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Radovan Karadžić was once feared as the Butcher of Bosnia. Now you can tour his favorite hiding places.
Giggles. The Serbian journalist sitting next to me leans over and whispers into my ear, “This is embarrassing.” One of the cameramen—there are four—asks Draga, our tour guide, to please repeat her opening words, so he can get her on film. She complies cheerfully. The microphone crackles in her hand, strangely doubling her voice in the small space of the passenger van. Welcome to the Pop-art Radovan Tour! In the next few hours we’ll visit the places where Dragan David Dabić, also known as Radovan Karadžić, lived and where he spent most of his free time. We’ll sample some of his favorite food. I would also like to mention that this is not a political tour, so any questions regarding politics will not be answered. Giggles again. This is embarrassing.
Packed with hungry journalists and bearing the outsized lettering SERBIA: EUROPE’S LAST ADVENTURE, our sightseeing van speeds through the wet streets of Blok 45, a working-class neighborhood in east Belgrade. Fine-grained drizzle smudges the view outside. The four cameramen look dejected. Drab apartment buildings huddle under drab skies, and only the occasional billboard or McDonald’s sign adds any hint of technicolor. Human shadows under shadowy umbrellas tap-dance in a silent musical. Unreal city. It is so simple to blend in here, to become nobody. The saint and the criminal might be one and the same: a white-bearded man dressed in plain black clothes.
Radovan Karadžić must have enjoyed being nobody. After so many years under the limelight of NATO, UN, EU, CIA, and ICTY, he was probably getting a bit sweaty and fame-weary, eager to step down from the stage and hide among the dark mass of anonymous spectators. To play “the Osama bin Laden of Europe” is not an easy role, especially when those who know you best would tear you to pieces if they chanced to meet you in the street. That was probably the reason why Radovan decided not to wait any longer, but to do the job himself: The explosive bouffant was dismantled into a humble and harmless ponytail; the face, once so carefully clean-shaven, regained its thick natural growth. Large spectacles replaced the military binoculars. Of course, the name, the good name that is better than precious ointment, needed some change as well: Radovan, the one who is radostan, joyful, became Dragan, drag, beloved. The second name, David, was Dragan’s etymological Hebrew twin. Beloved beloved. Radovan left the house of mirth not to go to the house of mourning, but to the house of love. Love that was as strong as death.
Radovan Karadžić—Supreme Commander of the Bosnian Serb armed forces, President of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, architect of the Siege of Sarajevo, and, along with Ratko Mladić, mastermind of the Srebrenica massacre—died somewhere in Bosnia to be miraculously resurrected in Belgrade’s Blok 45 as the 3D tabula rasa Dragan (David) Dabić, an old man with immaculately clean hands. A self-styled specialist in alternative medicine, Dr. Dabić claimed he could heal ailments of mind and body (asthma, addictions, sexual impotence and infertility, diabetes, psychological problems, stress, depression, attention deficit disorder, autism, multiple sclerosis) with the aid of an invisible power he called Human Quantum Energy. On his personal website www.psy-help-energy.com (for he didn’t spurn technology, despite his belief in nature’s ways), he explained: “We are energy beings. We undergo various energy processes that control the functions of our body and take place under the influence of higher energy forms (cosmic energy, prana, orgone energy, quantum energy, the Holy Spirit . . .). The energy is in us and all around us, being the main source of our health and welfare.” Dr. Dabić believed he had a gift, some version of the king’s touch, which allowed him to control that energy and restore its proper equilibrium in the sick patient, thus eradicating the root causes of disease. In addition, he preached tihovanje, or peacefulness, a little known form of Christian Orthodox prayer. “Our tihovanje and eastern meditation techniques,” he wrote in an article for the Serbian journal Zdrav Život (Healthy Life), “are similar in essence and differ only formally, as tihovanje is practiced by monks rather than celebrities.” True, once upon a time, Dragan Dabić had been a celebrity himself, but strictly speaking he was just a monk now. “Spiritual explorer” was the title he liked best.
Keeping a website, writing articles for medical journals, giving occasional lectures to crowded auditoriums: Radovan Karadžić never actually left the spotlight. Despite his new enlightenment, it was too difficult for a renowned political actor like himself to renounce vanity altogether. He had always wanted to be at the center of attention, whatever the cost, whatever the means. So he simply took up a new stage: the Aristotelian tragedy turned into a medieval mystery play; the epic hero metamorphosed into a saint.
