I stumbled into the city centre and found a hotel room immediately. Belgrade was humming with summer activity but not exactly overrun with tourists, and seemed fine with that. The hotel staff were very friendly, apparently accustomed to dazed foreigners wandered randomly into the lobby, looking like they had just been on an 18-hour bus ride. I dropped my bags in my small room then went out for a walk. Retracing my steps a little later I noticed that something was happening and whatever it was, it was happening right next to my hotel. It seemed fairly innocuous. A few dozen yelling, placard-carrying protesters were… well, protesting.
There was something slightly odd about it though. The protesters made as much noise as they could, but the throngs spilling out of the outdoor cafes lining the street seemed not to notice them at all. For some reason this little demonstration was being ignored with gusto. I had no idea what was going on, or that Serbia had suddenly become the epicentre of global media attention. The riots would begin in the days following, just around the corner from my hotel.
It was July 21, 2008. My bus had arrived in Belgrade in the same hour that Europe’s most wanted man, in hiding for 12 years, was arrested on another Belgrade bus. Former psychiatrist, poet and the first President of Republika Srpska (one of the two main political entities comprising the former Yugoslavian nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina), Radovan Karadzic had finally been captured and immediately charged with eleven war crimes relating to his involvement in the Siege of Sarajevo and the 1995 genocide of 8000 Bosnian men and boys in Srebrenica. Having been in Belgrade just a few hours (and not speaking the language) I knew nothing of this. The leader of the protest outside my hotel was Karadzic’s brother, the hotel reception desk guy cheerfully told me.
Conversation throughout the nation and beyond centered not so much on the actual capture and arrest of Karadzic, but rather the astonishing realisation that he had, for over a decade, been hiding in plain sight. The notoriously slippery accused war criminal had simply lost some weight, grown a beard and long hair, and changed his name. During his 12 years ‘on the run’ Karadzic had been brazenly living and working in Belgrade. Europe’s most wanted man was operating an alternative medicine clinic under the company name “Human Quantum Energy”. He travelled freely, dined in restaurants, handed out business cards and spoke at international conferences (mainly in Vienna, Austria) as a new-age health guru named Dragan David Dabic (Serbian media reported shortly after his arrest that Karadzic stole this identity from a Bosnian Serb soldier who had been killed 15 years earlier). It was also reported that Karadzic, whilst already in hiding, somehow stole 36 million marks from a Bosnian Serb central bank. While not robbing banks or publishing books of his poetry Karadzic/Dabic continued to give frequent lectures on alternative medicine and spirituality.
In his Belgrade neighbourhood, he was considered friendly and polite; a gentle, quietly spoken man who would occasionally give gifts of candy to the neighbourhood children. Because of his bushy grey beard, they called him Santa. A few times a week he would walk around the corner from his apartment to an ultranationalist bar called Luda Kuca (The ‘Madhouse’). Considered a Serbian hero in the small bar, Karadzic did not go unnoticed due to his unique appearance. He would sit beneath the framed portraits of himself and his contemporaries that adorned the walls and sometimes chat with the regulars, about himself, in the third person. Occasionally after a few shots of slivovitsa (traditional Serbian plum brandy) he would play the gusle (a one-stringed traditional Balkan instrument) and people would sing Serbian nationalist songs, sometimes featuring his name… yet not once did anybody at the madhouse gain an inkling of his true identity. Guests to his apartment would be shown photos of his fake family in America. Nothing of the double life of Radovan Karadzic was anything less than extraordinary.
