THE BLOG
07/31/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Meaning of Karadzic

July 21, 2008: The day that ended a 13-year failure. The day that promises were kept. The day that Serbian security forces met their responsibilities. The day that Dr. Radovan Karadzic was arrested for a war crimes indictment handed down July 24, 1995.

The former president of Bosnia's rebel Serbs and a key architect of war-time atrocities, Karadzic started out life in a Montenegrin mountain village. He left to study in Sarajevo, graduating as a physician and psychiatrist. To explore his artistic side, he wrote poetry and children's books, often with themes of nature. But buried in the lines were themes of violence:

I wait in dawn's hiding place

This glorious opportunity

To suddenly forsake all

That this epoch has bestowed upon me

And I hurl a morning hand-grenade

Armed with the laughter

Of a lonely man

With a dark character.

Such poetry failed to win renown for the ambitious Karadzic. Psychiatry, too, disappointed. He turned to wild financial schemes; in the 1980s, he was convicted of embezzlement and fraud. Then politics and plotting, leading to 150,000 killed in a country the size of Maryland.

Years after the indictment, Bosnian Serb radio praised Karadzic as a man of "Christ-like virtues." No wonder. His deft deflection of blame eased the conscience of any bystanders who bought into his fantasies:

"Muslim Mullahs," not Serb soldiers, were behind the stories of mass rapes. The 1994 marketplace bombing that killed 68 Sarajevans was faked by sympathy-seeking Bosniaks (largely secular Muslims), who had raided a morgue for bodies to plant in the market. Even the 3½-year siege of Sarajevo was transformed from an atrocity perpetrated against the encircled city to a brave attempt to keep Bosniaks from attacking Serbs outside Sarajevo -- the psychiatrist's surreal spin.

It's tempting to linger on how a peasant-cum-poet turned into a president-cum-butcher. More germane to those of us who were working in Bosnia, and to those who care about injustice and suffering anywhere, is how it took 13 years to catch him.

The Dayton Accords that ended the fighting gave NATO the job of ensuring security, and we knew that peace could not take hold if war criminals remained in power. Refugees could not return home to communities run by perpetrators. And at a psychological level, survivors of massacres grieved endlessly, longing for closure much more than revenge. Yet journalists and human rights activists often tracked down the criminals years before international forces apprehended them.

One excuse was the military mandate. Often, its interpretation came down to individual commanders.

One military adviser told me, with verbal acrobatics, "Our mandate is to 'detain,' not 'arrest.'"

Another explained that his soldiers weren't trained to be police, and that trying to fill that role would end in disaster.

An aide described his boss's hands-off policy: "If he's in a café and the Serb commander, General Mladic, comes in the front door, Admiral Smith is going out the back. It's not NATO's job to pick up war criminals."

"I'm just a simple soldier," the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO told me. "We act when political leaders tell us what to do. I'm waiting for orders."

Building long-term stability in Bosnia, as in any conflict, required tough decisions and risks. Instead, decision makers in the international community seemed more concerned about avoiding attributable blunders. Dayton, after all, gave primary responsibility to the warring parties to turn in their compatriots. But for the most part, the Serbs, credited with 90 percent of the crimes, protected their own.

Now, Karadzic is in custody. What changed? For one, the failure to capture him and Ratko Mladic has been a fundamental obstacle to European Union membership for Serbia. When EU membership was a pipe dream, authorities did not move against the criminal in their midst. Only decency and justice were at stake. With this arrest, the new, Western-leaning Serbian government will have a smoother ride to that coveted club.

While we can hope that less calculated motivators were at work, this arrest brings an important opportunity. The region can reorient itself toward the future rather than the past. The Balkan people can now move forward, unburdened by one of the chief architects of mass murder.

There's farther to go, even in Bosnia. But the lessons reach far beyond, whether to Sudan, Iraq, Zimbabwe, or Colombia. Peace, healing, and prosperity go hand in hand with justice.

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