Ten years after Radovan Karadzic's troops killed 7,000 Muslims in Srebrenica, the former Serb leader remains at large. In this remarkable report from the heart of Bosnia, Antony Barnett goes on the trail of Europe's most notorious war criminal
Sunday June 26, 2005
What strikes you first is the colour of the house. As you drive along the bumpy stone road that leads to the family home of Dr Radovan Karadzic, Europe's most wanted war criminal, its garish pink exterior bursts out in front of you. But despite its bright facade, it is a house that hides many dark secrets.
On Monday 11 July it will be 10 years since Karadzic's Bosnian Serb soldiers marched into the United Nations safe haven at Srebrenica and slaughtered more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. Yet Karadzic, the chief architect of this massacre - as well as the mastermind of the 1,000-day siege of Sarajevo that saw 10,000 civilians killed, 1,000 of them children - remains a free man.
Despite a $5 million (£2.7m) bounty on his head, Karadzic is a fugitive. Protected by a secret underground network made up of politicians, criminals, spies, businessmen and priests from the Orthodox church, Karadzic - a psychiatrist, children's author and poet in another life - is believed to be hiding in the mountains of eastern Bosnia close to the border with Montenegro.
His liberty remains a major embarrassment to the international community and an open sore in a country where 200,000 people were killed in a bitter ethnic war between Serb, Muslims and Croats. There can be no healing until Karadzic faces justice.
A decade after Srebenica and his indictment at The Hague, The Observer set out on a journey to reveal the network built to hide a man accused of committing the worst atrocities witnessed in Europe since the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.
Karadzic's pink family home is the obvious place to start. It stands on the outskirts of a town called Pale, cradled in the Bosnian mountains. Before the war in 1992 it was a ski village 10 miles south east of Sarajevo. Today it is the capital of the Republic of Sprska (pronounced Serbska), the semi-autonomous region of Bosnia that the Serbs like to call their own. It is a state within a state, where Karadzic's nationalist Serbian Democratic Party (SDP) still holds considerable power and is linked to an organised crime network run by Serb former paramilitary leaders and war criminals loyal to him. Most towns and villages there were ethnically cleansed, with Muslim communities expelled or exterminated. Mosques came down, Orthodox Serb churches went up.
Pale was a Karadzic stronghold in the war. It was from the Panorama hotel in the town centre that Karadzic and his cronies planned their brutal campaign. It takes only a few minutes to drive from the hotel to the Karadzic home.
As I arrive at the house the front door opens. None of the three people standing by the hall, who are thought to be part of Karadzic's extended family, will be interviewed, nor answer questions asked through the locked iron security gate. 'Have you seen Radovan? Where do you think he is? Can I speak to his wife Ljiljana? Has she seen him recently?'
All the questions are greeted with silence. After a while a tall, broad-shouldered man with closely-shaved dark hair, believed to be Karadzic's brother-in-law, comes to the gate and says they cannot help us. Karadzic's wife is not here. She is at another property, painting it after it was wrecked during a raid by Nato troops searching for clues to the whereabouts of her husband.
The next-door neighbours watch nervously from their first floor balcony. They too refuse to answer questions. A man in a scruffy red polo shirt with a walkie-talkie in hand comes over to ask for my ID papers. I ask for his. He claims he is with the Republic of Sprska police. He asks us to leave. I have doubts about the authenticity of his own ID, but decide to head into the centre of Pale.
Love letters from 'Radovan' to his beloved wife 'Lili', dated 2002, have recently been published showing that these two psychiatrists, who fell in love at medical school in Sarajevo, have met at a secret location. In one letter Karadzic tells his wife it would 'take a battalion' to discover his hiding place ... Of course, caution is necessary but there is not need of such fear and paranoia.'
His apparent lack of concern appears well founded. Despite being, like Osama bin Laden, one of the world's most wanted men and hiding in a country as small as Wales, the commitment to capture him by the 7,000 overseas troops still in Bosnia seems questionable. The French are regularly accused of being 'too close' to the Karadzic network, and even the British seem reticent.