The next day I left Belgrade, heading east. Karadzic was of course pretty much the only topic of conversation anywhere in Serbia, but nobody I spoke to appeared very passionate about the issue, one way or another. Generally speaking, the Serbs are a very passionate, straight-talking people, who tend to have very strong views about their country and how they are perceived by the outside world. Though the capture of Karadzic had just occurred, my own mention of the topic generally received a muted response, often followed by a change of subject. It felt kind of like taking a vacation to Germany and saying, “Wow, how about that Hitler, eh?” Though Karadzic had been described in the Turkish press as “Balkan’s Hitler“, I soon realised that comparisons between the two made for an uncomfortably false analogy, not least because the crimes Karadzic are charged with occurred less than twenty years ago and remain fresh in the minds of millions of Balkan citizens. The nation still struggles with its role in the Balkan wars, and the international portrayal of Serbia since. Additionally, Karadzic remains a polarising figure – considered by some a genocidal sociopath, and to others a Serbian patriot and war hero. Casual conversation about Radovan Karadzic in 2008 did not appear entirely casual in a place as fractured and complex as the republics of the former Yugoslavia. Perhaps some just didn’t feel like openly discussing the issue with a westerner, considering the large body of evidence suggesting the civil wars in the region were largely facilitated, if not directly engineered by outside forces (primarily the US and Germany), who had vested interests in the dismantling of Yugoslavia.
Meanwhile, the daily protests began to grow stronger, and Belgrade and the Karadzic story remained the focus of the world’s media. What I had witnessed outside the hotel in Belgrade was apparently the first protest, but they grew, and a week later the demonstrations in Belgrade were reported to involve up to 15,000 people, which was a disappointment for the nationalist supporters of Kardzic, considering that just a few months prior over 100,000 people had protested in Belgrade about Kosovo’s claim of independence from Serbia.
In reporting on the riots that accompanied these protests, western broadcasters didn’t necessarily go out of their way to explain that the rioters numbered less than 200 and were predominantly drunken football hooligans who were just there to smash things.
Angering Serbs at this time was the fact that CNN, while reporting on Karadzic and the Belgrade riots actually showed footage (whether by accident or design – the jury’s still out on that) of an earlier, more visually spectacular riot that had occurred in Budapest, Hungary.
The belgrade protests themselves were not necessarily in opposition to the arrest of Karadzic, but centred on a desire by many to have him tried in Serbia, rather than have him extradited to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), at The Hague. The majority of Serbians are mistrustful of the ICTY and feel that the body is politically motivated and biased against Serbs. Many quickly point out that not a single indictment has been made against any NATO officials for their involvement or inaction during the Bosnian war. Serbs also remain angry and suspicious about former verdicts handed down by the ICTY, such as the full acquittal on appeal of former Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) commander Naser Oric, who was originally found guilty of failing to prevent the murders of Bosnian Serbs in and around Srebrenica in 1992 and 1993, and Ramush Haradinaj, a former Kosovo Albanian military leader. Despite the 2008 protests in Belgrade however Karadzic has now been living at the ICTY wing of The Hague in the Netherlands for four years, since a week after his arrest.
I talked to my father on the phone during that week and he was concerned for my safety, having seen the news broadcasts about the violent riots in Belgrade. He seemed nonplussed at my blasé attitude. I explained to him that the TV news teams are careful in framing their footage, as much to avoid what is out of frame as to present what is in frame.
“It might seem like Belgrade is a war zone dad, but the news is only showing you a couple of city blocks. If you don’t feel like throwing rocks at police, you can just go around the corner and enjoy your cappuccino like everybody else”, I told him. It was only a slight exaggeration, and far closer to reality than what my father was seeing portrayed on TV in Australia.
After three years of evidence and witnesses for the prosecution, Karadzic began his legal defence on October 16, 2012. In his opening remarks he stated, “Instead of being accused of the events in our war, I should have been rewarded for all the good things I have done, namely that I did everything in human power to avoid the war. …I succeeded in reducing the suffering of all civilians.”
Bosniak survivors of the war, present in the courtroom, audibly expressed their disgust toward the relaxed looking Karadzic.
Like many dictators and war criminals, including Slobodan Milosovic, former President of Serbia and resident of The Hague who died shortly before his own verdict was announced, Karadzic is, for a number of tactical reasons, representing himself. It is not expected to be a speedy trial.
And now… a joke.
A Croatian, a Serb and a Bosnian walked into a bar. They had a few beers and shared a lovely evening together because they’re all good friends…