Karadzic was hiding in plain sight

1995 karadzicNeedless to say, I received some interesting emails in the hours after the New York Times and the rest of the world’s mainstream media started running the following story. The words changed a bit, but here is the key info from the Times:

Radovan Karadzic, one of the world’s most wanted war criminals for his part in the massacre of nearly 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995, was arrested Monday in a raid in Serbia that ended a 13-year hunt. …

Mr. Karadzic, a nationalist hero among Serbian radicals and one of the tribunal’s most wanted criminals for more than a decade, is said to have eluded arrest so long by shaving his swoopy gray hair and disguising himself as a Serbian Orthodox priest. He reportedly hid out in caves in the mountains of eastern Bosnia and in monasteries.

What people wanted to know, of course, was what I thought about the fact that “the church” (or “your church”) was hiding one of the world’s greatest monsters. Some people were sure that I would not want to see that angle covered. We’ll get to that in a moment.

I did not the presence of troubling language in these early reports, such as “is said to have” and “he reportedly hid out.” There did not seem to be any solid sources, early on.

Meanwhile, the story did keep evolving throughout the day. Let’s stick with what was reported in the Times a few hours after the story broke. Here is part of an update:

He grew long white hair and a flowing white beard, and, as Dragan Dabic, the former psychiatrist worked for years in a clinic in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, as a practitioner of alternative medicine. He even lectured at local community centers. …

All along, he was said to have eluded arrest by disguising himself as a Serbian Orthodox priest and by hiding out in caves in the mountains of eastern Bosnia and in monasteries. But details provided by Serbian officials for the first time on Tuesday showed that, at least for some of those years, one of the accused architects of Europe’s worst massacre since World War II had been hiding in Serbia in plain sight.

Once again, the church details were delivered in passive voice, with no sources. This report also added another note of caution, saying that “at least for some of those years” he was not in a church somewhere. Who knows where else he had been hiding. That’s a totally appropriate statement, actually.

Finally, the second-day Times report — with tons of additional reporting — began with this lede that did much to clarify the situation:

The infamous fugitive, long charged with war crimes, was not in a distant monastery or a dark cave when caught at last, but living in Serbia’s capital.

Nor was Radovan Karadzic lurking inconspicuously, but instead giving public lectures on alternative medicine before audiences of hundreds. He was hiding behind an enormous beard, white ponytailed hair topped with an odd black tuft, and a new life so at odds with his myth as to deflect suspicion. …

The fatigues-wearing leader of the Bosnian Serbs was unrecognizable in a guise that was part guru and part Santa Claus. As Dragan Dabic, the former psychiatrist worked for years in a clinic in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, practicing alternative medicine. He even lectured on videotape at local community centers, in an open and active life that would appear to be an extraordinary risk for one of the world’s most wanted men.

You can find additional details about this amazing scam in another Times sidebar. One key detail is that, according to people who knew Karadzic, they would not have recognized him by sight alone. You had to know his voice to figure out who this was. He was even hiding his Bosnian accent.

But back to the Serbian Orthodox angle. Would I have been surprised if Karadzic had been sheltered in a monastery or church? Disappointed, yes, but surprised, no. That is a complex and violent area and the Orthodox Church has been battered and chopped up, while some people — a lot of people, in a lot of different flocks — keep crossing the lines between faith and ethnicity. It’s the Balkans and we have talked about this before here at GetReligion.

When reading these kinds of media reports, it’s crucial to note the complexity of the Orthodox leadership in that region. Reports that say he hid in a monastery or was helped by “the church” need to take into account that the actions of a local leader or priest are not the same thing as the actions of the actual Serbian hierarchy. I have no doubt, in a region in which dozens of priceless monasteries are being destroyed, that there are Orthodox leaders who betray their church’s teachings to strike back.

But here is the key: The role of religious leaders in the wider region, leaders at the top level, has actually been quite admirable — Catholics, Orthodox, Muslims and Jews, included. I wrote a Scripps Howard column on that back in 1999 while the U.S. bombs were falling. It began like this:

It’s tricky for anyone to sign a document in Belgrade these days with the word “peace” in the title.

But back on April 19th, while air-raid sirens screamed overhead, an interfaith quartet of shepherds released a gripping statement to their Yugoslavian flocks and to the world.

“Even as evil cannot be overcome by evil, so peace and harmony cannot be attained by war,” said the seven-paragraph “Appeal for Peace,” released from the Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate. “To be a peacemaker is the greatest duty and most noble obligation of every man. That is why we are not afraid to be the first to extend the hand of peace to one another. In the name of our future and our common life together, we pray to God and appeal to all men of good will to endeavor with maximum effort to end this war and resolve the problems by peaceful means.”

The document was signed by Serbian Patriarch Pavle, Catholic Archbishop Franc Perko, Mufti Hamdija Jusufspahic and Rabbi Isak Asiel, all of Belgrade. Together, they called for all bombing and fighting to cease and for the return of refugees to their war-ravaged homes — both the ethnic Albanians fleeing the paramilitary units of Slobodan Milosevic or Serbs fleeing the Kosovo Liberation Army.

