Profile: Happy to butcher Bosnia: Radovan Karadzic, doctor, poet, monster

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The big man with the booming voice insisted that his visitors should listen carefully. It was spring 1991, just a couple of months before Belgrade's tanks moved into Slovenia and before the slaughter started in Croatia. Radovan Karadzic - professional psychiatrist, poet, musician and leader of the main Serbian party in Bosnia - was sitting in his first-floor office in the centre of the quiet city of Sarajevo, explaining his view of life. Naturally, Karadzic emphasised, the Serbs did not wish to see a civil war. But he went on: 'If there is a civil war, the Serbs will gain victory.' His visitors came away more convinced by Karadzic's predictions of Serbian victory than by his protestations of pacifist tendencies.

Sure enough, while the West has looked on, wringing its hands and organising round after round of talks that have gone nowhere, Karadzic has become a key player in the war that has devastated Bosnia. Again and again, we have heard about 'first glimmers of hope'. And then, of course, the killing continues. It remains to be seen whether the talks that resume in Geneva tomorrow will be any different.

Throughout all the horrors, Karadzic has been closely associated with the men carrying out the killings and is good value for the label 'war criminal'. This in a country that, unlike other parts of the former Yugoslavia, is not even a traditional home of inter-ethnic antagonism. Depressing though it may be for Bosnia's many liberal Serbs to admit, Karadzic has a kind of democratic legitimacy as their leader. He emerged from Bosnia's political undergrowth in 1990, when the nationally based Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) was created. In the elections at the end of the year, the mainly Muslim party - representing the largest single ethnic group in Bosnia - dominated. But among the more than 30 per cent of Bosnia's population who are Serbs, it was Karadzic who got the votes.

The genial psychiatrist (specialities: neurosis and depression) soon came to embody the spirit of a new kind of intolerance not seen in Bosnia before. Government leaders, including the new Muslim President, Alija Izetbegovic, were keen to emphasise the importance of working together, but Karadzic, who was always spoiling for an argument, wanted everything - from television and newspapers to the government itself - to be divided up and argued over.

In the time since, and especially since last spring, Bosnia has seen such extraordinary brutality as to make even the horrors of Croatia in 1991 pale by comparison. Through the summer Karadzic's militias occupied large swathes of the country, driving Muslims out of their homes, and introducing Nazi-style regulations or killing those who tried to stay: 'ethnic cleansing'. What this meant in practice is more than a million refugees, and around 200,000 dead.

In person, Karadzic is thoroughly amiable. On a good day, he can even seem sane. And yet the gap between his words and reality is endless. Some politicians may be evasive; Karadzic simply lies. At a time when there were several deaths from Serbian snipers every day, he insisted: 'We (the Serbs) have no snipers.' (The sniper deaths were, according to this version, deliberate acts of provocation by the Bosnians themselves.) He insisted, too, that there were 'no civilians' in the Serb-run detention camps in Bosnia. Of the Serbian bombardment of Sarajevo, he said: 'The Muslims have very heavy artillery. Sometimes the Serbs are forced to respond.' All of these claims were demonstrably untrue. But that seemed to bother Karadzic not one jot.

According to some accounts, Karadzic's creative attitude to reality has also affected his curriculum vitae. He emphasises that he spent time in prison in Communist Yugoslavia, and implies that this was because he was an opponent of the regime. It has, however, also been reported that he was, in reality, jailed in connection with fraud.

He sees himself partly as a poet and, to the anger of many BBC 2 viewers, was a guest on Bookmark recently in that guise, and as a musician, playing on the Serbian lyre. He has indeed had published some books of verse. In politics, however, he has shown no sign of poetic sensitivities.

He has never been at the forefront of military actions: that was left to men like General Ratko Mladic (responsible for bombarding Dubrovnik, before moving to Sarajevo), or Arkan, a cafe owner in Belgrade turned murderous paramilitary and ethnic cleanser. But there can be little doubt of the importance of Karadzic as a front man for the people with the guns. There is strong evidence that he helped his party secretly to distribute arms throughout Bosnia in the run up to the Bosnian war. Karadzic has never seriously sought to distance himself from the thugs of Bosnia, let alone control them. To some extent, the gunmen in the hills can be seen as Karadzic's Frankensteins. He helped to create them; and yet, if he tried to disarm them, they might well turn on Karadzic himself.

