BANJA LUKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — As international prosecutors in The Hague prepare to launch their case against Radovan Karadzic, accused of committing genocide and crimes against humanity during the Bosnian war, at home his dream of a Bosnian Serb state lives on.
Here in the Bosnian Serb capital, it’s the red, blue and white flag of the Republika Srpska that flutters from buildings, not the blue and yellow standard of Bosnia. In this largely autonomous, Serb-run region within Bosnia, few feel much loyalty to the state that emerged from the 1995 Dayton Accords, which ended the war.
Instead, there’s still a strongly held belief that Serbs were the victims, not the aggressors in the Bosnian war, a brutal conflict that left an estimated 100,000 dead. The distant tribunal trying Karadzic is widely seen as dispensing little more than victor’s justice.
“He’s probably guilty of something, but he’s not the only one,” said Bojan Solaja, general manager of the International Press Center, a consulting and public relations organization in Banja Luka. There’s an unfair perception, he said, that “only Serbs are causing problems.”
Karadzic, the president of the Bosnian Serbs from 1992 to 1996, was arrested in Serbia last July after 13 years on the run. On Oct. 26, his trial on 11 counts including genocide is scheduled to begin at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, although Karadzic has threatened to boycott the trial saying he has not had enough time to prepare his defense.
According to prosecutors, Karadzic helped plan and organize the ethnic cleansing of non-Serbs from parts of Bosnia, as well as the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys when the United Nations safe haven in Srebrenica fell. He is also accused of terrorizing the citizens of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo during the four-year-long sniper siege of the city.
But here in the leafy city of Banja Luka, few accept the charge that Serbs are guilty of conducting a genocidal campaign of ethnic cleansing against Bosnian Muslims and Croats.
Like many here, Momcilo, a 76-year-old veteran of the Yugoslav Army who passes many of his days in a Banja Luka park with other retirees, blamed Croats, Muslims and the international community for the Bosnian war. He said Serbs were only trying to defend Yugoslavia and keep it together.
“All the Serbian people, they were just protecting the idea of Yugoslavia. It was normal that Yugoslavia should be preserved,” he said.
The prosecution of Karadzic, Momcilo said, is unfair because Bosnian Serbs suffered too. He said war crimes were committed against Serbs during the Bosnian conflict and in World War II, when Nazis and Croatian Ustase massacred large numbers of Bosnian Serbs. But the tribunal is only interested in crimes committed by Serbs.
Momcilo’s friend, Simo, chirped up, saying that no matter what crimes Karadzic committed, he should not be prosecuted because Richard Holbrooke, the American diplomat who brokered the peace agreement at Dayton, had promised him immunity.
“We don’t have faith in that court because of what Holbrooke promised Karadzic,” Simo said.
On Oct. 13, an appeals panel at the ICTY ruled against Karadzic’s appeal for the case to be dismissed, saying that even if such an agreement had been made it was not binding on the U.N. tribunal.
Karadzic, a trained psychiatrist who is representing himself, has challenged the legitimacy of the tribunal and has repeatedly tried to delay the trial. When he was finally captured in July 2008, he was living openly in Belgrade under an assumed identity, working as a new-age healer.
For Bosnian Muslims, and especially the families of those killed at Srebrenica, justice has already been delayed too long. They are frustrated with the slow progress of the ICTY and its failure to successfully prosecute the most important Serbian leaders.
Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic died in 2006 before his trial finished, while Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general, is still at large.
Karadzic’s trial also comes at a delicate time for Bosnia, which is facing what many say is its most serious crisis since the end of the war. American and European Union negotiators are trying to broker a deal that will end a political stalemate that has paralyzed the country, but so far those efforts have yielded little progress.
Back in Banja Luka, Ramiz Salkic, one of only eight Muslims in the 83-member Republika Srpska parliament, said he fears that Karadzic’s dream of a Serb state outside of Bosnia is once again being fanned by Bosnian Serb leaders. The rhetoric today, he said, is reminiscent of that before the war.
“One small incident that’s not even intended can light a fire,” he said.