One British officer serving in Bosnia, alluding to the fact that any attempt to snatch Karadzic is likely to lead to a shoot-out, said: 'If you think we would risk the life of one British soldier for these people, then you're wrong.'
This month - a week after a remarkable video appeared revealing the horror of the massacre in Srebrenica - Karadzic's brother, Luka, said: 'My brother has made a strategic decision to never surrender to the Hague Tribunal [set up try those accused of war crimes]. If he surrendered he would betray his people and God, which has protected him from the enemies for so long.'
To those hunting the so-called Butcher of Bosnia, these people make a web of clandestine supporters who form a protective financial and spiritual cloak around Karadzic that keeps him free. Such is their influence that one source claims trackers sent from The Hague to find Karadzic are sometimes spotted as arriving at Sarajevo airport and put under surveillance. Information is fed to Karadzic's army of bodyguards, who can move him at short notice should one of these investigators get a lucky break.
To these supporters Karadzic is a folk hero, a leader who helped protect them from the Muslim hordes. They inhabit a closed world, hostile to outsiders and suspicious of questions.
An orthodox priest, Father Jeremija Starovlah, gets up from his chair when he sees me approaching. His short silver hair and beard offer a striking contrast to his traditional black robes. The small, pretty white church that he runs is in the centre of Pale, a short drive from the Karadzic home.
A local newspaper reported last March that Starovlah was calling on Orthodox believers to shelter Karadzic. A few weeks later the international authorities said they had intelligence suggesting Karadzic was staying with the priest. Nato forces raided Starovlah's home, blowing up his front door and injuring his son. Karadzic was not found.
The raid provoked street protests by more than 2,000 Bosnian Serbs. Some wore masks of Karadzic while others waved the blue, red and white flags of the Republic of Sprska.
Now Starovlah refuses to speak or answer any questions. 'Has Karadzic been here?' I ask. 'Do you regard him as a hero? Where do you think he is now? Should he go to the Hague?' He says only: 'I have no comment to make. I do not wish to speak about this.'
Starovlah shows no desire to set the record straight. This is a priest in the Bosnian Serb capital, who is close to the Karadzic family. And in the Republic of Sprska, family secrets are closely guarded.
One of the most shocking parts of a recent film of Srebenica, showing six Muslims being bound and shot at close range, was that it began with a Serb Orthodox priest blessing the camouflaged paramilitary troops who carried out the massacre. Rumours persist that Karadzic is disguised as a priest and moving from monastery to monastery.
As well as the church in Pale, intelligence agencies have monitored phone calls that disclose he has hidden in the isolated mountain monastery of Ostrog. Karadzic's grandson was christened there. According to a diplomatic source it is estimated that Karadzic spends 80 per cent of his time in church property. The source says it is not a coincidence that since the war dozens of new Orthodox churches have been built at a cost of millions of pounds. It is alleged that most of this money comes from the same illicit sources that provide the funds to protect Karadzic.
Yet while the church may offer Karadzic spiritual and physical sanctuary, an altogether more criminal network funds the $200,000 a month operation to protect the 'Doctor in the Forest'.
Milovan Bjelica is waiting for me outside Cafe Iceberg in the town of Sokolac, a 45-minute drive from Sarajevo. Smoking a Malboro and drinking an espresso he beckons us over with his steel-blue eyes. A disfigured right hand hangs loosely by his side.
Nato arrested Bjelica twice last year, detaining him for a month at a time. Armed troops swooped on the town last August and questioned him for more than two hours a day for a whole month. They had heard he had gone to Belgrade and accused him of meeting supporters of Karadzic. Bjelica claims he was there to have surgery.
Bjelica has been accused by the US State Department and the European Union of funnelling money to the Karadzic network and running the security and intelligence units that guard him. His name is on the US list of international terrorists and he is banned from travelling to any EU country.
In March 2003 the US government described him as a 'long-time friend and business associate of Karadzic, [who] presides over a network of legal and illegal businesses that are also used to provide for the protection of Karadzic'.
Bjelica denies all this but there is no doubt he is a supporter of Karadzic and was a powerful figure in his Serbian Democratic Party. Bjelica was the party president in eastern Bosnia during the war and spent time with Karadzic.
