New Balkan Trend Turns Accused Sinners to Saints

Times Staff Writer

The half-smiling portrait of Radovan Karadzic floats on hundreds of posters in this capital's main square. His face is emblazoned on buttons and T-shirts sold at music festivals, while books by the wartime leader of the Bosnian Serbs are available in many shops. His most recent volume is a collection of children's poetry.

Karadzic is also one of the world's most wanted men, indicted on war crimes charges, including genocide, by the U.N. tribunal in The Hague. NATO troops have repeatedly tried -- and failed -- to capture him as part of international efforts to bring to justice those believed most responsible for the bloodshed that tore much of the Balkans apart in the 1990s.

That he nonetheless is seen as a saint, even a savior, by many ethnic Serbs in the region is only the most visible sign of a disturbing and growing syndrome: Beneath the veneer of normality here, an insidious hagiography of war crimes suspects has emerged.

Each ethnic or religious group is creating a mythology in which its most aggressive wartime leaders, suspected of the worst excesses, are refashioned into heroes. In addition to Serbs, the trend is apparent among ethnic Croats, Bosnian Muslims and the ethnic Albanians of Serbia's Kosovo province.

It is this unremarked process that appears most likely to lay the psychological foundations for another war.

The galvanizing force behind today's adulation of hard-line wartime leaders is the pervasive feeling among members of each group that they won less than they should have as they pulled away from the Yugoslav federation. Serbs, Croats and Muslims killed one another to varying extents during the Bosnian and Croatian wars.

In Kosovo, Serbs drove out more than 700,000 ethnic Albanians, only to be forced out themselves once the Albanians returned under international protection. Yet few groups feel that they attained the idealized, independent homelands for which they were fighting.

"Everyone here feels that they lost something. There are nothing but bad memories," said Jakob Finci, the head of the Jewish community in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, who helped civilians on all sides during the 1992-95 Bosnian war.

"And since we have no new heroes, we keep our old heroes -- Karadzic, Mladic, Izetbegovic," Finci said ruefully. He was referring to Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general accused of ordering the execution of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica after his troops took the town in 1995, and to Alija Izetbegovic, the wartime leader of Bosnian Muslims.

"These nationalist figures give people a sense of confidence and superiority -- it makes each group feel they are 'chosen,' " said Warren Zimmermann, a former U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia.

"It's just one more step from saying, 'We're just as good,' to saying, 'We're better,' which is another way of saying the wars are not over."

Border-changing conflicts will most likely recur in places where ethnic groups still thirst for a national identity and feel that they are unjustly lumped with people of other ethnicities or religions, experts say.

That is the situation both in Bosnia, where Muslims, Croats and Serbs uneasily share land and power under the peace accords brokered by the U.S. in Dayton, Ohio, and in the broad swath of turf that ethnic Albanians call home but that crosses the borders of Yugoslavia and Macedonia as well as Albania.

Bosnian Muslims

As any Bosnian will tell you, every park in Sarajevo was turned into a graveyard during the 1992-95 war, which killed nearly 200,000 people, more than 100,000 of them Muslims. In many ways, Bosnia remains a country of the dead. Drive along any main road and one will cross former front lines, pass fields with mass graves and see one bombed house after another.

Small wonder that many here feel they lost too much to bear. Although many people are too tired and broken to contemplate more fighting, the appeal of nationalist rhetoric runs deep, perhaps precisely because of the terrible sense of loss.

The war had many fronts. Bosnian Croats, who are largely Roman Catholics, fought Bosnian Muslims, but later those two sides joined forces and fought against Serbs, who are Orthodox Christians.

Signs of heroes-in-the-making appeared barely two years after the war's end. A Sarajevo gang leader, Musan "Caco" Topalovic, received an illustrious reburial because he had defended besieged Muslims. His body, accompanied by 20,000 mourners, was transferred from a small, anonymous graveyard to the first row of the Muslim cemetery for war heroes above the capital's historic Turkish bazaar. His grave remains a place of veneration; on a summer visit, it was covered with sprays of lilacs and lilies.

