World News

WITNESS - An encounter with Karadzic in the snow

Giles Elgood is a Reuters journalist based in London. He covered the war in Bosnia from 1992 to 1995, from both sides of the front line. He joined Reuters in 1980 and has reported from countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. In the following story, he describes meeting the now-arrested Bosnian Serb leader in 1994.

Radovan Karadzic (R) and Gen. Ratko Mladic (L) are pictured in Banja Luka in this June 26,1995 file photo. REUTERS/Ranko Cukovic/Files

LONDON (Reuters) - I first began to wonder what Radovan Karadzic was like when I realised one of his soldiers had put a round through the window of the Sarajevo hotel room I had just checked into.

The sniper’s bullet had hit the wall, the ceiling and the wall again before dropping on the pillow of the bed -- luckily before I arrived.

I didn’t get to talk to Karadzic himself for a few months, and when I did, the Bosnian Serb leader was more interested in expounding on his own supposed underdog status than in whether his men should be shooting at the press.

He had just been told by NATO that it would start bombing his troops if they didn’t pull back from the Bosnian capital, and he was keen to sow what dissent he could in the ranks of the alliance.

By then I was familiar with the Karadzic persona, at least as it came across on television -- the trademark grey bouffant hair sweeping over his ears, the dark suit and the slightly sibilant English.

But late on a snowbound night in Pale, the Bosnian Serbs’ mountain headquarters in January 1994, the effect was more sinister. Sarajevo, the city his forces were in the process of reducing to rubble, lay just over the next hill.


The leader was surrounded by his black-clad, shaven-headed security detail -- what had they been doing during the ethnic cleansing at the start of the war, I wondered -- and the hotel where Karadzic held court was wreathed in a stifling fug of Balkan cigarette smoke and plum brandy fumes.

After fulminating for a while on the evils of NATO, Karadzic turned to one of his favourite topics -- himself.

As an outsider from rural Montenegro, the former psychiatrist had always struggled to get himself and his Serbian poetry taken seriously by the Sarajevo elite and the war seemed to have brought out similar feelings of grievance.

The West would tear itself apart over the Serbs, he predicted, while he would eventually prevail over all odds.

It would be like the biblical fight between David and Goliath, he told me: “You will know that David survived.”

That was then, and now he is in custody and it remains to be seen whether he will be able to muster the same level of defiance when he appears before a war crimes court after more than a decade on the run.

In the event, the Serbs pulled back enough of their big guns from around Sarajevo to avoid NATO air strikes at that point and the war in Bosnia had nearly two more years to run after my interview with Karadzic.

I returned to my base in Belgrade a few weeks later and there, was able to uncover one of the more trivial aspects of Europe’s most terrible conflict since World War Two -- where Karadzic kept that haircut in shape.

I was told that in between spells at the Bosnian front line, he visited the barber at one of Belgrade’s best-known hotels.

I went there myself for a trim, but sadly my Serbo-Croat was not good enough to elicit the secrets behind the notorious Karadzic “do”.

Editing by Sara Ledwith