A capital of crowing roosters Pale: Once a retreat for well-heeled Sarajevans, Pale stands now as the nominal capital of the Serbian Republic and the refuge of the Bosnian Serb leader and war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic.

Sun Journal

June 10, 1996|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PALE, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- The directions to Radovan Karadzic's house are simple: Drive north from town on the road with potholes the size of Land Rovers. Pass a dusty gas station and cross a small bridge over a muddy stream. It's another mile past wandering cows and green meadows filled with buttercups before you see a narrow dirt road on your right.

Look for five or six soldiers in camouflage lounging at a small booth. Karadzic's house is just up the lane, in a village of a dozen or so homes at the edge of the woods.

Backwoods capital

You won't get past the soldiers without an invitation, but you're close enough to get the general atmosphere of life among the high and mighty of Pale. Here, in a pretty valley just over the mountains from Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia's Republika Srpska slouches like the Ozark hide-out of a moonshine potentate.

By all appearances, it is a place of neither import nor impregnability, a setting of faded resort homes and blocky apartment buildings that Evelyn Waugh might have dreamed up for a satire of backwoods despotism.

Parliament meets in a truck engine factory. Government offices are based in a chalet-style hotel.

A visitor to the "International Press Center" may have to sidestep a flock of trotting sheep to enter. State television headquarters sprouts black wires from its windows like spilled spaghetti, and the security police rely on a battered fleet of Volkswagen Golfs.

Yet, it is from here that Karadzic has defied the world for four years, producing results that are anything but comic. First, he directed a brutal war for an ethnically pure state of Serbs. Now he ignores peace treaty rules and international arrest warrants.

Recent NATO warnings of a more aggressive pursuit notwithstanding, he passively avoids capture even as NATO combat vehicles routinely roll through the outskirts of town, unobstructed and virtually unnoticed by Pale's residents or police.

Drivers of those vehicles can hardly be impressed or intimidated by what they see. Pale's main street is little more than a few meagerly stocked food stores and smoky cafes, where stereo speakers blare accordion-driven folk tunes. The only other prevalent sound is that of crowing roosters. There is not a single stoplight to impede one's progress through the potholes.

Here and there, women at roadside card tables peddle bootleg cigarettes, a sight common to virtually every Bosnian city these days, and a leading economic indicator of postwar deprivation.

Pale's residents complained bitterly about such conditions throughout the war, and now they're grousing about "blackmail" by the Western powers, which are withholding reconstruction aid from the Serbs until Karadzic is either captured or removed from power.

But they have been lucky, too. Pale was spared the shelling and burning that destroyed so many other cities and towns. The only close calls were a handful of NATO air raids last fall that destroyed an ammunition dump and army barracks just outside town.

Pale's war wounds are those of neglect. Rutted side streets wander between homes and apartments notable mostly for huge stacks of firewood.

It is to these homes that well-heeled Sarajevans once journeyed for weekend retreats on scenic mountain roads. Those roads now pass the hilltop siege lines that, until last fall, poured shellfire onto Sarajevo like boiling oil from medieval ramparts.

In those days, Pale was a risky place to visit for international news media. They always faced the prospect of detention for a night or so depending on the mood of the town's second-most-powerful Karadzic.

The imperial daughter

That would be Sonja, Radovan's 29-year-old daughter. Imperious and prone to loud outbursts of anger, her management style is a rough metaphor for the style and substance of the Pale regime.

She is partial to glitzy clothes and silver lipstick edged in black, and is perhaps the only person in town whose hair billows higher than her father's -- an explosion of black locks oddly reminiscent of the feathery hat worn by Archduke Francis Ferdinand the day he was assassinated in Sarajevo.

Sonja Karadzic is known for showy displays of imperial whim, such as when she ordered two Finnish journalists jailed for four days for no apparent reason, or for trying to requisition a military medevac helicopter to ferry her small, yipping dog from Belgrade, Yugoslavia, to Pale.

Unlike her more sought-after father, she can still be found fairly easily at her office. But that does not mean that she's any easier to interview.

A visiting reporter last week filled out an official form to request a chat. Sonja Karadzic emerged from her office to receive the news, then replied, speaking over the reporter's head to her assistant: "I'm going to lunch. He can't just come in here expecting to talk to me when he pleases."

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