Il murales di Novi Beograd raffigurante Radovan Karadzic, identificato come "Dr. Dabic." [Foto di Aleksa Vitorovic/VICE News]
Even if you are a total stranger to New Belgrade, a bleak suburb of the Serbian capital, you can hardly miss the huge mural featuring a bearded man. It sits right next to the entrance to a tiny bar, the Crazy House. And it's there because the man in the mural used to be a regular at the bar.He was "doctor" Dragan Dabic, a New Age healer who turned out to be none other than one of the most wanted men in the world: former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, wanted on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia.
Karadzic succesfully hid for 11 years from the law, spending a lot of that time at the Crazy House. And that's where his old drinking buddies were to be found on Thursday, when their friend — arrested in 2008 — was sentenced to 40 years in prison by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.He was found guilty of instigating the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, in which 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were slaughtered by the army of the Bosnian Serb republic he led as president, and of being the driving force behind the three-year siege of Sarajevo.
Amid thick smoke and shots of powerful Serbian "sljivovica" brandy, five men in their late 50s sat silently below a portrait of the real Karadzic. They claimed they did not know his real identity, back then."He was often sitting here alone, having coffee or a glass of red wine. Sometimes he came with a friend of two, he lived just a block away," Nebojsa Jevric, sporting a long beard and a baseball cap with "Alaska" written on it, said.
According to Jevric, who said he used to be a "war reporter" and wrote for Serbian nationalist papers and magazines in the 1990s, nobody knew the man in the long white beard was Karadzic. Another guy at the bar, who presented himself as "Jesus", agreed."We were all mad when we realized it was him. If I had known it was him, I would have been the first to offer him a hideout," he said.
The verdict was broadcast on tv, but the guys who used to drink with Karadzic didn't get to see him sentenced to likely die in prison. (He can appeal, but that will take years, and Karadzic is 70.) There is no tv in the bar; the waiter said they decided to get rid of it. Some regulars went home to await the verdict, but the bar was cramped anyway: Its six tables were teeming with journalists who had come to seek comments from people who think that Karadzic was a Serbian hero, and that Bosnian Serbs were the persecuted in the war."Radovan is the victim and the prosecutors are hangmen. And they do what hangmen do," said one of the bar guests, Miroslav Kovijanic, as he and his friends awaited the verdict.Then they all got up to toast Karadzic. A man named Dusan Randjelovic, with tears in his eyes, began to sing: "I wanted to tell you with this song how much I love you, Radovan.""I thank you, my tears are for you, the hero, and my sadness can not be expressed in your articles and photos," Randjelovic, a pensioner, told the journalists.
Karadzic is the highest-ranking official to be sentenced for genocide charges committed during the Bosnian war, in which 100,000 people were killed and more than 2.2 million fled their homes. It was and still is the bloodiest conflict Europe has seen after World War II.But for the guys in this old-fashioned cafe, he is a revered figure, like the others whose portraits hang on the walls — Russian President Vladimir Putin, seen by many in Serbia as a "protector" against Western "imperialism"; Karadzic's wartime military commander Ratko Mladic, also on trial before the UN war crimes tribunal; and late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, considered one of the architects of the 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia, who died during his trial before the Hague-based court.
Next to that trio of Slavic heroes, there's an unlikely fourth man among the effigies on the walls of the Crazy House: Libya's late dictator Muammar Ghadafi.Even during the uprising in Libya, there were many in Serbia who saw him as a hero, not only because of anti-Western sentiment produced by the 1999 NATO bombings of the country for its repression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. The old regime's nostalgics remember when the leader of Communist Yugoslavia, Marshal Tito, successfully balanced between the East and the West for decades — and made friends in Africa and Asia in the so-called Non-Aligned movement. Back then, Yugoslavia and Libya were allies.Away from the Crazy House, in central Belgrade, the verdict against Karadzic was the occasion for street vendors to put up makeshift stands selling badges and Serbian flags for a rally called by another war crimes suspect, Serbian hardline politician Vojislav Seselj.Seselj, whose sentencing is expected on March 31, said his rally was a protest "against the verdict on Radovan Karadzic," which came, as coincidence would have it, on the same day NATO began its air war against Serbia 17 years ago.Vanja, a 21-year old student who did not want to give her last name, said it was "inappropriate" that Karadzic should be sentenced on the same day as the NATO campaign's anniversary.Savo Velikic, 18, had cut his classes to join Seselj's rally. "The verdict is a shame, because everyone was killing each other at the time. Only the Serbs are sentenced in The Hague, and that proves the verdict is unjust," he said.
His girlfriend Aleksandra Gligorin, 18, also skipped class. "I might think that the verdict makes any sense if someone else, not only the Serbs, was sentenced for war crimes," she said.That's a commonly held sentiment in Serbia, where many see the UN court as biased against the nation. Even Serbian Justice Minister Nikola Selakovic told Serbian state TV that the verdict would not "in any way help the reconciliation process, which was the primary intention of the Tribunal."
But the families of some of the Bosnian war victims were unhappy with the verdict. Munira Subasic, the president of the Mothers of Srebrenica group, said they "hope that he (Karadzic) would get a proper sentence," one that recognizes the role Karadzic had in other episodes of the war, not just the Srebrenica massacre."The length of the sentence is not important," she said, "but its essence."Follow Stefan Veselinovic and Jovana Netkovic on Twitter: @veselipacov and @Feminoloskinja