doctor wife Ljiljana – a son, Sasa, whose post-war career is unknown, and a daughter, Sonja, who is now vice-president of the Bosnian Serb parliament, representing the Serb Democratic Party, the same party her father once led.

Karadzic said he was happy that his daughter had gone into politics “particularly because she is interested in improving the value of human lives”.

Just before the war, the Karadzic family lived in Sutjeska Street in Sarajevo, where one of their neighbours was Hajrija Smajic.

“They were good neighbours,” Smajic told BIRN. “His wife treated my mother. The only thing I am sorry about is that they did not tell me something was coming [before the war started], so I could leave Sarajevo too, because I had a ten-year old child at the time,” Smajic said.

She said the Karadzic family apartment is now uninhabited. “Nobody even comes here,” she said.

Along with his work as a psychiatrist, mostly with patients suffering from depression, first in Sarajevo and then for a while in Belgrade, Karadzic also wrote poetry.

He published several books of verse and achieved modest renown; during the war years, he was awarded a literary prize in Russia. He even published a volume of verse while he was on the run after the war ended. In one poem, entitled ‘Sarajevo’, he wrote: “The town burns like a piece of incense/In the smoke rumbles our consciousness.”

Karadzic’s supervisor while he worked at the Kosevo hospital in Sarajevo was Ismet Ceric, who told PBS in an interview that Karadzic always had an “incredibly high opinion of himself”.

“Sometimes it was absolutely unbelievable,” Ceric recalled. “He said, ‘I am an excellent poet, I am an excellent psychotherapist, I am an excellent businessman in the communist system.’ At the time, we thought it was his unique sense of humour.”

Convicted in the 1980s

In the mid-1980s, Karadzic ran into his first legal problems. He was arrested on suspicion of embezzling public funds in order to finance the construction of his summer house in the town of Pale, above Sarajevo.

Karadzic was convicted, but because of the time he spent on remand before the trial, he did not go to prison.

He spent his months behind bars on remand with his acquaintance Momcilo Krajisnik, who was also being held on suspicion of also embezzling public funds while working at an energy firm.

Krajisnik, who would later become the speaker of the Bosnian Serb parliament during wartime, told BIRN that the experience brought the two men closer.

“I think of him as a friend and good man. We went through that situation together and I do not wish to recall it. We remained close. I know he never hated anyone and never wanted bad things to happen to anyone,” said Krajisnik.

The nationalist Serb Democratic Party, the SDS, was founded in 1990 and Karadzic became its first president. The party was part of an anti-communist coalition, and initially campaigned for the country to remain part of Yugoslavia.

In an interview with Bosnian news agency SRNA, Karadzic insisted that he did not really want the job.

“I did not wish to be an active politician,” he said. “I did not want to lead Republika Srpska either, and I would not have done if it had not been for the events of the war.”

Calls for a ‘Greater Serbia’

The first multi-party elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina were held in November 1990. Together with Karadzic’s SDS, the biggest winners were two other nationalist parties – the Bosniak-led Party for Democratic Action and the Croatian Democratic Community.

Social Democratic Party politician Miro Lazovic recalled how he often spoke out against Karadzic’s aggressively pro-Serb political agenda at parliamentary sessions in the early 1990s.

“Karadzic proposed the creation of a Greater Serbia,” Lazovic told BIRN.

“Because of his politics and especially because of his claims that if Bosnia became independent, the Muslim people and the country would disappear, we in parliament had to call a referendum so citizens could say if they wanted an independent Bosnia and Herzegovina,” he said.

Karadzic warned Bosniaks about the dangers of an impending war in a speech in October 1991 in the Bosnian parliament, after Slovenia and Croatia had already declared independence from Yugoslavia. He said that leaving Yugoslavia would plunge Bosnia and Herzegovina into violence.

“The road that you are choosing for Bosnia and Herzegovina is the same highway to hell and suffering that Slovenia and Croatia have already taken,” he told lawmakers.

