in the Eye
By David L. Phillips
Radovan Karadzic threatened to kill me. "One
night you'll wake up to feel cold steel on your throat," he warned.
"I'll slit your throat and kill your children too."
It was August 18, 1992. We were at the Victoria
Conference Center in London where world leaders had gathered to address
the emergency in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I was attending as a member of the
Bosnian delegation. Volunteering to assist was consistent with my work
in the United States where I was serving at the time as president of the
Congressional Human Rights Foundation.
My involvement started when Foreign Minister Haris
Silajdzic called me at my Georgetown office in February of 1992.
Silajdzic was ringing from a phone booth in the Mayflower Hotel. He was
visiting Washington, D.C. to warn of imminent attacks by Belgrade-backed
Serbs against Bosnia. According to Silajdzic, "Milosevic's project was
to create a 'Greater Serbia' from the ashes of former Yugoslavia." He
warned prophetically that Milosevic's "virus of ethnic nationalism would
destroy Bosnia's tradition of multiethnic tolerance and interreligious
Silajdzic was correct. In the Spring, Milosevic's
lieutenants Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic unleashed the worst
violence in Europe since World War II. By the time the Geneva-based UN
Human Rights Commission met in June 1992, tens of thousands had been
killed and hundreds of thousands driven from their homes. Karadzic
coined the term "ethnic cleansing" as the brand for his brutality. The
international community expressed concern, appointed a special
rapporteur to investigate, and agreed to meet again. The London
Conference (August 17, 18) was co-chaired by UN Secretary General
Boutros Ghali and Britain's Prime Minister John Major on behalf of the
European Union. More than 50 heads of state gathered to "take action"
against the slaughter of civilians in Bosnia.
The first day of the London Conference, August 17, was
filled with speeches and bilateral consultations in caucus rooms
adjoining the main hall. Mid-day on the 18th, the international
community revealed its plan. President President Alija Izetbegovic,
Siljadzic, Mohammed Sacirbey and I met John Major and Acting US
Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger. Eagleburger started the meeting
by talking about the "special relationship" between the United States
and the United Kingdom. He laid out a plan to sanction Serbia, end the
shelling of Sarajevo by sequestering artillery, and provide emergency
relief to civilians displaced by the conflict. The U.S. would lead an
effort to authorize robust deterrence in the UN Security Council while
the EU would focus on humanitarian assistance and reconstruction. No
military intervention was envisioned.
Silajdzic protested vehemently. "These are just
words," he bemoaned. "We have no guarantees. My people are being
slaughtered every day." John Major leaned forward summoning earnestness,
"You have my word of honor. If the shelling of Sarajevo does not stop
within 30 days, the Royal Air Force will be overhead."
I went down to the coffee bar at the Victoria
Conference Center. The plenary was on-break and the room was full of
people. I stopped to chat with Ibrahim Rugova, the President of Kosova
who, like the Bosnian Serb delegation, was attending the conference but,
as a non-member state, was excluded from the official proceedings. I
approached the bar and found myself shoulder to shoulder with Karadzic.
I was stunned to find myself rubbing elbows with Europe's most wanted
criminal. I do not know what possessed me but I turned to him and asked,
"Are you Dr. Radovan Karadzic?" "I am," he replied. I introduced myself
and responded, "It is my understanding that you are responsible for
leading the worst genocide in Europe since the Nazis. If you are behind
this ethnic cleaning, then you should stand trial before an
international tribunal and spend the rest of your life in prison."
Karadzic could not believe his ears. No one dared
speak to him like this. "Who are you?" he stammered. "What gives you the
right." That's when he threatened to kill me and my family.
I was terrified. I knew Karadzic and his henchmen
relied on fear to intimidate adversaries. If I revealed my abject
terror, I would be truly vulnerable. I summoned my inner calm and
looking Karadzic directly in the eye, gave him a broad smile and said,
"You know Radovan there is nothing you can do to hurt me, and if you
tried you would only hurt yourself." My response at first bewildered and
then enraged Karadzic even more. He started cursing me in Serbian. A fat
smelly henchman stinking of body odor and alcohol came over and pushed
me against the wall. I just walked away. A hundred people had seen the
encounter, which I reported to Scotland Yard.
Moments later, I was called by Silajdzic to a meeting
with Boutros Ghali and Cyrus Vance. They reviewed the international
community's commitment to Bosnia. Boutros Ghali leaned forward and
looking deep into Izetbegovic's eyes said, "Mr. President, this is your
best and last chance for peace. What is your decision?" "There is no
timetable -- no guarantee," Izetbegovic stammered. His daughter was
weeping in the corner of the room. Bosnia's future lay in the balance.
I asked the diplomats to leave protesting that the
Bosnian delegation needed time to discuss their offer. Ten minutes
later, Boutros Ghali returned. I put my foot in the door and barred his
entry. "We need more time," I admonished.
Silajdzic opposed the deal. He did not trust cynical
European leaders to enforce the accord. I argued that rejecting the
offer risked causing the world to walk away and abandon Bosnia to
Karadzic and his killers. When Boutos-Ghali and Vance finally returned,
nobody knew what Izetbegovic would do. "What is your decision, Mr.
President?" The minute of silence felt like an eternity. Finally
Izetbegovic whispered, "I accept."
The deal became known as the Vance-Owen Plan. When it
was announced, I saw Milosvic's delight. He went to the coffee bar to
tell Karadzic and slapped his back. The Serbs had prevented a robust
response from the international community. Hiding behind Vance-Owen, the
international community dithered while Karadzic and Ratko Mladic
maintained their campaign of terror for the next three years. Without
the stalwart leadership of Izetbegovia and Siladzic, Bosnia would have
simply disappeared. Encountering Karadzic intensified my empathy with
Bosnia's victims. At the London Conference, I learned what it meant to
live with fear and look evil in the eye.
Just as justice is due Karadzic, the world owes
Bosnia. Bosnia's leaders embrace the recent initiative to break down
official ethnic divisions and strengthen human rights, the country
deserves a fast-track to membership in the European Union. It has been
easy to blame local politicians for Bosnia's lingering problems when, in
fact, the West has failed to hold war criminals and their protectors
accountable while making empty promises of rewards for conciliation.
David L. Phillips was an adviser to Bosnia and
Herzegovina in 1992-94. He is currently Director of the Program on
Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding at American University.