Crimes Against Humanity

Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic. Their names resonate in the slaughterhouse of the Balkans. For years the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has sought their arrest and extradition to The Hague. Last week brought that day closer--perhaps very close.

The catalyst: the arrest of three senior Bosnian Muslim Army officers for war crimes, committed mainly against Croats in 1993. All three had been applauded by their countrymen as heroes in the defense of Bosnia during the war against the Serbs. Yet within days of their secret indictment two weeks ago, they were seized and, on Friday, shipped off to the Netherlands, where they joined Slobodan Milosevic and 42 others awaiting trial. Most of those are Serbs, with a few Croats. By arresting the first high-ranking Muslim commanders, the tribunal has sent an unmistakable--and critical--signal that all sides to the Balkan conflict will be judged equally.

This was in fact a subtle first step in a delicate legal and diplomatic minuet. The second, coupled with the arrests of the first top Muslim military leaders, came from the Bosnian Serb Parliament late in July. It, too, was unprecedented. A bill providing for the extradition of Serb war criminals passed its first reading and will go for a final vote in September. For all its legalese, it was a watershed: it gives moderate Bosnian Serb leaders the political cover they need to acquiesce in the arrest of two of the most important figures sought by the court besides Milosevic himself--Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb president, and the infamous Serb military commander, Mladic. The two have eluded (or, more accurately, defied) capture for years. With last week's events, it suddenly looked certain that their long run was over--and that they, too, would soon go to The Hague, possibly before summer is out.

For most of the world, last week's Balkan headlines reported the conviction of Mladic's ranking subordinate, Gen. Radislav Krstic, 53, the first European since the Nuremberg trials in 1946 to be convicted of genocide. Sentenced to 46 years in prison--less than the life sentence demanded by the prosecutor--he was accused of directing the massacres of more than 7,000 Muslim men in the enclave of Srebrenica in 1995. The judge presiding over his case pronounced him "evil" incarnate. Krstic, who sat through most of his trial, having lost his right leg to a mine explosion, swallowed hard at the verdict, looking drawn and gray. His conviction is obviously important. But perhaps more significant was the reaction to it among Bosnian Serbs. There was none.

The lesson in that is plain. When apprehended by British troops in December 1998, there were riots and reprisals. NATO has since feared that arresting his superiors, Karadzic and Mladic, would trigger more dangerous confrontations, possibly endangering its own troops. Now it appears there is little cause for concern. "There might be some small demonstrations, but that's all," says Igor Gajic, a Serb journalist in Banja Luka, the largest city in the Serbian part of Bosnia. The reason for that is plain. People want to get on with their lives, put these the bad days behind them, Gajic explains. "In the Serb Republic right now, there is no economy, no budget, no salaries, no investment." And there won't be, so long as Mladic and Karadzic are free. As the Croat and Muslim portions of the country slowly and painstakingly begin to recover from years of war, Serbs see themselves sliding ever deeper into isolation and poverty. Many now blame the war criminals they have harbored for so long.

If the arrest of Mladic and Karadzic looks increasingly inevitable, it's less clear when precisely that might come. Both men are protected by determined and heavily armed security forces. To avoid casualties, the allies in Bosnia hope to persuade the Bosnian Serb police to do the dirty work, just as Muslim authorities did last week in arresting their own commanders. If they don't, the alliance will come under strenuous pressure to do the job. Newspapers have been full of such reports in recent weeks. Some suggest that one such snatch is imminent, code-named "Operation Brain" and supposedly targeting Karadzic. There also have been frequent but unconfirmed reports that NATO commandos on several recent occasions were on the verge of capturing the former president, but that for one reason or another they did not.

International officials profess not to know where either man is. But it is common knowledge that Karadzic stays in a house in the mountains between Foca and the Montenegrin border--and occasionally visits his old house in Pale, his wartime capital. A tour guide in Sarajevo, Zijad Jusufovic, even offers guided visits, though the burly Serb security guards let no one approach too close. Karadzic hasn't been seen moving around as much since NATO doubled the number of French and Italian troops patrolling in Foca and Pale, according to Serb sources, who also say he has changed his bodyguards, fearing that some might have switched allegiance to the new government in Yugoslavia. Mladic is believed to be in the Han Pijesak military complex north of Sarajevo, hunkered down in a warren of tunnels and underground bunkers designed by former Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito to withstand invasions from either Russia or the West.

The days when either man swaggered around his fiefdom, without fear of arrest, are long gone. The image now is of a hunted animal gone to ground. With a democratic Yugoslavia next door, they have nowhere to run--and few places to hide. There's no airport in their part of Bosnian Serb territory. In any case, most countries to which they might flee have pledged to turn them in. "Pressures will build to the point that they must be apprehended," says Hague-tribunal spokesman Jim Landale. He and his colleagues are counting the days.