The tensions began growing in Bosnia in earnest in the spring of last year. Following the bombardment of Dubrovnik and the destruction of the Croatian town of Vukovar, Bosnia, too, followed Croatia's and Slovenia's lead and sought to break away from Belgrade. Karadzic and his friends were not impressed. The SDS threw up barricades around the edge of Sarajevo as a hint of what was yet to come. And in areas of Bosnia close to Serbia, ethnic hit squads moved in, frightening and killing civilians. For Karadzic, it seemed to be a kind of dress rehearsal for what was yet to come.

By last April, Karadzic's men took up residence in the Holiday Inn in Sarajevo, which they turned into a kind of armed camp. Whenever Karadzic himself turned up, in one of his double-breasted suits, there was a scuffle as the gun-toting minders shoved their weapons at anybody who threatened to come near 'The Boss'. This was a man, they made clear, who needed to be taken seriously. He remained unruffled in the midst of it all. Unlike Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian President who almost never gives press interviews, he was always available for a chat. Later, as the Serb-instigated violence in Sarajevo increased, Karadzic and his retinue moved out to Pale, a Serbian stronghold a few miles outside Sarajevo, where he set up a news agency that sought to redress what he perceived as the misconceptions of the rest of the world. One typical press release from Pale announced that a jihad was being waged by the government of Alija Izetbegovic in Sarajevo and talked of Muslims spreading Aids, of torture rooms for Serbs and of 'houses of shame' full of Serbian girls. No evidence was produced of any kind. For anybody who knew Sarajevo, it was difficult to relate this to the real world.

Some Bosnians argue that Karadzic suffers from a country boy's chip on his shoulder, and is now wreaking a revenge against the urban tolerance of Sarajevo. Actually, he is not even really a Bosnian at all. He was born in the republic of Montenegro and arrived as a teenager in Sarajevo after the Second World War. The old Bosnia was entirely mixed ('like a painting by Jackson Pollock', in the words of Alija Izetbegovic), in a way that Karadzic and his friends are keen to deny.

If you live on the British mainland, how many neighbours would you immediately identify as Protestant, Catholic or Jewish? And how often do you think of them in those terms? Probably not very often. That is how it was in Sarajevo, before Karadzic came along: Sarajevo, in other words, was not pre-1969 Belfast; Bosnia was proudly seen by its own inhabitants as a genuine melting pot. The potential for explosion was theoretically there, but it seemed that the fuse had been removed.

Even now, despite Karadzic and the actions of some of his fellow Serbs, a little of the Bosnian spirit has survived. Up to 200,000 have already died; the EC believes that 20,000 Muslim women may have been raped in an organised campaign which Karadzic has notably failed to condemn. And yet, in Sarajevo and elsewhere, ordinary Serbs, Croats and Muslims continue to share troubles together. Now in the latest round of talks, a single Bosnian state is being proposed by the joint EC and UN mediators, Lord Owen and Cyrus Vance. This is what Karadzic has constantly opposed.

Karadzic is seen by some as being almost on the ropes. This week, he raced off to Belgrade for consultations with Milosevic, the man who still calls so many of the shots in the former Yugoslavia, who has himself welcomed the Vance- Owen proposals. What Karadzic seeks is a sort of cantonisation of Bosnia along ethnic lines, dividing it into separately ruled districts. That has long been his aim: in 1991, there was already a map on his office wall, which he used as a visual aid in order to quote, by heart, the ethnic balance, village after village.

Karadzic initially appeared reluctant to countenance the Vance-Owen deal, but tomorrow's new round of talks in Geneva is being billed by some as a potential turning point in the war. And perhaps Karadzic is not so squeezed in the negotiations as some think. His cantonisation may be rejected in theory, but in practice it seems to have been partially accepted. Karadzic has put on a long face this week. But he may not be entirely the loser.

The idea in the Owen-Vance plan that there should be 10 separate provinces suggests the creeping division of Bosnia along ethnic lines. In that case, Karadzic would live to fight another day.