The saint’s purloined identity was in plain sight, yet nobody managed to see through the obvious disguise. There was no disguise. Whenever asked for his contact info, D. D. Dabić would readily offer his calling card, complete with two telephone numbers and an e-mail address. (In the meantime, the real Dragan Dabić, a sixty-six-year-old retired construction worker from the small Serbian town of Ruma, had no idea he was being somebody else.) This doppelganger, this double Dabić, bought low-fat yogurt and whole-grain bread from the local grocery shop. He sipped red wine and chatted with people at the local bar. All the kids in the neighborhood knew him as Father Christmas. Rumors circulated that one of his disciples, a pretty woman in her fifties named Mila Damjanov, was his secret lover. She later denied the allegations, telling The Daily Telegraph she could have nothing but respect for her favorite guru. “He was an authentic person. I never doubted his identity or professionalism. I can’t reconcile the two personalities, the one of Karadžić and the other of the man I knew. For me there is only one person, only Dr. Dabić. I believed in him completely.” Goran Kojić, the editor of Zdrav Život, agreed: “David Dabić was a kind man, with good manners, quiet and witty. I’m not talking about Radovan Karadžić. I’m just talking about the person I met.”
Even with the riddle finally solved, many people who had known Dabić still found it difficult to accept his split identity. The strange case of Dr. Dabić and Mr. Karadžić sounded too much like a work of fiction to be true. The performance was too “authentic” to be a performance. Or could it be that those around Dragan Dabić were too willing to suspend disbelief? In one of his articles for Zdrav Život he had written: “It is considered that the senses and the mind can perceive only a fraction of existence, and everything else is a secret and a mystery, which for us is unavailable through the five senses, but is available in an extrasensory way.” Where was the intuition of his disciples? Hadn’t they learned anything from him?
In fact, it is misguided and naïve to think of Dabić’s religious mysticism and Karadžić’s lethal nationalism as manifestations of two wholly unrelated phenomena. During the war in Yugoslavia, religion assumed paramount importance, serving as the most unambiguous marker of ethnic affiliation. Bosnian Muslims were easy targets for Serb Christians. Tito’s secular communism had managed to incinerate the deities of the past, but the phoenix that hatched out of its cold ashes was fiercer and stronger than ever. Sworn atheists suddenly grew into blood-thirsty zealots. Ethnic cleansing meant, among other things, the desecration of mosques, or churches, or cathedrals. Religious propaganda drove a wedge between the peoples of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and created divisions where before there had been none. It was the most powerful political weapon and set off the worst kinds of atrocities.
Differences of doctrine hardly mattered; very few people, whether Orthodox Christian, Muslim, or Catholic, could name even the main tenets of their professed faith. The Balkans have never cared much for theological subtleties, and belief is often received on an ethnic and cultural level—where dogma interbreeds with superstition, occult philosophies, and a taste for things supernatural. By calling on their invisible mandate, the leaders of the warring parties offered justification for their irrational policies while avoiding personal responsibility, and here Karadžić was no exception. As the first president of the Bosnian Serbs, he sought to inflame nationalist sentiments through the introduction of a highly ritualized, ethnically-specific Orthodox Christianity. Though as a young man he had never expressed any interest in God, he became most devout once he stepped into office. To be a Serb one had to be a believer; to be a believer one had to be a Serb. The basis of that religion was not the Bible, but a mythologized version of Serbian history. Thus, a civil servant like the president could acquire a mystical aura as an agent of historical change. And Karadžić brazenly exploited the appeal of mysticism to achieve his political objectives.
Playing the sage, Dragan Dabić did not renounce his past—he merely recaptured it in a different way. After the erection of concentration camps and mass executions in the name of God and greater Serbia, even the most benevolent religious mysticism could never be politically neutral. It was stained with too much blood. Tihovanje, as peaceful as it sounded, was not that far from genocide.
On the left-hand side you see a little market, where Dr. Dabić bought his fruit and vegetables during the weekends. And this is the bakery shop, where he used to buy potato pie.
I first read about the Pop-art Radovan Tour on the front page of the Serbian daily Politika. Soon after Karadžić’s July 2008 arrest and extradition to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, a local tourist agency, Vekol, had decided to cash in on his renewed notoriety by organizing trips to the Belgrade sights Dr. Dabić used to frequent. In that same article Tanja Bogdanov, the agency’s manager, tried to justify her controversial venture: “In the last ten years Serbia has become known for its war criminals and dictators. There’s a great interest from tourists to see the houses of Slobodan Milošević, Tito, Arkan, and Radovan Karadžić.” Besides, wasn’t Russia exploiting the commercial power of comrade Lenin’s mummy? Didn’t tourists in London go on a Jack the Ripper walk? If Radovan Karadžić had tourist value, then few people in Belgrade seemed to care what exactly he had done. He was just a stepping stone, an instrument in the service of concrete economic and political objectives (he had always been that for Milošević). After all, it was the Serbian government itself that a few months earlier had, out of the blue, handed him over to The Hague, hoping for a faster route to European integration. No need was seen for reexamination of Karadžić’s criminal record—that was completely irrelevant. Hero or villain, his status depended on the variable price on his head. The $5 million reward offered by the US Department of State had simply not been enough.