This cry for broader negotiations in the Balkans followed a “Kosovo Peace and Tolerance” declaration released on March 18 in Vienna. This longer, more detailed document was signed by a quartet of Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim and Jewish leaders from Kosovo.

pavleIf you are interested in subjects related to that, click here and here.

The goal is not to condone the sins of the guilty. If church officials hid this monster, part of a thug regime of cynics that also jailed and battered faithful bishops, then find the facts and air them out. At the same time, the goal is to not to blame an entire institution for the sins of a few. As noted earlier, religious leaders actually did what they could to promote nonviolence and as much peace as could be managed.

Once again, you have to check the actual actions of the patriarchs in their roles in the interfaith efforts to stop the violence. Yes, you did see bishops marching in demonstrations on issues of Serbian nationalism. It was clear that the Serbian church opposed the loss of Kosovo and the destruction of many of its priceless monasteries. But the patriarchs also opposed the ethnic cleansing and some were jailed and beaten for opposing the regime behind the violence.

Try to keep these two quotes balanced in your mind. The first is from the late New York Times editor A.M. Rosenthal, who once won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in Eastern Europe:

“I do not get emotional about the history of Kosovo. I am not a Serb. Serbs do. … Serbs are as likely to give up Kosovo willingly because the Albanians want it as Israelis are to give up Jerusalem because the Arabs want it.”

The second quotation is from the Serbian Orthodox bishops, who noted that the “way of non-violence and cooperation is the only way blessed by God in agreement with human and divine moral law and experience.”

Then they added this prayer to the rites for Holy Week and Pascha, as the bombs fell:

For all those who commit injustice against their neighbors, whether by causing sorrow to orphans or spilling innocent blood or by returning hatred for hatred, that God will grant them repentance, enlighten their minds and hearts and illumine their souls with the light of love even towards their enemies, let us pray to the Lord.

“Lord have mercy.

So keep reading. Look for solid, on-the-record sources and don’t be surprised when people sin. It’s the Balkans. You also have to look for the brave believers who took dangerous stands for peace.

Photos: Radovan Karadzic in power years. Patriarch Pavle of Serbia.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Martha

    Let us suppose, as a purely hypothetical case, that “Karadzic…is said to have…disguis(ed) himself as a Serbian Orthodox priest. He reportedly hid out in caves in the mountains of eastern Bosnia and in monasteries.”

    This does not imply complicity upon the part of the entire Orthodox Church, or indeed upon the part of any monastery or local church that may have been involved – anymore than the fake priest in the Vatican implies complicity upon the part of the Pope:

    “Some time ago I had to deal with an unusual case — a fake priest,” Marrone told the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.

    “He was caught by surprise in the basilica while he was trying to take his place in a confessional. He was wearing clerical garb, but the expert eye of our [basilica] personnel didn’t need much to sense something strange in his behavior,” Marrone said without elaborating.

    The man was stopped and his documents checked, and even though he had what appeared to be legitimate documents, including a Vatican pass, personnel were still suspicious, the judge recalled.”

    If someone claiming to be Father Vasily turns up on the monastery doorstep looking for a night’s lodging and spins a plausible tale to account for his presence, why should this be taken to mean “Aha! They knew who he was and deliberately helped him evade justice!”?

  • Stephen A.

    For the record, I’ve heard or seen nothing mentioning a possible church role in his fugitive status on TV or radio reports.

    Then again, would I be surprised that some misguided but angry church officials hid him, given that all traces of the 800-year history of the Orthodox Church is now being quickly erased from Kosovo by the Kosovar Albanians who now control it?

    They’d be dead wrong for hiding an alleged war criminal, but I wouldn’t be surprised if one priest or other official helped him, no. Passions run deep and it’s definitely plausible.

  • Maureen

    Don’t the Orthodox churches have a tradition of providing sanctuary? I seem to remember that there used to be certain monasteries in Byzantine times that, if you reached them, you could go free if you stayed there as a monk or nun. (But maybe I just imagined that….)

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    No, that’s true in monasteries as a rule. The question people would ask then is, “Well, wouldn’t they know he wasn’t a priest?” Almost certainly, if he served on the altar. But what if he just stood in the congregation?

    Many questions still to be answered. I will watch for any reaction from the actual leadership of the Serbian Church.

  • Dave

    I heard a statement on the PBS News Hour that he’d been concealed in monasteries, but with no follow-up and no name of any particular monastery. It hasn’t been repeated.

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  • http://khanya.wordpress.com Steve Hayes

    You can tell how phony they are when they say he had “shaved his swoopy grey hair and disguised himself as a Serbian Orthodox priest”. I’ve never seen a serbian Orthodox priest with a shaved head. Yet in the end he did look a bit like a priest.