By David Blair
Radovan Karadzic opened his defense against war-crimes charges with an effusive bout of self-praise, hailing his “tolerant” nature and declaring that his peacemaking in the old Yugoslavia deserved special “reward.”
Instead, the notorious Bosnian Serb leader from the bloodiest chapter of Europe’s post-1945 history is on trial for two counts of alleged genocide, two of murder and one of extermination. He also faces accusations of alleged persecution, deportation, and hostage-taking.
In all, Karadzic is the subject of 11 charges before the International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague.
Yet the politician who led the Bosnian Serbs throughout the civil wars that tore Yugoslavia apart between 1991 and 1995 sought to portray himself as an inoffensive and cultured man of letters, addressing the court in a rumpled and professorial dark suit, with reading glasses perched on his nose.
Perhaps the most serious charge against Karadzic holds him jointly responsible with Ratko Mladic, the former commander of Bosnian Serb forces, for the massacre of 7,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in July 1995. He is also accused of joint culpability for the 44-month siege of Sarajevo, which saw the bombardment of whole neighborhoods and cost at least 12,000 lives.
On Karadzic’s telling, however, few had striven harder for peace—and few had worked more ardently for a multi-ethnic Bosnia or shown more personal tolerance—than himself. “My hairdresser of many years” he told the court, “was a Muslim.”
Delivering his opening statement while seated in the dock, Karadzic said: “Instead of being accused for the events in our civil 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.”
Karadzic’s other good works included “reducing the suffering of all civilians”, helping to ensure that the “number of victims of our war was three or four times less than the numbers reported in public", and proclaiming “numerous unilateral ceasefires.”
Karadzic had “constantly sought peace," even deciding to stop “our army many times when they were close to victory.”
His “many presidential duties” had not prevented him from “personally” supervising the “delivery of humanitarian aid” and carrying out “many acts of mercy.”
The indictment’s summary of Karadzic’s war record differs from his own recollection. The prosecution accuses him of spreading “terror among the civilian population of Sarajevo through a campaign of sniping and shelling.” The former poet and academic psychiatrist allegedly “persecuted” Muslims and Croats “on political and/or religious grounds” while trying to carve out an ethnically pure homeland for Bosnian Serbs, allegedly deporting minority communities who stood in the way.
As such, Karadzic had been responsible for a “systematic attack directed against Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croat civilian populations,” reads the indictment.
Yet Karadzic, 67, posed before the court as a figure of refinement and learning, incapable of such crimes. “I am a mild man, a tolerant man, with a great capacity for understanding others,” he said. “I am a literary man, a group analyst and a psychiatrist.”
He was also, apparently, a man without personal prejudice. “I have nothing against Muslims or Croats,” he said. “Every shell that fell in Sarajevo hurt me personally.”
The charges against him, claimed Karadzic, reflected nothing more than a long campaign of lies and calumny, directed both at him personally and at the Bosnian Serbs as a whole. But Karadzic, who banished any sign of hesitation or self-doubt, voiced confidence that the court would see through the propaganda. “The truth will become stronger and stronger, the propagation of lies, propaganda, rumors, and hatred will get weaker and weaker,” he declared.
Watching from the public gallery as he spoke these words were victims of Bosnia’s civil war. They listened with audible outrage, sighing and groaning in disbelief. “He committed such evil in this country that it is hard to tell if it will have a future, if we will ever return to a normal life,” said Kada Hotic, from the Mothers of Srebrenica Association. “He is trying to fool the world.”
The trial, which began in 2009, will continue with the testimony of Karadzic’s defense witnesses.