Marcus Tanner: Karadzic, the psychiatrist who became a genocidal madman

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I will never forget the first time I met Radovan Karadzic – because I got him so wrong.

Standing in a tatty Sarajevo school room, I encountered what I thought was a rather dotty-looking school teacher parading in front of an ethnic map of Bosnia and pointing at various counties with a cane. "This is Serbian land," the new leader of the Bosnian Serbian Democratic Party shouted, jabbing at the huge map in a sweeping motion with his bamboo cane, his wild grey hair flying all over the place.

"This man is hilarious," I remarked to the Bosnian Serb wife of a BBC correspondent after our "interview" was over. I was yawning, unable to take all the nonsense in. "You just don't get it," she answered, almost in tears. "He is absolutely serious, and a madman."

Most of us didn't get it. Used to the manic, genocidal ravings of the Croatian Serb leaders, Radovan Karadzic seemed donnish and almost a bit of a laugh by comparison. True, his printed poetry was a little odd, and disturbing, to put it mildly. But could a man who had once worked as a psychiatrist and physio for the Sarajevo football team seriously be dreaming of the annihilation of that city, the same city in which he had spent most of his adult life? None of us believed it.

The next time I encountered the Karadzic clan was hours before the siege of Sarajevo began in 1992. Tensions had mounted since Karadzic had made a frightening speech to the Bosnian parliament, warning the Muslims of annihilation if they went ahead with their planned referendum on independence.

I was rushing into the soon-to-be infamous Holiday Inn as his wife, Sonja, came rushing out with her suitcases and entourage in tow. The Karadzics clearly knew what was coming, because about 20 minutes after they evacuated the hotel a Muslim paramilitary group virtually tore it to pieces.

I waited under the concrete stairwell as the bullets flew, before fleeing to the nearest block of flats, madly waving my British passport in the air as if it was some kind of talisman.

After that there was no going back. The Karadzics: ma, pa, and portly daughter, decamped to the old Austro-Hungarian spa resort of Pale and the siege of Sarajevo began in earnest. At the end of it, three long years later, about 10,000 Sarajevans were dead and at least five times that number seriously injured.

Among the dead was the father of a particularly close friend of mine, who was killed waiting in a queue for water. That was a special ploy of Karadzic and his military sidekick, Ratko Mladic – to cut off the city's water supply so that a big queue built up in front of one of the few dribbling pumps. When the queue was particularly dense, the Serbs would pound it with shells, so that a lot of Muslims, or "Turks", as the Serbs disdainfully called them, were killed.

So perished mild, patient father-of-one Mr Pecanin – one of the almost countless innocent victims of Karadzic's inexhaustible rage against the city that he thought had denied him his due; had failed to respect his poetry; had not invited him into its bosom; had kept him out at as a Serb, as a mountain man, as a Christian.

For years, nationalist Serbs have idolised Karadzic as an almost mythical figure, the equivalent of the hajduks, or Serbian outlaws of old, who defied the Ottomans. It will be interesting to see if the legend lives on, once the self-appointed executor and persecutor of Bosnia's Muslims and Croats faces the mundane circumstances of a Hague courtroom.

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