Serbia: Radovan Karadzic's Final Days of Freedom

Tomas (Misko) Kovijanic has been drinking all day, which may help explain why he sounds a touch maudlin as he recalls the fugitive who had become a regular at the Mad House, the tiny café Misko runs in New Belgrade. Nearby, in one of the neighborhood's identical socialist-era apartment towers—in Block 45, Building 267—Radovan Karadzic had lived for at least the past year. Not only had he been hiding in plain sight, the ex-president of the Bosnian Serbs had adopted a disguise so outrageous it turned heads wherever he went. With a huge gray beard, spectacles the size of saucers, and long locks tied up in a topknot, he looked more like an aging hippie who'd dropped too much acid than one of the International War Crimes Tribunal's two most-wanted. "It was impossible not to notice him," Misko says, speaking slowly, either so every word could be written down, or to keep from slurring them, or both. "I said, 'Who could this strange person be? Maybe a saint who came down from the mountains, or a white magician, or even a prophet'."

For a man who was always a moth to the limelight, it's not surprising that Karadzic would be drawn to the Mad House, a nationalist hangout where pride of place is given to Karadzic's own picture, along with pictures of fellow war-crime indictees Gen. Ratko Mladic and ex-dictator Slobodan Milosevic, who cheated justice by dying at The Hague. Although Karadzic had disguised himself with a new persona as an alternative-health guru named Dragan Dabic, slimming down on nonfat yogurt and macrobiotics, he remained the serious drinker he had always been, quaffing glass after glass of Bear's Blood wine, which Misko is drinking now in his honor. The café is an uncomfortably intimate place, a service bar and four little tables, crammed with as many as 20 drinkers, all men of Balkan-war age. "One educated Serb is more precious than a million educated Americans," Misko says passionately, adding, "No offense."

In their cups, habitués of the Mad House often turn to the gusle, a single-stringed fiddle used to accompany Serbian epic poetry. Some of these poems celebrate Karadzic's own exploits. Despite that—or perhaps because of it—one memorable recent night Karadzic himself picked up Misko's gusle, carved from a single piece of maple, its headstock in the form of an eagle. "In his hands the gusle was playing the most beautiful sounds we ever heard," Misko recalls, splashing another dollop of Bear's Blood into a glass. "He said, 'My children, listen to me, you are the future of Serbia. Our epic poems will preserve our past and proclaim our future'." Misko caught sight of a tear in the war criminal's eye (there's one in his, too, at this recollection). "I could see happiness on the face of Radovan Karadzic, a.k.a. Dragan Dabic, that night."

That happiness would prove short-lived. Last week three Serbian secret policemen were already aboard the Route 73 bus when Karadzic climbed on, presenting a bus pass he got using the ID card of a dead Serb from Bosnia. "Old man, come with us," they said, and ignored his feeble protests of innocence as they manhandled him into a waiting car, en route to The Hague after 13 years on the run. Misko says he and his friends will be waiting for him to come back, this time to play the gusle under his own name. "History is not written in one single day, and eventually it will show us who really was Radovan Karadzic." After a few more glasses, at the Mad House, that may even seem plausible.