I saw Karadžić’s camps. I cannot celebrate while many of his victims are denied justice

Ed Vulliamy sat face to face with the architect of Bosnia’s genocide during the war and testified at his trial. The Hague tribunal’s verdict, he says, is a hollow victory

It was impossible not to think back to that first meeting with Radovan Karadžić on the steps of his headquarters in the Bosnian Serb “capital” of Pale, outside and above the real capital of Sarajevo, which his troops, on his orders, were pounding into a state of murderous madness for three years.

He had a limp handshake, surprisingly weak for a man the Hague war crimes tribunal last week ruled responsible for ordering the worst carnage in Europe since the Holocaust, specifically the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995, which the bench deemed genocide, the “highest” – ergo most terrible – atrocity for which a war criminal can be convicted.

Back then, I was with a crew from ITN and we had arrived for a meeting with Karadžić to take him up on a promise to let us inspect what desperate deportees from the northeast of Bosnia called a gulag of concentration camps. Karadžić had been in London, denied reports of the camps and challenged us to “come and see for yourselves”.

He had this way of fixing you with his stare for a nanosecond, before his gaze would drift off into mid-distance, over your shoulder, towards the city laid out beneath him: at once the epitome of everything of which he was envious, and loathed, and the plaything for his artillery and hatred.

We ate lunch, but did not talk about the camps, or the siege of Sarajevo. Karadžić talked about Serbian epic poetry, centuries of suffering by the Serbs at the hands of Turks, and explained what a gusle was – a musical instrument with one string. It would have been tragi-comic, were it not so terrifying.

In the end Karadžić did guarantee access to the camps, even giving us an escort whose role was to limit what we saw in the first camp, Omarska, to a minimum: men, some skeletal, drilled across a Tarmac yard into a canteen where they gulped watery soup like famished dogs. The escorts bundled us out at gunpoint when we asked to enter the dark door from whence they had come – which turned out to be a factory of murder, torture and mutilation. Above the canteen, women were kept for systematic violation.

Fikret Alić , centre, and other prisoners in the Trnopolje internment camp where Muslims and Croats were held.
Fikret Alić , centre, and other prisoners in the Trnopolje internment camp where Muslims and Croats were held. Photograph: HO/REUTERS

We went to another camp, Trnopolje, to which some people, like Fikret Alić, famously pictured behind a barbed wire fence, had been brought that day from yet another, Keraterm, where Muslim and Croat civilians had been corralled for enforced deportation, many meanwhile beaten, murdered or raped.

What a long journey it has been since that encounter over lunch in Pale. Three more years in Bosnia: the west, having feigned outrage at the camps, continued to appease (at best) and encourage (at worst) Karadžić’s pogrom, right up to connivance in the Srebrenica massacre. All the while, Karadžić’s hand eagerly clasped beneath the chandeliers by our diplomats and leaders.

In 2008 I went looking for Karadžić, who by then was wanted for trial. My friend Nerma Jelačić and I were chased away from his mountain redoubt of Čelebići by a man bashing into our rear bumper as we tore down a winding and precipitous route back to town.

Once it suited the west and Serbia for Karadžić to be taken to The Hague, I was asked to testify against him, and agreed – also to a pre-testimony “interview” in the bowels of the tribunal’s detention centre. A white blind was raised, and there he was, bizarrely, not four feet away on the far side of a bullet-proof screen, asking questions about our trip to Omarska. In court, he defended himself, and I tried to hold my ground against his “cross-examination”, which insisted that I had fabricated my reports about Omarska, where, he pledged, “only one person died”.

Now it’s over, bar the inevitable appeals. The international justice counsel for Human Rights Watch, Param-Preet Singh, hailed the verdict: “Victims and their families have waited for over two decades to see Karadžić’s day of reckoning,” she said. “The Karadžić verdict sends a powerful signal that those who order atrocities cannot simply wait out justice.”

I do not share this triumphalism, and take my cue from the survivors of Karadžić’s violence.

I received the news by telephone, at lunch in Dublin, from a dear friend, Victoria-Amina Dautović, who was the first baby born to Bosnian refugees in the UK, in December 1992. She was in utero when her mother was a prisoner in Trnopolje; her father survived Omarska.

Dautović, who grew up in Luton, was on her way into a final exam in forensic science, which she has studied expressly in order to return to the area around her parents’ native village of Kozarac, and join the hunt for the missing remains of her parents’ friends and her friends’ parents. She was upset, just when she needed to focus: “He’s not guilty of genocide,” she said.

She was not referring to Srebrenica, but to all the other places for which Karadžić was cleared of genocide – like her own. Dautović and I talked a further three times that day and neither of us managed much cheer at any of this. “I don’t think any of us are celebrating,” she said. “Only other people” – by which she meant the headlines, the lawyers, the observers.

OK, if Karadžić had been acquitted that would have been atrocious, but that did not happen, thank God. OK, Srebrenica was genocide, but we know that from other cases. But what that verdict on the sole charge of which Karadžić was acquitted means is that what happened in the camps and around Dautović’s town – burned into the dust of its own stone – was not genocide. What happened for three years in places the world has never heard of was not genocide.

What happened in Višegrad on the river Drina, where thousands were butchered on a bridge, locked in houses and burned alive or kept in a rape camp was not genocide. What happened in the town of Foça where all Muslims were killed or expelled and another rape camp established was not genocide. What happened to the razed towns of Vlasenica, Bijeljina, Kljuć, Sanski Most, Brcko – I could go on – was not genocide. The total and systematic erasure of mosques, libraries, cultural and religious monuments across Bosnia was not genocide. This is not ingratitude for the verdict, this concerns the destruction of hundreds of thousands of lives.

So while the headlines proclaimed justice done, I just felt in my bones that hollowness in Dautović’s voice, usually so resolved and full of life. It’s been too long. It’s too late. Too many lawyers have made too much money. Singh’s point ignores the fact that President Assad of Syria, Isis and others have no fear whatsoever of “waiting out justice”, and that corporate crimes committed in places such as Congo, Colombia or Peru are not even on the radar screen, any more than the leaders who took us to war in Iraq, or perpetrators of other atrocities who are powerful and therefore immune.

There’s also this: the brutal farce of the arrest by the Hague tribunal’s UN police – just as the Karadžić verdict was handed down – of a colleague who had come to hear it. Florence Hartmann was Le Monde’s correspondent during the war, then served the tribunal loyally as spokeswoman for its prosecutor’s office. But she was absurdly convicted by it for revealing in a book of 2007 that the tribunal had deprived the International Court of Justice down the road of crucial documents on Srebrenica. At the end of Thursday I received a distraught call from Hartmann from inside a cell, in pursuit of her lawyer. After co-operating with the tribunal for 20 years now, I wonder: what is this vastly expensive institution there to do? Try war criminals or persecute our colleagues who tell the truth? It just added to the bitterness of a day which those at a distance from all this seemed to enjoy.

Most crucially, though, this is no “reckoning”, as Singh insists. That’s a tough word,a big word, which means the perpetrators coming to terms with what happened, and its history being given back to the survivors and the dead, as happened to Jewry after the Shoah.

No such reckoning will ever happen, in Bosnia, or for the hundreds of thousands scattered and shattered across its diaspora, nor can Karadžić’s conviction deliver it.


Ed Vulliamy

The GuardianTramp

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