Video: Karadzic caught hiding in plain sight

Image: Montgomery Meigs
By Military analyst
updated 7/23/2008 4:28:10 PM ET 2008-07-23T20:28:10

For those of us who served in the Balkans and specifically those had the mission of tracking down and detaining Radovan Karadzic, his arrest marks an important milestone.

In a civil war of medieval viciousness, this macabre figure rode the wave of ethnic paranoia and warped historical memory to power. With the support of Slobodan Milosevic and his Serbian Army and Police, Bosnian Serb forces took over the Republika Serbska cleansing this Serbian ethnic canton in Bosnia Herzegovina with unspeakable horror. Brcko, Banja Luka, Bijelina and many smaller towns saw all of their Bosniak Muslims flee or die. The tiny number that remained did so, because as one business leader from Bijelina told me offhandedly, “No one wanted their house.”

Karadzic’s troops then conducted the siege of Sarajevo where sniping at starving citizens and shelling the town was sport. They wrestled Srebrenica from its Dutch protectors and separated the men from the women and children. The women and children they sent walking over the mountains through the minefields to the Bosniak front lines. Some of the men were taken away and slaughtered and some were set loose in the woods as game for Specialist Police and soldiers who wanted to demonstrate their hunting prowess against unarmed men. Within days, up to 8,000 Bosniak men were murdered and then bulldozed into hidden mass graves.

Those of us who served in IFOR and SFOR spent our days helping to clean up the wreckage of that unfortunate country, to reverse the ethnic cleansing in a way that did not reignite the conflict, and to rebuild multi-ethnic institutions.  Karadzic, Ratko Mladic, his military commander, and a host of other fleeting figures, Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Muslims alike, all with bloody hands, cast shadows on our work. Some we captured; too many got away.

Karadzic had some support
Not everyone wanted Karadzic in jail.  I remember in 1999 as the commander of SFOR, one short meeting with an officer from the French Special Forces. One of our units was very close to a Karadzic hiding place. My French second-in-command, a lieutenant general, accompanied the young man to my office. In front of my clearly embarrassed deputy, the major told me in perfect English, “Look General, when we want to take Karadzic, we will let you know.”  Understanding that no major would make that kind of demarche to a senior NATO commander on his own initiative, I made sure the message got back home.

Years later at a conference here in the U.S., I met a former and very senior member of the same Clinton administration I had served with in Bosnia. In the process of a short conversation, he informed me that he had done everything he could to impede the process of apprehending indicted war criminals. He opined that the Hague’s focus on the Serbs meant that we were not being even-handed. I made the point that we had worked equally hard at running down war criminals of all three factions; that NATO soldiers had risked their lives in the effort. He ignored the response.

Another irony exists in today’s reporting of this event. We read and hear that Serbian police had recently uncovered Karadzic’s new identity and hiding place allowing his arrest. Actually, the story is very likely much different. Karadzic had an extensive network of businesses and people involved in his protection and the financing of his security detail. Granted, over the years, that system had probably atrophied. There’s no chance, however, that Serbian Specialist Police did not know his movements. 

Serbia has its own internal problems with subversion. Have we forgotten that two leaders of the Serbian Ministry of Interior’s Red Berets, their national SWAT team, were sent to jail for 40 years for involvement in the assassination of Zoran Djindjic, the Serbian prime minister? Clearly, until a moderate government had enough of a mandate to stand down the radical Serb parties and their paramilitaries and to ensure the loyalty of the Ministry of Interior Forces, neither Karadzic  nor Mladic were going to fall. In order to assist Serbia’s entry into the European Union, a group of brave Serbian national leaders have now finally arrested Karadzic. Catching the most prominent and powerful war criminals requires the cooperation of their host country.

In 1997 when I served in Bosnia as a division commander, in private in a moment of reflection, a Bosnian Serb general told me,” We may let you get Karadzic, but we’ll never let you get Mladic.  He’s a warrior.”  Part of that prophecy has now come to be; we’ll see about the other.

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