Karadzic and War's Lessons
Saturday, 26 July 2008

By ROGER COHEN
CHÉRENCE, France

After covering a war, a friend said, buy yourself a house. I did. I came to this French village where church bells chime the rhythm of the days, married here, raised children and parked Bosnia somewhere in a corner of my mind.

I had to forget. I had to write a book, so the horror would never be forgotten, in order to forget just enough to go on. There is always a measure of guilt in survival when so many have died. There are faces, in death and bereavement, that can never be eclipsed.
 
It's peaceful here. I'd been out watching crows in the stubble when I returned to discover Radovan Karadzic had been arrested in Belgrade, 13 years after the end of the war, to face charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.
 
The years fell away, fear resurfaced, and I've been unable to sleep. I find myself back in Pale with you, Dr. Karadzic, back in that two-bit ski resort you parlayed into the Bosnian Serb capital and bestrode with your killer hairdo, back asking you questions you never could answer.
 
Objectivity and neutrality are not synonymous. The head is useless without the heart. War teaches that better than journalism school. The unseeing eyes of young Sarajevan women penetrated by shrapnel had taught me the rights and wrongs of the war long before I met you. Still I wanted to look you in the eye.
 
Unhinged would be a kind description. You talked of your "love" for Sarajevo, the ethnically mixed city your boozy forces kept shelling. You told me, 32 months into the fighting, that you were ready "to declare a state of war." I stared in disbelief and asked about Ruzdija Sestovic.
 
Names dispel a numbing when the death toll rises toward 100,000. Sestovic had been seized from his home in eastern Bosnia on June 20, 1992, by masked Serbian forces and had disappeared.
 
He was one of thousands of Bosnian Muslims to meet this fate in the sharp bust of Serbian violence that opened the war and "cleansed" wide swathes of the country of non-Serbs, many processed through murderous concentration camps. Pits of bones form the bitter harvest of this genocidal Serbian season.
 
"Ethnic cleansing was not our policy," Karadzic responded with nonchalance. "It happened because of fear. Fear and chaos. I was not informed on a daily basis of what was happening in the first months of the war, although we got some information from our troops and police. But the fate of men like Sestovic was beyond our control."
 
An international court in The Hague will now examine that contention of the former Bosnian Serb leader. I don't doubt the outcome. Justice is important — for Bosnia and for amnesia-afflicted Serbia with its everyone-was-guilty evasiveness. But justice won't change the faces brought back to me now across the years.
 
Nermin Tulic, an actor, his legs blown off by a Serbian shell on June 10, 1992, telling me how he wanted to die until his wife gave birth to their second daughter and his dad told him a child needs his father even if he just sits in the corner.
 
I took that away from the war: the stubbornness of love.
 
Amra Dzaferovic, beautiful Amra, telling me in the desperate Sarajevo summer of 1995 that: "Here things are black and white, they are. There is evil and there is good, and the evil is up in the hills. So when you say you are just a journalist, an observer, I understand you, but I still hate you. Yes, I hate you."
 
I took that away from the war: the fierceness of moral clarity.
 
Pale Faruk Sabanovic watching a video of the moment he was shot in Sarajevo and saying: "If I remain a paraplegic, I will be better, anyhow, than the Serb who shot me. I will be clean in my mind, clean with respect to others, and clean with respect to this dirty world."
 
I took that away from the war: the quietness of courage.
 
Ron Neitzke, noblest of American diplomats, handing me his excoriation of the U.S. government and State Department for "repeatedly and gratuitously dishonoring the Bosnians in the very hour of their genocide" and urging future Foreign Service officers to be "guided by the belief that a policy fundamentally at odds with our national conscience cannot endure indefinitely — if that conscience is well and truthfully informed."
 
I took that away from the war: the indivisibility of integrity and the importance of a single dissenting voice.
 
Nobody labored with fiercer lucidity to inform America's conscience about Karadzic's crimes than Kurt Schork, the Reuters correspondent killed in Sierra Leone in 2000. I wish he were here.
 
Schork would be smiling — and chiding me for being careless with my Bosnian lessons in the onward rush of life. The precious is no less important for being unbearable.
 
Roger Cohen joined The New York Times in 1990. He was a foreign correspondent for more than a decade before becoming Foreign Editor in 2001.

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