It was a speech that seemed to predict the brutality of the coming conflict, and the massacres that would follow.

“Do not think that you will not take Bosnia and Herzegovina to hell and the Muslim people maybe into extinction, because if there is a war, the Muslim people will not be able to defend themselves,” Karadzic said.

Bosnia and Herzegovina became independent in 1992, after a vote that was opposed by Serbs who wanted to remain part of Yugoslavia, and then the war broke out.

Throughout the three-and-a-half-year conflict, Karadzic was the president of the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska entity and supreme commander of its armed forces.

During wartime, his most notorious statements were about Sarajevo, which was besieged by Serb forces.

Karadzic denied that units under his command were guilty of deadly mortar attacks on the city. After a massacre at the Markale market, in which dozens of civilians died in 1994, Karadzic told the newspaper Borba: “We have a disciplined army… no one can fire without an express order.”

He also insisted that “Serbs will never leave Sarajevo and the city will be the capital of the future Serb state”.

In several interviews, he opposed international intervention in Bosnia, saying it would be “a dangerous precedent which would make any country unsafe and would disrupt democracy”. He also publically denied responsibility for the July 1995 Srebrenica massacres.

Speaking about that period, the wartime speaker of the Bosnian Serb parliament, Momcilo Krajisnik, insisted that Karadzic “always fought against crimes”.

“He did not want crimes and if there is justice, he will be acquitted,” said Krajisnik, who was himself sentenced by the UN court in The Hague to 20 years in prison for war crimes.

Miro Lazovic said however that he was certain that Karadzic would be convicted.

“The Hague Tribunal has already shown what it thinks of the leadership of the Bosnian Serbs and has found that their plan was to commit crimes. I have no doubt that Karadzic, as the embodiment of these policies, will be convicted,” he said.

Karadzic goes underground

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia was set up in The Hague after thousands of non-Serbs were detained in concentration camps and hundreds killed in Prijedor in 1992 and after the shelling of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces.

The first indictment against Karadzic was raised in 1995, a few months after the Srebrenica genocide.

Three years ago, Karadzic admitted to BIRN that “a horrible crime” was committed in Srebrenica, although he did not describe it as genocide and downplayed the number of victims.

“As for Srebrenica, what happened in reality is bad enough, so no exaggeration will help us achieve understanding and peace between us. An unnecessary murder of one man is horrifying, let alone murder of at least several hundreds of people, which is, for instance, the undeniable number of victims with blindfolds. Those who did it are above all enemies to Serbs, and then also enemies to those families and the Muslim community,” he said.

An arrest warrant for Karadzic was issued in 1996, but by that time, he was already on the run.

British journalist Julian Borger, who wrote a book about the manhunt for Karadzic, told BIRN that the former Bosnian Serb president evaded capture for over a decade because initially “there was no political will” to arrest him, as the international community believed that it could threaten Bosnia’s fragile post-war peace.

In the beginning, Borger says that Karadzic was hiding openly in Pale, but later, as pressure mounted for him to be brought to justice, he fled to Serbia and went into hiding.

The US offered a reward of almost $5 million for information leading to his whereabouts, but despite a lengthy manhunt by international and local security forces, Karadzic was only arrested in the summer of 2008 in Belgrade, where he was living openly under the name of Dragan Dabic, disguising himself as a New Age healer.

Karadzic’s legal adviser, US attorney Peter Robinson, described the former Bosnian Serb president as “a charismatic, intelligent and empathic man devoted to his people”.

“During the trial, he considered it more important to defend the Serbian people than himself,” Robinson said.

Bosniak war victims’ associations have argued meanwhile that Karadzic was responsible for horrific, ethnically-motivated crimes and should be jailed for the rest of his life.

After a marathon trial during which more than 500 witnesses testified, the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals will hand down its own verdict on Karadzic on March 20.

The prosecution is demanding a life sentence, but Karadzic, who has continued to insist that he is not guilty, has said that he should be acquitted.