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New Balkan Trend Turns Accused Sinners to Saints

Wartime leaders are mythologized into heroes. Many fear this could fuel new conflict.

January 19, 2003|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — The half-smiling portrait of Radovan Karadzic floats on hundreds of posters in this capital's main square. His face is emblazoned on buttons and T-shirts sold at music festivals, while books by the wartime leader of the Bosnian Serbs are available in many shops. His most recent volume is a collection of children's poetry.

Karadzic is also one of the world's most wanted men, indicted on war crimes charges, including genocide, by the U.N. tribunal in The Hague. NATO troops have repeatedly tried -- and failed -- to capture him as part of international efforts to bring to justice those believed most responsible for the bloodshed that tore much of the Balkans apart in the 1990s.

That he nonetheless is seen as a saint, even a savior, by many ethnic Serbs in the region is only the most visible sign of a disturbing and growing syndrome: Beneath the veneer of normality here, an insidious hagiography of war crimes suspects has emerged.

Each ethnic or religious group is creating a mythology in which its most aggressive wartime leaders, suspected of the worst excesses, are refashioned into heroes. In addition to Serbs, the trend is apparent among ethnic Croats, Bosnian Muslims and the ethnic Albanians of Serbia's Kosovo province.

It is this unremarked process that appears most likely to lay the psychological foundations for another war.

The galvanizing force behind today's adulation of hard-line wartime leaders is the pervasive feeling among members of each group that they won less than they should have as they pulled away from the Yugoslav federation. Serbs, Croats and Muslims killed one another to varying extents during the Bosnian and Croatian wars.

In Kosovo, Serbs drove out more than 700,000 ethnic Albanians, only to be forced out themselves once the Albanians returned under international protection. Yet few groups feel that they attained the idealized, independent homelands for which they were fighting.

"Everyone here feels that they lost something. There are nothing but bad memories," said Jakob Finci, the head of the Jewish community in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, who helped civilians on all sides during the 1992-95 Bosnian war.

"And since we have no new heroes, we keep our old heroes -- Karadzic, Mladic, Izetbegovic," Finci said ruefully. He was referring to Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general accused of ordering the execution of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica after his troops took the town in 1995, and to Alija Izetbegovic, the wartime leader of Bosnian Muslims.

"These nationalist figures give people a sense of confidence and superiority -- it makes each group feel they are 'chosen,' " said Warren Zimmermann, a former U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia.

"It's just one more step from saying, 'We're just as good,' to saying, 'We're better,' which is another way of saying the wars are not over."

Border-changing conflicts will most likely recur in places where ethnic groups still thirst for a national identity and feel that they are unjustly lumped with people of other ethnicities or religions, experts say.

That is the situation both in Bosnia, where Muslims, Croats and Serbs uneasily share land and power under the peace accords brokered by the U.S. in Dayton, Ohio, and in the broad swath of turf that ethnic Albanians call home but that crosses the borders of Yugoslavia and Macedonia as well as Albania.

Bosnian Muslims

As any Bosnian will tell you, every park in Sarajevo was turned into a graveyard during the 1992-95 war, which killed nearly 200,000 people, more than 100,000 of them Muslims. In many ways, Bosnia remains a country of the dead. Drive along any main road and one will cross former front lines, pass fields with mass graves and see one bombed house after another.

Small wonder that many here feel they lost too much to bear. Although many people are too tired and broken to contemplate more fighting, the appeal of nationalist rhetoric runs deep, perhaps precisely because of the terrible sense of loss.

The war had many fronts. Bosnian Croats, who are largely Roman Catholics, fought Bosnian Muslims, but later those two sides joined forces and fought against Serbs, who are Orthodox Christians.

Signs of heroes-in-the-making appeared barely two years after the war's end. A Sarajevo gang leader, Musan "Caco" Topalovic, received an illustrious reburial because he had defended besieged Muslims. His body, accompanied by 20,000 mourners, was transferred from a small, anonymous graveyard to the first row of the Muslim cemetery for war heroes above the capital's historic Turkish bazaar. His grave remains a place of veneration; on a summer visit, it was covered with sprays of lilacs and lilies.

Overlooked were accounts of Topalovic and his gang's slayings of about 75 Serbs, including some of their prewar friends and neighbors, whose bodies were dumped into a limestone quarry outside Sarajevo.

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