Overlooked were accounts of Topalovic and his gang's slayings of about 75 Serbs, including some of their prewar friends and neighbors, whose bodies were dumped into a limestone quarry outside Sarajevo.

Topalovic's deeds were uncovered by Muslim journalists who, after they wrote about them, were pilloried by Izetbegovic, then the Bosnian Muslim president.

"He said we were betrayers of Bosnia, betrayers of Islam, that we were foreign spies. We got threats over the phone. We were met on the street by people who attacked us," said Senad Pecanin, the former editor of the investigative magazine Dani, who wrote some of the controversial articles and is now a columnist. "Reconciliation in Bosnia will not take root until people talk about their own ethnic groups' crimes."

The country has a long way to go.

Less than a year ago, hundreds of women protested outside the building in Sarajevo where Hague investigators were questioning Naser Oric, a former Muslim wartime leader at Srebrenica. Oric is widely believed to have launched deadly raids on nearby Serb villages before the massacre of thousands of Muslims.

But Muslim women who lived in Srebrenica and whose sons and husbands died there believe otherwise. "If Naser is guilty, then we are all guilty," said Sabra Kovenevic, 42, a worn woman in a pilled purple sweater who insisted that Oric went to Serb villages only to steal bread for starving Muslims.

As international peacekeeping forces are reduced in Bosnia, violence is creeping back. The night of Sept. 5, when the Yugoslav national basketball team won the world championship in Indiana, about 200 Bosnian Serb youths climbed into cars and headed for Kozarac, site of some of the most vicious "ethnic cleansing" against Muslims during the war.

In the pitch black, the youths roared into the village shooting guns into the air, banging on the doors of Muslims' houses and shouting, "This is Serbia!"

Such incidents, plus the victories of each ethnic group's most nationalist candidates in October elections, lead many to ask whether Bosnia, in its current multiethnic form, can work.

"The different groups have not achieved the nation-state they wanted ... so the leaders who want separation will find sufficient support to engage in warfare and intimidation," said Aleksandar Pavkovic, a professor of politics and international relations at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and an expert on nationalism in Eastern Europe.

"They are waiting until there is no more international involvement [by peacekeepers]. Then they will play very different politics."

Ethnic Albanians

In the rich green valleys and white karst mountains of southern Kosovo, the rebels who made up the Kosovo Liberation Army were romantic figures even before their 1999 war against Serb troops. Operating under noms de guerre, they garnered a powerful mystique that largely obscured their more brutal acts.

Today, nowhere is the link between the idealization of wartime leaders and the psychological preparation for the next rebellion more explicit than in Kosovo, a province of Serbia that is now under U.N. control. Even Kosovo Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi, although courteous and well-spoken, intertwines his tireless campaign to sever ties to Serbia with an outspoken defense of KLA rebels.

He marked his elevation to the prime minister's post by making a pilgrimage to the home of Adem Jashari, one of the foremost guerrilla leaders in the rebel stronghold of Drenica, where Jashari boasted of executing Serb policemen. Rexhepi described Jashari, who died fighting Serb police, as a "martyr" to the Kosovo Albanian cause.

Last summer, Rexhepi led the public condemnation of North American Treaty Organization peacekeepers when they detained former KLA leaders for questioning in the slayings of fellow ethnic Albanians believed to be Serb collaborators.

Mobs took to the streets in the KLA leaders' defense, shouting, "Freedom for the liberators!" blocking roads and pelting peacekeepers and U.N. police with stones.

Other former KLA leaders are suspected of committing crimes against Serbs. More than 1,200 Serbs in Kosovo have disappeared since 1998, when the ethnic Albanian uprising began; none have been found.

The Hague tribunal has yet to issue indictments of KLA leaders, but chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte has said she will bring several in the next few months. Once those indictments come, the rebel leaders "will become heroes," said Xhemali Maliqi, an ethnic Albanian publisher in Pristina, Kosovo's capital. "They will be untouchable."

