Sunday, July 27, 2008

How one careless phone call ended Radovan Karadzic’s liberty

A careless phone call brought Radovan Karadzic’s colourful life on the run to an abrupt end

As the long-haired, bearded man who had become known as the local eccentric walked out of the Leotar supermarket in a suburb of Belgrade nine days ago, he unexpectedly turned back to the checkout girls.

“I want to say goodbye,” he said. “I’m going on vacation. I need a rest, I’ve been working a lot.” He could not know how prescient his words were.

Radovan Karadzic, 63, wartime leader of the Bosnian Serbs and one of the most wanted men in the world, had only a few hours of freedom left after almost 13 years on the run.

Sofia Kaluderovic, 44, at the checkout, rang up the usual purchases for the man she believed was Dragan Dabic, a new age doctor: yoghurt, specially ordered cherries, the nationalist newspaper Pravda and a bottle of Bear’s Blood, a cheap Serbian red wine.

As he left the shop, he cut his usual distinctive figure, dressed in a black T-shirt and trousers, sandals, his long white hair bound with an elastic band into a top knot and his face buried beneath an enormous white beard and oversize glasses.

In retrospect, Uros, the shop’s owner, realised that his customer may have found comfort in the shop’s name, Leotar – a famous mountain in the Serbian part of Bosnia that Karadzic ran as president of the self-styled Srpska Republic.

“He was a real gentleman,” Uros said, remembering his jokes and generous tips. “If I’d known who he really was, I would never have charged for anything. I will die sorry that I didn’t recognise him.”

Karadzic’s disguise was effective right up until the moment he was caught. He boarded the 73 bus from the stop around the corner, carrying a bag containing a lap-top, two mobile phones, clothes including swimming trunks, and €600 (£472) in cash.

His plan to leave Belgrade apparently spurred Serbia’s security services into action. They had been watching him for a month and did not want to take the chance of him slipping away.

As the bus passed the Teloptic factory in an industrial part of town, a group of men in civilian clothes boarded and asked if they could talk to Karadzic. He refused. They showed him their badges, told him that they knew who he was, blindfolded and handcuffed him. He went quietly. It was a surprisingly pedestrian end to an extraordinary life on the run.

Karadzic had been a wanted man since 1996, when international arrest warrants were issued for him and Ratko Mladic, the army general who was his partner in the slaughter and “ethnic cleansing” in the 1992-5 Bosnian war that left an estimated 200,000 dead.

Karadzic’s lawyer filed an appeal against his extradition from Serbia just before the deadline at 8pm on Friday, but the former leader is expected to be flown this week to the United Nations tribunal at the Hague to stand trial on charges including genocide. He faces life imprisonment.

In Belgrade there was a muted reaction to the arrest of the one-time Serbian hero. Had he been arrested a decade ago, nationalist Serbs would have poured onto the streets in violent fury, but last week the protests came mainly in the form of disgruntled youths.

Serbs attributed the lack of an outcry to the length of time that had elapsed since the end of the war. Equally, it may just have been that everyone was stunned at the revelation of Karadzic’s life on the run. They had expected something more like a dramatic shootout on a mountain.

No one knew quite how to react when it emerged that he had been selling “human quantum energy” diviners on the internet from a flat in surburban Belgrade, speaking at conferences for alternative health and maintaining an intimate friendship with a rather good-looking younger woman.

THE breakthrough in the hunt for Karadzic came last month from a single telephone call. A Serbian security source said that the call, from Karadzic’s mobile phone, was his “fatal error”.

For years, Serbian and international security services, including Britain’s GCHQ eavesdropping centre, had tapped the telephones of his family, relatives and friends and routinely raided their homes and took them in for questioning as part of a campaign to locate Europe’s most wanted man. That would have been no secret to Karadzic, who had a $5m bounty on his head.

He appears, however, to have become complacent after years in his new skin. At some time in June, according to two Serbian security sources, a telephone call from a mobile number in Belgrade was monitored on the tapped line of one of his relatives. The number was traced to a Dr Dragan David Dabic, living in a small rented apartment in New Belgrade.

Serbian security agents monitored Dabic, following him on his walks in down-town Belgrade and stops at coffee shops and cinemas, visits to his favourite local, the Madhouse, where he would pick up and play the gusle, the traditional Serbian string instrument, and monitoring his telephone calls. It is unclear when they realised that Dabic was in fact Karadzic.

“I think he started to believe himself that he was not Radovan Karadzic,” said Bruno Vekaric, the senior adviser of the war crimes prosecutor in Belgrade. “We’ve been following him for a long time.” Pressed, he agreed it was “about a month”.

Having decided that he could be arrested without posing a security threat and sure he was their man, they decided to act.

