NS Special Report - The hunt for a murderer

At Christmas, Bosnian Serbs were thrilled to get a text message greeting from Radovan Karadzic. But

More than eight years have passed since the wartime leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic, and his general, Ratko Mladic, were indicted by the Hague tribunal. Both were charged with crimes against humanity and genocide in the 1992-95 war in which more than 200,000 civilians, many of them women, children and the elderly, were slaughtered. So far, neither man has been captured.

A remarkably public frontman for genocide in the former Yugoslavia, the Bosnian Serb leader dispensed lies to packed press conferences while his soldiers laid siege to Sarajevo, went from village to village locking families inside houses and setting them on fire, and forced women into detention camps where they were gang-raped. Along with his fellow fugitive Mladic, Karadzic is accused of all manner of atrocities, most notably the 1995 massacre of around 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the UN safe area of Srebrenica, the single worst crime committed in Europe since the Second World War.

If the brutality of the 20th century is to receive any sort of closure, then Karadzic must surely get his just deserts. Five years ago, that outcome seemed imminent. In 1998, the then international high representative to Bosnia, Carlos Westendorp, declared that Karadzic's power base was shrinking rapidly and that he would probably surrender within a month. Elisabeth Rehn, the United Nations envoy to Bosnia, said that she believed Karadzic would be in the Hague "quite soon". Yet to this day, Karadzic, a tall man with a big belly, dimpled chin and grey, dramatically bouffant hair, has been able to evade some of the best-equipped, technologically advanced fugitive-hunters in the world.

Eight years after the Dayton Peace Accord began a process that was supposed to lead to reunification, Karadzic's liberty serves as an irritant to the open wound that is Bosnia. Despite the efforts of hundreds of foreign aid-workers and more than $5bn in civilian assistance, the "country" remains fractious and fractured. Efforts to create unity and long-term peace have been frustrated by the continued dominance in Republika Srpska, the ethnic Serbian state-within-a-state, of a corrupt clique said to be controlled by Karadzic and dedicated largely to obstructing the reforms essential to his capture.

With nationalist politicians again on the rise in the region, it is increasingly dangerous to leave Karadzic on the loose. In addition, the fate of the entire area holds lessons for other western efforts at democracy-building and nation-building, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The strategy of Karadzic and his supporters is, apparently, to play a waiting game with the international community. Then, when the foreigners leave, they will push through the annexation of Bosnia to Serbia proper, even though the enclave once housed huge numbers of ethnic Muslims and Croats, who have been slowly returning to their pre-war homes. This prospect troubles those who long to see Bosnia reunited and reconciled.

"We're desperate here," says Gojko Beric. I met Beric, a columnist for the Oslobodjenje (Liberation) newspaper, for coffee at the city's famed Holiday Inn. The world's press lived here during the siege of Sarajevo when the most common request in the sniper-plagued city was for "a room without a view". Beric is an anomaly - a Serb who is a rabid critic of Karadzic and the Serbian mythology surrounding the fugitive.

"The country is so badly shattered, no political glue can mend it" - and worse is sure to come, he says, unless Karadzic, the symbol of all that went wrong here, is "taken down". Beric is not hopeful. "I believe, in the end, that the international community will not arrest him."

The longer Karadzic has remained free, the more his aura of invincibility has grown among both the Serbs of Serbia and the 700,000 Bosnian Serbs. Among Bos- nian Muslims, speculation and conspiracy theories abound - especially the belief that the leadership of the international community does not want him caught. President Clinton's chief negotiator, Richard Holbrooke, has as good as confirmed this. Back in the mid-1990s, he led Karadzic to believe that if he retreated from the political scene, he would not be arrested. The former Bosnian Serb president, Biljana Plavsic, has said that Madeleine Albright told her during negotiations that Karadzic was free to take refuge abroad. And another former UN high representative, Carl Bildt, claimed that he was the one who made the deal with Karadzic. None of these officials has been in a position to enforce any such understanding for years, yet Karadzic's continued freedom only reinforces the idea that someone in authority has made a pact with the devil.