Bjelica has agreed to meet us because he wants to ensure I understand that many Serbs were killed in the war and suffered Muslim ethnic cleansing. He takes my notebook and draws a sketch of Sarajevo, pointing out areas where he claims 5,000 Serbs were killed.
Bjelica has seen the video of Srebenica and thought it was 'terrible'. But he claims there are films of the Bosnian Muslims, or mujahideen, as he calls them, beheading Serbs. 'Why is that not shown on your TV?' he says.
Like many of Karadzic's closest allies, he believes their leader 'signed a contract' with Richard Holbrooke, President Bill Clinton's chief adviser during the Dayton Peace Accord in 1995 that ended the war. This stipulated that if Karadzic disappeared from frontline politics he would not be arrested.
'To over 90 per cent of Bosnian Serbs he is a hero,' says Bjelica. 'He protected the Serbian people during the war.'
So where does Bjelica, whose nickname 'Cicko' means pussycat, think his friend is hiding? He shrugs. Stubbing out his cigarette, he gets up from the table, shakes my hand and leaves.
The centre Sarajevo is a long way from the corridors of Westminster, but the heated complexity of Bosnian politics makes the hurly-burly of the House of Commons seem tame. Yet it is the former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown, who, as the High Representative of the International Community in Bosnia, has overall responsibility for stability in the region. As part of Lord Ashdown's brief, the capture of Karadzic and other war criminals such as General Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military commander, is pivotal.
'You can't have peace without justice,' says Ashdown. 'And only after that you can get to reconciliation. This can only happen when the major architects of these crimes are brought to justice.'
His office sits on the former front line of the Sarajevo's bloody battle, and the surrounding buildings are pockmarked with bullet holes. The former Bosnian parliament building across the street remains a burnt-out wreck, a vivid reminder of the horrors faced by civilians in the siege of the city that was inspired by Karadzic. It was largely Serbian sniper bullets and shells that rained down from the surrounding mountains killing those queuing for bread or buying fruit in the main street market.
So why, 10 years on, has Karadzic not been found? 'Catching war criminals is a campaign, not a commando raid,' says Ashdown. 'It requires changing the political climate, attacking corrupt networks, removing the money he uses to fund himself. It requires isolation by taking out lower-level war criminals. Then we have a better change of catching him.' Ashdown describes Karadzic as 'the head of a vast criminal organisation' that thrives on corruption and extortion. Visits are paid to businessmen from dark forces who ask for contributions for the 'doctor in the forest'. These organised crime networks make vast sums from smuggling drugs, petrol and tobacco as well as trafficking young girls for the sex trade.
Ashdown's office has carried out investigative audits on many of the state-owned companies, such as the electricity firm Electroprivreda and discovered tens of millions of dollars missing.
'We have just carried out an audit of Sprske Sume, the Serb forestry organisation, and found it riddled with political backhanders just siphoned out of the system. This is public money just disappearing into political parties such as the SDS. From there siphoning it to Karadzic is not a difficult thing to do.'
Ashdown's office believes that one of the key 'bankers' to Karadzic's network is Momcilo Mandic, a former minister who commanded Karadzic's police force. Mandic has made a fortune from running petrol stations, a bank and other businesses. Like Bjelica he is on a number of international blacklists but lives freely in Belgrade. The US has described him as a 'major funding source for Karadzic through his control of an elaborate network of criminal enterprises engaged in embezzlement, business fraud and fictitious loans'. He too has denied the claims.
Another Bosnian Serb accused of providing money for the Karadzic network is Radomir Kojic, who is also on the US terrorist list and banned from travelling. Last month an Observer investigation discovered that his mine-clearing company, Unipak, won many lucrative contracts from foreign governments including six from the UK Department for International Development. Kojic, a wartime Serb commander in the hills around Sarajevo, rejects the claims, saying his he is the victim of false rumours spread by business rivals who have provided no evidence of wrongdoing.