Few Balkan analysts doubt that eventually borders will be changed to accommodate an expanded and independent Kosovo. Whether it would absorb a part of Macedonia heavily populated by ethnic Albanians is one of the more fraught questions. Any attempt to do so would almost certainly result in fighting, because Macedonia is too small to remain viable as a country if it loses the region.


In the wars of the 1990s, Croats were something of an exception because, in large measure, they achieved the mono-ethnic state they sought. Ethnic Serbs once made up about 12% of the population in Croatia, but their numbers have shrunk by two-thirds, as most have fled.

But even that "victory" hasn't stopped Croats from developing a mythology for their wartime leaders.

Croats reason that a war's winners, by virtue of being winners, cannot include war criminals. And even if crimes were committed, they say, they were justified because they were part of the Croats' defense of their homeland.

Nenad Ivanic, a popular Croatian journalist and nationalist, uses this rationale to defend retired Gen. Ante Gotovina, indicted by the Hague tribunal in an operation in which Croatian troops killed ethnic Serb civilians, burned their homes and erased most signs of their existence.

"It never happened in history that the winners were put on trial," Ivanic said. "The U.S. committed war crimes in Vietnam and Nagasaki, but it has never apologized. The British army bombed Dresden and the goal was to kill civilians, and no one put them on trial.

"It was the defeated Germans who were put on trial," Ivanic said, referring to the post-World War II trials in Nuremberg.


Beneath the Karadzic posters plastered around Yugoslav cities are the words: "Every one of us is Radovan."

The message is clear: If the international community arrests and tries Karadzic, it will put every Serb on trial. His aspirations are those of the Serb people; his dreams, their dreams.

Of all the beatifications in the Balkans, the one of Karadzic is the hardest for Westerners to fathom. They see him almost unequivocally as an ultranationalist, willing to back the most brutal religious- and ethnic- cleansing campaigns in the name of creating a state for Bosnian Serbs.

He is one of a handful of people charged with genocide by the Hague tribunal -- two of the others are Mladic, the Bosnian Serb wartime military commander, and former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, now on trial in The Hague.

But that is not how Serbs see Karadzic. To them, he is the archetypal Serb hero figure: poet, politician, wily fighter. No matter that he was many less savory things as well.

His vision was in keeping with a narrative long cherished among ethnic Serbs, in which they fight to the death for their homeland.

Karadzic affirmed the myth that Serbs were victims of genocide each time they were subjected to foreign rule -- first under Turkish Ottomans, then the Austrian Hapsburgs and most recently by the Nazi regime in Croatia during World War II.

Like a latter-day version of the medieval Serb knights who fought the Turks at the Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389 and are lionized in epic poems, Karadzic promised to redress those wrongs and dispel the specter that Serbs would be exterminated by Bosnian Muslims.

As Karadzic, like some Serb version of Robin Hood, continues to evade capture by hiding in the mountains of Bosnia or the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro, he has ascended from the realm of reality to that of legend.

Biljana Stojanovic, an advisor to the Serbian minister of education who specializes in curriculum development, sees the process as rooted in childhood.

"Generations of Serbs have been raised on these epic ballads, and this is the problem," Stojanovic said.

The epic ballad is the oldest and most beloved form of Serb literature.

Stojanovic's son loves to sit with his grandfather and hear the story of Marko the Prince, who in one of the epics is said to have died fighting the Turks. The real Marko was a more complex figure -- a Turkish vassal, as some Serbs were, who died fighting for the Turks.

But, Stojanovic said, "my son much prefers to hear about the mythic Marko, who had all these weapons and was killing all the Turks, than the real Marko."

Observers predict a similar resistance to reality even if Karadzic is captured and tried. Rather than recognizing the enormity of his crimes, they say, people will see his heroism as even more confirmed.

Finci, the Jewish community leader in Sarajevo, believes that with Karadzic, there is no winning. "If he is sent to The Hague," Finci said, "he will become a martyr, and then a saint."

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