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No One Left to Blame

Why Radovan Karadzic's trial won't heal Bosnia's divisions.


On July 21, 2008, the day that Radovan Karadzic — whose war crimes trial began at The Hague last week — was finally captured, I was taking a driving tour through the former Bosnian Serb leader’s career. I started in Sarajevo, besieged by Karadzic’s forces for three years, stopped for pizza in Pale, his wartime capital, and passed through Srebrenica, scene of the Bosnian war’s most terrible massacre.

That night, I watched the celebrations of his arrest: jubilant young people stopping traffic on Sarajevo’s Marshal Tito Street, waving Bosnian flags — not the deracinated triangle and stars conjured up by European bureaucrats, but the wartime fleur-de-lis. One man waved a Turkish flag. To outsiders, the relevance may have been less than clear, but his joy was unmistakable: Even Turks, of whom there are again many in Sarajevo, were as happy at the news as were the Bosnians gathered in the rain chanting "Ovo je Bosna" — "This is Bosnia."

But though I watched, I missed the party. Because when the news broke I had just arrived in Banja Luka, capital of Bosnia’s Republika Srpska, the Serb-majority region of the country, and the only celebrations were on TV, broadcast from Sarajevo. No one was out on the streets. This was Bosnia too, but a very different one — no Marshal Tito Street, and not many Turks either.

While not all Serbs were bothered by Karadzic’s arrest — particularly in Banja Luka, where his Pale-based clique was never well-liked — many were unhappy about what they saw, and still see, as Bosnian Muslims’ triumphalism over the capture of the founder and defender of their almost-country. Those Turkish flags in Sarajevo read rather differently to Serbs, which is precisely why they were being waved: During the war, Serbs called their enemies "Turci." From Banja Luka, Muslim jubilation looked like a victory dance.

This is the main obstacle to attempts to make Bosnia a coherent state. The country’s Muslim, Serb, and Croat communities remain deeply divided by attitudes, memories, politics, and even economics. These divisions are more like what usually separates people across borders rather than within them. Everyone agrees the present situation can’t go on, but no one shares any ideas about what should replace the two-headed, three-hearted, 12-legged monstrosity that is the Bosnian state.

And so hopes are pinned, again, on a distant judicial process. Again we hear pronouncements about the trial’s potential to promote reconciliation. But the real story is what has not happened since Karadzic’s disappearance and arrest, and what won’t happen after his trial. Trying Karadzic will not repair the rift in Bosnian society. In fact, his trial hardly matters.

In 1996, before the first postwar elections, posters of Karadzic appeared all over Republika Srpska with the slogan "Don’t touch him, he means peace." Now, the idea that his trial might provoke violence doesn’t cross anyone’s mind. Karadzic’s control of Bosnian Serb society — once total — is gone, yet its politics remain implacably opposed to the Bosnian integration that the United States and Europe desire.

The trial of Karadzic — and perhaps of Gen, Ratko Mladic, the last major suspect in hiding — will provide an uncomfortable test for those who have long maintained that the war criminals’ convictions can break the spell of nationalism, as if two men hiding in the hills were somehow holding everything back. As it turns out, one of those men was practicing alternative medicine in Belgrade. It’s hard to pull the strings of a secret empire of hate and hold down a full-time job peddling "quantum human energy."

Karadzic’s day in court may be long overdue. But that’s about all it is: a court date, a moment for much-delayed justice — but not a chance for political progress in the Balkans. As one Bosnian Serb told me when he was arrested, "Now no one will talk about anything else for 10 days. But who cares?" Now, if things don’t getter better in Bosnia, there won’t be anyone left to blame.

On the morning of the day Karadzic was arrested, I drove past the vast cemetery at Potocari, where the victims of the Srebrenica massacre lay buried in their thousands. Those who did this thing deserve to be punished. So let his trial begin now, and let it end. But whatever happens to Karadzic, the dead will still be dead, the living unreconciled.

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