When it comes to finding Karadzic, the international military presence (SFor) seems inconsequential. Many of the soldiers - 13,000 troops from 35 countries - share no common language. Each contingent has its own reputation. American troops - now just 1,500 national guardsmen, including dentists from Ohio and labourers from New York - are not exactly Special Forces quality, and tend to stay pretty close to base. Italian and French troops like to live it up and have perhaps become too cosy with the locals. The Brits, given their experience among a hostile, armed population in Northern Ireland, are the best prepared - and show it through deft use of intelligence and of lightning raids. So far, they have apprehended most of the war criminals - half of the 24 arrests officially reported by SFor to date have occurred in their zone.

Capturing Karadzic is especially challenging because ordinary people revere him and because some extraordinarily powerful people are joined with him at the hip. Everywhere one travels, on both sides of the border, one finds Karadzic a kind of folk hero, celebrated for ostensibly defending orthodoxy against Muslim aggression and thereby playing a righteous role in a 500-year-old quarrel. The Hague's evidence of his war crimes is dismissed as trumped up. His calls for a single country that would unite all ethnic Serbs, coupled with his credentials as a psychiatrist and author of poems, folk songs and children's books, have been used to polish his local image. Calendars showing images of Karadzic hang at bus stations; last Christmas, thousands of Bosnian Serbs received a text-message holiday greeting from Karadzic on their mobile phones.

Many of the Serbs who defend Karadzic are motivated by self-interest. He sat - and presumably continues to sit - at the nexus of an intricate web of political, legal, military/police and financial power that gained considerable wealth through wartime profiteering and from favourable treatment from the Karadzic and post-Karadzic regimes in Republika Srpska.

"The outcome of the entire war, and the cause, is a few businessmen who took advantage of nationalism to get rich," says a former high-ranking Bosnian Serb law enforcement figure. Those businessmen, most of whom have close ties with Karadzic's ruling SDS party, have moved on to illicit and black market activities. Many government officials are involved in the underground economy, and would potentially face charges and long prison sentences if the semi-independent republic were ever cleaned up, a likely sequel of a successful effort to capture Karadzic and the apparatus that protects him.

Military officials, too, have been implicated in scandals, from supplying weapons and expertise to Saddam Hussein's regime to spying on SFor troops. In the past year or so, western forces in Bosnia have moved to crack down on the most corrupt among the army's top brass, but unless the institution is turned upside-down or, more appropriately, eliminated altogether, it is likely to remain loyal to Karadzic.

About $200,000 a month is spent protecting Karadzic, according to one knowledgeable source. Much of that money goes to guarantee the loyalty and responsiveness of guards who have put their lives on hold, in some cases for years, for their beloved leader. The key fundraiser, according to foreign diplomats, is Momcilo "Momo" Mandic, a former government official turned businessman whose oil-insurance-banking empire is said to mask illegal activities ranging from human trafficking to car theft.

Logistics for hiding Karadzic are allegedly co-ordinated by Milovan "Cisco" Bjelica, a politician-businessman implicated in several high-profile murders. According to sources, whenever the Karadzic entourage is on the move, Bjelica's job is to alert the Republika Srpska interior minister, who can then arrange a cordon sanitaire, courtesy of the police. In 1992, the police chief of the ethnic Serb outskirts of Sarajevo, Zeljko Markovic, was assassinated after asserting that local police throughout eastern Bosnia were protecting Karadzic.

Karadzic is 58 now and, according to a former ally, hobbling on bad knees. He's not suited to living in difficult circumstances or to moving rapidly from safe house to safe house. But if he is surrounded by the highly motivated and fearsome defenders of popular legend, then the snatch squad will have to be of comparable mettle. The present forces arrayed against him don't come close.

Good intelligence may be a problem. The 10,000 or so wanted posters that SFor distributed have not brought results and the $5m reward it advertises has been met with contempt. Few would dare turn Karadzic in for fear of retribution. Branko Todorovic, president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Republika Srpska, says: "[This is] because, at the local level, we have people who are the decision-makers now and who were directly involved in those war crimes."

Nato officials have repeatedly equivocated on what would be required to haul in Karadzic. They mention western resolve, but also say that it is the responsibility of the Bosnian Serbs to take the lead. Yet, clearly, the Serbs can't - or won't - do it. Someone in Nato must publicly admit this and take responsibility for apprehending an indicted war criminal who continues to thumb his nose at the moral and military authority of the west. With Saddam Hussein apprehended and Osama Bin Laden still at large, what will happen to a monster whom few in power seem to care about catching?