Taking strawberries with Radovan Karadzic
Updated on 22 July 2008
The former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic had already been indicted when Lindsey Hilsum interviewed him in 1996.
I met Radovan Karadzic in June 1996, after the war was over and he was supposedly on the run, having been indicted by the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.
I had come late to the war in Bosnia, but I had good guides - producer Kerry Marcus, and cameramen Chris Hease and Mike Borer who had covered the conflict for C4N. We were, for some reason which escapes me, in the cemetery in Pale, the capital of the ethnic Serb enclave, Republica Srpska.
As we were filming, a middle-aged woman walked up the path to pay her respects to a grave. Our local Serb fixer hissed, "It's Biljana Plavsic - the president!"
'Might we see Mr Karadzic?' A few minutes later she returned. 'Mr Karadzic will see you tomorrow at 2.30pm.'
I stepped forward. "Mrs Plavsic, we are a team from Channel 4 News. May we interview you?"
"Come to my office this afternoon," she said.
Biljana Plavsic, who later handed herself over to the ICTY, had become president of Republika Srpska after Karadzic was indicted. She was supposedly her own woman, but everyone knew she was "her master's voice" - the mouthpiece and surrogate of Radovan Karadzic, who had allegedly narrowly missed arrest by NATO troops the previous month.
We dutifully went to do our interview. At the end, I asked casually, "Is Mr Karadzic still around? Might we see him?" Under the terms of the Dayton Accord, which ended the war in Bosnia, he was banned from talking to the media.
"Maybe," she said, and disappeared into an adjoining room. A few minutes later, she returned. "Mr Karadzic will see you tomorrow at 2.30pm. We will show you where to go."
Karadzic offered us wild strawberries from a bowl on the table. 'So much more difficult to pick now, because of the landmines,' he said.
Nato troops couldn't find him, but I am sure she had consulted the man himself, there in the office next door!
The following day Kerry and I were taken to a heavily fortified and guarded disused factory on the outskirts of Pale. We had been told that we couldn't film the interview, it was just "an unofficial meeting". We were sworn to secrecy about the location.
We were ushered into a well appointed, carpeted office, decorated with Orthodox crosses and pictures of patriarchs, the icons of Serb nationalism. There was the man himself, with his shock of thick grey hair, sitting at a polished mahogany table. A well-built young man with a pistol in his jeans pocket prowled the room
Karadzic offered us wild strawberries from a bowl in the centre of the table. I took one and remarked how delicious it was. "Yes," he said. "So much more difficult to pick now, because the landmines."
Of course he denied it all when we asked about the massacre at Srbrnica, saying they were murdered by Bosnian Serb civilians.
I asked him about Nato troops trying to arrest him, and he dismissively waved his hand.
"I see them from time to time at a distance," he said. "But I have a way to avoid any checkpoint. This is my country. If I get killed or captured, my people will still have a spirit, but if I step down they will not."
In the adjoining office, representatives of his Serbian Democratic Party were gathered. Occasionally Karadzic paused his rapid-fire discourse to deal with his secretary.
"I control everything," he said.
Of course he denied it all when we asked about the massacre at Srbrnica, trotting out the old defence that the 7000-plus Bosnian men and boys were murdered not by Serb troops, but by Bosnian Serb civilians taking revenge for the deaths of relatives earlier in the war. He denied eyewitness accounts of senior Serb commanders giving instructions to shoot.
Republika Srpska, I remember thinking, was more like Mervin Peake's Gormenghast than Hong Kong.
The most bizarre moment was when he pulled out a pointer from his breast pocket, and jabbed at a map on the board behind him. "This is Pale. Here," he said - indicating an area coloured pink - "We'll have the business centre, a Serb Wall Street. There'll be a stock market, two hotels and a banking area. Here's the main square, church and theatre. Blue is the residential area and yellow, industrial."
Another map showed all of Srpska, with blobs representing a planned oil refinery and power stations, and the route of a proposed 150-mile road and railway. "I'll give anyone the concession. This is a new small country. . . if it can't be a European Hong Kong, then something better."
Republika Srpska, I remember thinking, was more like Mervin Peake's Gormenghast than Hong Kong. This man's overblown fantasies had contributed to the deaths of many thousands of Bosnian Muslims.
Hearing of his arrest makes me feel that a chapter of history has come to an end. Except that the Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic, also indicted for the massacre at Srbrnica and other horrors, is still on the run. Not until he is handed over to the Hague can we say there has been a true reckoning of the war in Bosnia.