“We believed he was moving home,” Vekaric said.

Bozo Prelevic is the former Serbian police minister who served in the first government after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian president who died in prison during his trial at the Hague. Prelevic believes that Karadzic’s success was his downfall.

“He started to believe that he would never be arrested,” said Prelevic, who is still close to Serbian security forces. “He had become overconfident, speaking at conferences. Karadzic could not live without an audience. Calling that relative was his fatal error.”

It may not have proved so had there not been a change in the Serbian government three weeks ago. After elections in May, Boris Tadic, the president, was able to form a new pro-western government with its sights set on membership of the European Union.

Key to that prospect was the EU’s insistence that war criminals would have to be apprehended.

It can be no coincidence also that Karadzic’s arrest came the day after an ally of Tadic’s was installed as head of the state security service.

Indeed, in a more favourable political climate in Bosnia, near the ski resort of Pale above Sarajevo which is still a stronghold of Bosnian Serb nationalism, Karadzic had been able to live openly even after his international arrest warrant had been issued.

Last week, friends and former supporters in the picturesque town said that everyone in Pale knew where Karadzic lived until the beginning of 2000 – except Nato it seems. Its green jeeps carrying troops who were searching for him routinely drove by his not-so-secret safe house, where he was often joined by his wife Ljiljana.

“In the early days there were 40 security people around him,” recalled Milovan Bjelica, a leader in Karadzic’s Serbian Democratic party, last week. “Up until late 1999 it was normal to see him. If I wanted to talk to him about something, he would send a car to pick me up. We would sit and discuss things. We would eat dried fruit and nuts and drink coffee.” Karadzic’s former house, a three-storey, wood-fronted chalet set back from a dirt road behind tall pine trees, was deserted last week. Broken windows let in the slanting rain and pine cones littered the stairs to the french windows on the ground floor, but it must once have been a luxurious residence. Karadzic and Ljiljana also spent time in a small white house outside Pale that they still own.

Bjelica does not think Nato was really interested in capturing Karadzic. “They believed it would endanger their own forces,” he said, a view endorsed by regional experts at the time.

He insists that he did not see Karadzic after he left Pale in early 2000. He said the rumours were that the former Serbian leader was hiding in remote mountain villages, monasteries or even caves.

“But Radovan was not a country man,” Bjalica said. “He needed the city, so I never believed these stories. I thought he was in Russia, or maybe Argentina.”

It was a renewed initiative by international forces that forced Karadzic to abandon Pale. Yet he still managed to see his family. Letters seized by Nato forces during a raid on the marital home as late as December 2002 reveal clandestine visits from Ljiljana while he was on the run. “Now summer is practically here, everybody is going somewhere, so it would not be a problem [to meet],” said one missive.

Later, presumably after they had met and done more than hold hands, he jokes about his wife feeling unwell: “If I was younger, I would hope you were pregnant.”

It is not certain precisely when he moved to Serbia, but it was after Vojislav Kostunica, the hardline president, was elected. It soon became clear that the government was opposed to returning alleged Serbian war criminals to the Hague.

“Karadzic realised he had a better chance of hiding in a forest of people in the big city than in a forest of trees,” said Goran Petrovic, former head of the Serbian intelligence agency. “He said goodbye to the people he knew and came to Belgrade alone. In Belgrade there were people who knew who he was, but they were less than five [in number].”

The first time he showed up as Dabic, the full-blown new age character, was in 2005. Mina Minic, an alternative healer from Belgrade, recalled last week an unusual visitor to the large house he shares with three generations of his family.

“He [Karadzic] came to my house and brought flowers to my wife,” Minic said. “He kissed her hand and asked for me to become his teacher. I remember he was so tall, dressed like he was from a monastery.”

Minic explains that after taking a five-day course in “human quantum energy”, a student is awarded a military-style “rank” based on their talent for the subject. Karadzic was given the rank of general.

He threw himself into the role. His articles in Healthy Life, a Serbian alternative medicine magazine, show a man who was fluent in new age thinking. “It is widely believed our senses and mind can recognise only 1% of whatever exists around us. Three per cent we understand with our hearts. All that remains is shrouded in secrecy, out of the reach of our five senses; however, it is within our reach in the extra-sensory manner,” he wrote in one article.

Minic’s teaching helped to form the cornerstone of Karadzic’s new identity. “Dragan Dabic” rented a small flat on the third floor of a block in Belgrade, decorated with a gaudy glass lampshade and a vase of dried flowers by the window.

Last week Karadzic’s books were still piled on shelves and papers were strewn across a desk next to a fax machine and office desk lamp. On a rail in front of the door hung coats and suits.

