On Thursday, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was found guilty of genocide in Srebrenica massacre by the U.N. war crimes tribunal. Karadzic was facing two counts of genocide, five counts of crimes against humanity, and four counts of violations of the laws of war in his capacity as President of Republika Srpska (the Bosnian Serb republic) from 1992 to 1996.
As I watched the presiding Judge O-Gon Kwon read the verdict — for a full 58 minutes — it all came back to me. In 1996 and in 1999, I traveled in and out of the war zones in Bosnia. The hand-dug graves in the soccer field. The reports of Muslim massacres; of whole villages forced into a school gym and burned alive; the small hotel where we stayed that was also housing skeletal refugees recently released from a Serb concentration camp; the dogs with blown-off paws; the underground bakery distributing bread at the risk of their lives. And most of all “Sniper Alley” in downtown Sarajevo and the Serb soldier who showed me his sniper nest on Serb-held Mt. Jajolina and pointed his rifle at the place where I was staying.
More than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were murdered by Serb forces at the town of Srebrenica, under the direction of Radovan Karadzic. Between 1992-1996 more than 100,000 people were killed during the war; 20,000 women were raped as “weapons of war.” More than 2.2 million people were displaced.
Karadzic, 70, received a sentence of 40 years. He was captured and imprisoned in 2008. Below is an excerpt from my trip to the Serb stronghold in Pale outside Sarajevo. It describes events that took place on 24 June 1996. Find the full article here.
It's 4:20 p.m. I'm standing over the Olympic soccer stadium in Sarajevo. From one goal post to the other are graves — headstones of various sizes and shapes, most unmarked. There is an IFOR base where the concession stands once stood, with tanks, humvees, jeeps, and corrugated metal Quonset hut barracks. The graves are offside, I think. They go on up the hill.
Almost as soon as we arrive at the stadium the word comes that we must leave immediately for the airport to "meet the Serbs." Father Ivo Markovic, our host in Sarajevo, has arranged the meeting. Our group divides, some staying on at the stadium, some racing to the airport for the 4:30 p.m. rendezvous. I go for "the Serbs."
On the way we pass the bombed Franciscan Theological School where Father Ivo was taken prisoner and Sister Isadora served tea to her captors. We are detoured at the hole in the road where Asim Fazzic, who I met earlier at the Bread of St. Anthony soup kitchen, was shelled and pinned under machine gun fire one morning on his way to work. He ran the printing press for the Oslobodenje newspaper for 41 years until his injuries stopped him. We near the airport where a few lucky ones escaped the siege of Sarajevo through the tunnel under the tarmac; most were shot on the runway by NATO troops or others under orders to hold the line.
It's 4:40 pm. We arrive at a police installation just past the airport. Father Ivo is there. (His car now has "new" license plates so as not to attract unwanted attention.) We are not just to "meet the Serbs," but to be escorted to Pale-the government stronghold of the provisional Republika Srpska and home of Radovan Karadzic, accused by the International Criminal Tribunal of "almost unparalleled acts of cruelty."
Our car is assigned a military guard for the ride up Jajolina Mountain. He introduces himself as "Tyson, like Mike Tyson." He's in his mid-30s, short-cropped sandy brown hair, flat forest green eyes, wearing the uniform of the Serb Special Forces. He is very tense.
Our interpreter is 23-year-old Anesa, a Muslim woman who has just returned to her family in Sarajevo after four years as a refugee. She didn't really think of herself as Muslim until seven years ago when the politicians began drawing such distinctions. Tyson does not know that Anesa is Muslim. Father Ivo is afraid that her slight accent will give her away.
Tyson tells us that he is a professional policeman who went into the security forces when he was 14. He says that when the war ends he will remain in the military, but he will never work for any federation that includes Muslims. He says, "Croats and Serbs have a long history together in this land, but Muslims don't belong here."
The road to Pale takes us through mountains that are still pristine with old-growth forests and clear waterfalls, past the old bobsled track, the Olympic village, and beautiful mountain-cabin homes. In Sarajevo below, the trees were clear-cut for firewood or grave markers. Tyson says that someday he would like to ski up here again and that maybe it could be open to Croats too, "but Muslims never, because dead heads are dead heads." In other words, the only good Muslim is a dead Muslim.
Anesa translates all of this. Tyson continues speaking to Father Ivo: "If you were a Muslim, I wouldn't sit in this car with you right now. Muslims aren't really anything, because they didn't even have a nationality until Tito gave them one in 1974." (Before 1974, in order to vote, Yugoslavians had to declare themselves Serb, Croat, or Undecided.) Tyson tells us that his conscience is clear; that he is a good soldier because he never killed a woman, child, or old person; and that he has nothing personal against Muslims, but he can't ever be around them.
Tyson tells another story to illustrate his point. "During one of the last battles in Sarajevo, we were digging trenches. The Croat and Serb units worked together for five days, drinking coffee and digging each others' trenches, even though we were enemies. The point is that Serbs and Croats can understand each other. The Croats knew when to shoot and when not to shoot. But Muslims are stupid like cattle. They shoot all the time without stopping. If the Serbs could kill the Muslims with stones there would not be enough stones in the whole world to do this!"
Anesa continues translating for Tyson: "I realized in the fighting how great a human being's limits are. Many times I had to stay in my bunker for 48 or 72 hours just shooting my machine gun in the rain and snow."
After an hour on the road, we approach Pale, capital of the Bosnian Serb republic. Tyson becomes quiet again and agitated, perhaps afraid he has said too much. He adjusts his beret. When we reach the headquarters he hops from the car and salutes the officer approaching us, explaining that we are a religious group from the United States here to meet with the minister of religion. I ask to take Tyson's picture but he covers the camera. Anesa tells me that he is probably on "the list" for war crimes, and that's why he won't let me take his picture or give us his real name.
We are escorted to an office building, into a large plush meeting room. Tyson stays with the car. As the Sniper Alley graffiti in Sarajevo puts it, "Welcome to hell."