Meeting us outside his hotel in the ski resort of Jahorina, where Sarajevo's Winter Olympics was held in 1984, he claims his business now faces ruin. 'It is better for my family if I kill myself,' Kojic says. He does, however, admit he was a member of Karadzic's party in 1990 and the property developer who built Karadzic's family home in Pale. The pink house, it seems, is never far from the centre from the story.
They call the area the heart of darkness. The geographical triangle created by the towns of Visegrad, Cajnice and Foca in the Republic of Sprska in the far east of Bosnia is indeed a cold, dark place. But these are not adjectives used to describe the region's physical appearance. It is rich in natural beauty, with the majestic River Drina snaking its way through the glorious pine forests in the valley as the peaks of the Zelengora mountains tower above.
The chill comes from the history that swept across the nearby borders of Serbia and Montenegro and whipped up a storm of ethnic hatred that brutalised a generation. It remains a hotbed of fervent Serb nationalism where some of the worst genocidal crimes of the Bosnian war were committed. Ten years ago it was not dead branches from the pine trees that the Drina carried in its fast-flowing, but the bodies of hundreds of butchered Muslims that were swept along in its bloodstained water.
It is among these mountains and remote villages of his loyal supporters that many believe Karadzic is hiding. It is close enough to the porous borders of Montenegro, the country of Karadzic's birth, that the 'Doctor from the Forest' can easily slip through out of the clutches of Nato and European Union forces.
At the apex of the triangle is Foca, a place renowned for harbouring war criminals. Before the war more than half of the town's 40,000 population was Muslim, now there are none. Rape, torture and murder changed that.
Today the centre of Foca is a scene of normality. Teenagers wearing fashion able sunglasses sip beer and smoke cigarettes at cafes overlooking the river while rock music pumps from the speakers. At Cafe Uno, a group of four older men sit around a table eating the traditional local Bosnian dish of cevapi, small sausages made of lamb and beef.
I ask if they will talk about Karadzic. At first nobody wants to speak. 'We don't want to talk about politics,' said one. 'Do you think of him as a hero or a war criminal?' I ask. After a pause, one of them, a chubby man with curly hair, barks: 'A hero, of course. He protected us.'
The oldest in the group, with a moustache and fine grey hair, then takes over. He snarls: 'You English and Americans, you know where he is. You are protecting him. If you wanted to arrest him you could.' The others around the table nod in agreement. They want us to leave.
As I start driving high into the mountains towards the Montenegro border, it becomes increasingly clear why it has been so difficult to catch Karadzic. Not only is he among people who view in him as one of a long line of Serb heroes who have fought off foreign invaders. But the terrain itself is almost impassable in a normal car. The roads are practically dirt tracks and wind their way up steep mountainous slopes that rise into the clouds. If Karadzic was hiding anywhere here, his security people would see anybody coming from miles away.
As I leave Foca and head back to Sarajevo there is a sign for Niksic, the home town of Karadzic's mother, which is 105km east in Montenegro. As I drive on, three young boys coming from a game of football pass by. They raise their hands in the infamous three-fingered salute of Serb nationalists.
Fugitives from justice
General Ratko Mladic
Mladic was commander of Serbian troops in Bosnia during the war. Along with Karadzic he is charged with genocide for ordering the massacre of Muslims in Srebrenica and the siege of Sarajevo in which 10,000 civilians were killed. He is blamed for abetting the 'systematic' campaign of sniping at civilians in the city over the past three years and for the seizure and use as human shields of 284 UN peacekeepers in May and June 1995. He is accused of shelling the towns of Tuzla and Srebrenica 'in order to kill, terrorise and demoralise the Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croat civilian population'. Aged 50.
A Croatian, he is the Hague tribunal's third most wanted man. He is accused of the murder of hundreds of Serbs. Aged 49.
The notorious leader of the White Eagles paramilitary group, he is accused of masterminding the massacre of thousands of Muslims in the eastern Bosnian town of Visregrad. Many were burned alive. Women and children were forced across the bridge over the River Drina and shot. Thousands of local men were killed elsewhere. Aged 38.
Zelenovic is charged with organising the mass rape and torture of Muslim women in the Bosnian town of Foca. Aged 44.