Karadzic was a regular customer in the Madhouse bar, where he drank red wine and listened to traditional Serbian music, sitting at a banquette where he could look at the portraits above the bar – of himself and Mladic.

He ate at the Arkidiye, a smart cafe-restaurant nearby. He always sat at the same table, in a screened booth in the corner of the restaurant, where he would eat cheap, simple meals of prebranac (dried beans) or topli obrok (a fish meal).

“He had great charisma,” said the restaurant manager Ziza Stevo. “He was always alone and was not a man you could chat with. I had the impression that he was always fasting. He seemed much taller than Karadzic.”

The revelation that has transfixed Serbia is that while supposedly on the run he enjoyed a close bond with Mila Cicak, an attractive 53-year-old divorcee who lives in an apartment with her university-age son in the Zemun neighbourhood of Belgrade.

Certainly her association with alternative medicine is working; she looks a decade younger than her years. Cicak is coy about how they met and denies allegations in Serbian newspapers that they were having an affair. Kosa Maksimovic, a neighbour who knows Cicak well enough to have lent her money in the past, said Cicak had told her that she went to Dabic for treatment for migraines.

Last week, sitting on a stool in her tiny flat, Cicak looked exhausted from the week’s events. “Of course I didn’t know who he was. Who could know that?” she said. “You can’t imagine how I feel.”

She admits she bought into the strange world of alternative therapy. “I had read about quantum energy, so I knew that Dr Dabic was a great expert. He told me he was working with an autistic child, so I asked to meet the child and work with him. That’s how our co-operation began.”

She says she last saw him on the Friday morning before he was arrested: “We went together to visit the autistic child. He said he needed to travel, that he was going away for two weeks.”

Cicak denies having an affair with Karadzic, but their relationship was clearly close. “They always came together and they would hold hands,” said Tanya, a secretary at Healthy Life. “I thought they were husband and wife.”

Whatever the truth of their relationship, there was no contact last week as the family of Karadzic took over.

Dragan Karadzic arrived at the empty apartment in Belgrade on Thursday to collect his uncle’s belongings. Accompanied by two thickset men wearing baseball caps and leather jackets, he was intercepted by police as he entered the flat.

They demanded to see written permission but, after a heated discussion, they accompanied Dragan into the apartment, allowing him to leave with a pair of battered trainers, a black tracksuit, two dictionaries and some vitamins.

After an angry tirade and threats against journalists, Dragan revealed that his uncle was fasting and needed the vitamins, before racing off in a muddy black Mercedes estate car.

THIS weekend Karadzic was in a Belgrade prison cell with a barred window in the door. He was refusing prison food, but eating hazelnuts and walnuts brought by Luca, his brother, and reading newspapers that all pictured him on their front pages. It is already an outdated image – he has yet again changed his appearance, demanding to be allowed to shave and cut his hair.

This week will be one of recovery from shock in Serbia and legal manoeuvres that will most likely see Karadzic in a new role: that of prisoner in the Hague.

The UN high representative in Sarajevo has denied permission for Ljiljana or his children, Sasa and Sonja, to travel to Belgrade to visit him.

Intelligence agencies are now engaged in the process of piecing together Karadzic’s movements. Attention will turn to Dragan Karadzic, who this weekend told a Serbian newspaper that he had been the only person helping his uncle over the past six years as he hid from justice.

There were clearly some near-misses with the authorities along the way. Yesterday Austrian police said anti-terror units had found a man who looked exactly like Drabic while searching an apartment in Vienna for a murder suspect last year. The man was not connected to the killing and was released without being fingerprinted. Meanwhile, an Austrian newspaper reported that Karadzic had worked in Vienna as a “miracle healer” in 2006, seeing patients in the homes of Serbians living there.

In Serbia, the government has vowed to move on and focus on capturing Mladic, the next most wanted man in Europe. Serbian sources say that will be a different odyssey. The general behind the Srebrenica massacre is never alone and is surrounded by armed bodyguards willing to fight to the death rather than give up their leader.

Rumours that Mladic had given up Karadzic to save himself were just that.

Petrovic said: “Arresting Karadzic was not a big risk. To catch Mladic would be different. Mladic’s bodyguards have orders to kill him rather than let him be captured. Karadzic was a doctor. Mladic is a crazy military man.”

Karadzic’s home for the foreseeable future is already waiting. At the detention centre at the Hague they have prepared an en-suite cell, about 18 metres square, with a television, facilities to cook Balkan specialities with fellow war criminals and a ping-pong table.

If he is to represent himself in court, as he has promised to do, Karadzic will also need one more thing: the bearded guru of human quantum theory could soon be swapping his tomes on alternative health for law books.

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