On the Karadzic Trail

IWPR reporters go in search of clues to the whereabouts of Bosnia’s notorious fugitive.

On the Karadzic Trail

IWPR reporters go in search of clues to the whereabouts of Bosnia’s notorious fugitive.

It's late at night in December and I am sitting on the floor of the IWPR office in Belgrade. In front of me are scattered papers and a map of eastern Bosnia. I've spent the last two hours marking in red pen the towns and villages where Europe's most wanted man is said to be hiding out.

I am preparing for a ten day trip to Bosnia with my colleague Daniel Sunter to track indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic, as part of a wider IWPR investigation into Bosnia's nexus of organised criminals and state security officials.

The next day I show my list of individuals alleged to belong to the network to a man who has met Karadzic and is familiar with some of his most dangerous associates.

I am pleased when he confirms my list as accurate, and apprehensive when he ticks off the names of people we should not approach because they are too dangerous. The interview list is now pretty short.

Over the next few days, I continue my research by going to expensive Belgrade restaurants and underground clubs to meet with bodyguards of murdered Serbian paramilitaries and senior policemen. Their deceased bosses once served as conduit between the Milosevic regime and Karadzic in the early days of the war and it is said that these bodyguards still maintain contacts in Bosnia from the old days.

These men with broad shoulders and thousand yard stares recount their experiences of Karadzic and whom amongst them may protect him now.

It is during these meetings that I begin to hear the incredible claim and counter-claim which serves as currency amongst part-time Karadzic watchers such as myself. Hard facts are difficult to pin down, but speculation is rife.

A former paramilitary who fought in Bosnia said that he knew Karadzic maintained contacts with French military intelligence officials whom he had got to know during the war. Another insisted that Karadzic remained free thanks to the British security services.

Their knowledge of great power politics seemed simplistic, but what they seemed to have first hand knowledge of was the alleged links between Belgrade and Karadzic in the years after the war. They told me, for instance, that until 1998, a convoy of black Audis carrying Karadzic would travel openly in the Bosnian Serb republic, crossing the border to Serbia without problems.

The day before the trip, I prepare the snow chains for the car. It is winter in the Balkans and in the high mountains of eastern Bosnia, a heavy snowfall is forecast.

We drive out of Belgrade and south-west towards the frontier. We cross the stunningly beautiful river Drina which marks the international boundary and finally, after five years, I am back in Bosnia, the one-time heart of a country they called Yugoslavia.

The last time I was here was in 1998, when I worked as a human rights monitor for an international organisation investigating systematic cases of human rights abuse in areas controlled by Karadzic placemen.

In those days, Karadzic's network was wider and he was less secretive. Many was the official meeting I attended where his portrait hung openly. Karadzic, resembling a plump vampire gone to seed, stared balefully from the walls, a constant reminder of the invisible string-puller.

This time his image is nowhere, except on cheap T-shirts and posters being hawked by impoverished street-sellers in Karadzic's old stomping ground of Serbian Sarajevo. With only thin clothes to fend off the heavy snow, they appear more like victims of Bosnia's endemic social problems than the fanatical supporters of a wanted man.

The next day, the heavy snowfall stops us from heading back into the hills and we spend the next few days in Sarajevo, meeting with local policemen, security officials and analysts in smoky bars and poorly heated offices.

Some criticise the latest efforts of the international community to hamper Karadzic's network.

"We are ready to arrest him,” one said. “But the political will is still not there on the part of the internationals. Give us surveillance equipment and trained, armed men, and this will be over in a matter of weeks."

“SFOR should detain the relatives and associates of Karadzic, like the United States has done with the Ba’ath in Iraq," said another.

They all insist that they have no idea where Karadzic is. But some of these men are former Yugoslav secret service operatives, and their knowing smiles and off-the-cuff comments makes me realise that these are the guys who know where the bodies are buried.

We then meet with foreign intelligence officers seconded to monitoring missions and the representatives of international organisations charged with pressing Bosnia's reluctant nationalist politicians into implementing the Dayton Peace Agreement. But if these guys have any firm evidence on Karadzic's whereabouts, they are not sharing it with us.

In the absence of any real breakthrough in the search for Karadzic, many ordinary Bosnians subscribe to a range of conspiracy theories. French intelligence is blocking British and American efforts to capture him. British intelligence is blocking the Americans and blaming it on the French. There is a secret deal between the Americans and Karadzic. My head spins.

To get a break from the conspiracy factory, we take a drive one sunny morning out of the city and up towards the beautiful mountains and high plateaus of the Romanija region, following routes that we think Karadzic might use.

The tracks are steep, narrow and filled with snow. The stares of the locals are hard and questioning. The roads become too dangerous, even with snow chains, and we return to Sarajevo having realised only one thing - without electronic surveillance equipment and the quick reaction teams available to NATO member states, Karadzic won't be caught in such inaccessible terrain.

I return to Belgrade, very pessimistic about the prospects of him being captured. But then in the office on Saturday morning, I see a wire report that SFOR are mounting another search operation. I phone one of our contacts in Sarajevo. "This is just public relations," she said, pointing to the numerous actions that led to nothing in the past.

Then I see that SFOR have detained someone. I am surprised, this has not happened before in such operations. I check the name, it rings a bell.

I run through my list of suspects and find him under "too dangerous to approach for an interview".

Getting excited, I call NATO sources, they are unwilling to disclose the circumstance behind the detention, but they do confirm the man's identity. It is Bato Tesic. This is important because Tesic was a member of a special police unit which protected Karadzic when I first worked in Bosnia. He is still reckoned by Bosnian Serb security sources as a key Karadzic man.

The lack of hard information surrounding the detention gives rise to speculation. Chief amongst them is that Karadzic is injured, and broke security communications protocol to ask for assistance. This conversation was monitored and Tesic picked up as a result.

This can't be confirmed, and I begin to wonder if I am the latest in a long line of journalists and international officials to predict Karadzic's imminent arrest.

But then we hear that SFOR held a secret meeting with the Bosnian Serb ruling party recently, saying that Karadzic must be handed over - this time there could be no excuses.

I then hear that a key British intelligence agent, who was London's man in the operation to remove Slobodan Milosevic, was in Belgrade recently, telling the authorities that NATO member states were serious about arresting Karadzic, and that he should not be afforded any form of assistance.

This leaves me oscillating between the novel sensation of excitement that something might finally happen, and the all-too-usual scepticism that Karadzic watchers have become accustomed to.

I hope Bato Tesic stays in SFOR custody. I hope he cooperates. I hope that the momentum is kept up. I hope this will be the last article about looking for Radovan Karadzic.

Hugh Griffiths is an IWPR investigations coordinator.

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