For many Serbs from Belgrade Radovan Karadžić was hardly Serbian in the first place. Born in the mountains of Montenegro, the greater part of his life spent in the mountains of Bosnia and Herzegovina, he was somebody from “across the Drina,” a country bumpkin, whose ethnicity happened to be Serbian by a freak accident. “Karadžić achieved a mythical aura here because he was from somewhere else,” said Aleksandar Vasovic, a correspondent for the Associated Press. In a city that did not witness the horrors of direct military action until the 1999 NATO bombing, the figure of Karadžić, like the war he had helped mastermind, had always felt somehow distant and foreign, the stuff of enchanting fairytales or frightening legends. Some Belgraders had indeed volunteered to serve in Karadžić’s Bosnian Serb army, but the majority had stayed in front of their televisions, looking at images of slaughter and worrying about the economy. Throughout the conflict Slobodan Milošević had been insistent that the events in Bosnia and Herzegovina amounted to a civil war that had nothing to do with Serbia, and most people in the capital gradually came to accept that version of history. Bosnia and Herzegovina remained an exotic territory in Belgrade’s urban imagination, a remote region both dreaded and cherished, and, like Kosovo, little understood. That is why, when it was revealed that Radovan Karadžić, one of the men chiefly responsible for the ghastly war that had ravaged Yugoslavia and destroyed the lives of so many of its citizens, had spent the last several years residing under a false name in Blok 45, it came as a blow for almost everyone. Neither the enormity of his old transgressions, nor his newly minted identity astonished Belgraders so utterly, as much as the fact that a fabled creature like Karadžić, who supposedly belonged to another realm, in a galaxy far, far away, had been found on this side of life, amid the normal folk of the capital. It was a detective story with a twist of magical realism.
The initial reactions of shock and surprise soon gave way to tabloid delight. Beneath the surface of politics was a feeding frenzy for quotidian gossip: the music Dr. Dabić listened to (Pavarotti), the food he consumed (lots of vegetables, low-fat yogurt, potato pie, pancakes), and his sexual orientation (the police allegedly found a gay-porn video in his apartment starring DDD himself). Old issues of Zdrav Život that featured articles by “the doctor” quickly sold out. Friends and neighbors vied to share their stories with the press. The fetishistic excess of information inevitably devolved into irony. A few days after the arrest somebody created a hilarious spoof of Dragan Dabić’s website that included “10 favorite ancient Chinese proverbs as selected personally by Dr. Dabić.” Folk humor and jokes began to flood Serbian Internet forums. Here is a good one: “After getting plastic surgery in Moscow, Radovan Karadžić decides to move to Belgrade. Nobody recognizes him, but an old lady. ‘Hello, Radovan,’ she says. Distressed, he travels back to Moscow for yet another surgery. Back in Belgrade the same thing happens: the old lady recognizes him. After a third and final surgery, an extreme makeover, he returns to Belgrade more confident than ever. Not a single person takes notice of him, until he meets the old lady. ‘Hello, Radovan,’ she says. ‘Ok,’ he says, ‘how did you recognize me?’ And the old lady: ‘I’m Ratko Mladić.’”
In the cosmopolitan and intellectually sophisticated atmosphere of Belgrade it was not that difficult or morally awkward to treat Karadžić as the butt of a joke. Unscathed by the war, people could afford to look at a war criminal with ironic detachment. The thousands of posters of his face, obsessively pasted all over the city, may have been intended to stir up nationalistic sentiment, but between Coca Cola neon signs and Costa Coffee outlets they rather resembled Warhol’s prints of Chairman Mao. The kitschy souvenirs—Karadžić T-shirts and buttons—sold by downtown street-vendors, were supposed to be a declaration of Serbian pride, but came out in Belgrade as its exact opposite, a parody of itself. The Pop-art Radovan Tour just seemed like the latest iteration of this idea, yet it remained fuzzy: was the tour intended to battle virulent nationalism by treating Karadžić as just another commodity in a world of mass tourism, or did it aim to vindicate and lionize his personality?