Radovan Karadzic's frequent presence in Trebinje and Lastva in southern Bosnia
Trebinje is often described as one of Bosnia's most beautiful cities. Just over a half hour's drive from Dubrovnik on the Croatian coast, this city of 30,000 in the Republika Srpska boasts a Mediterranean climate, shaded tree-lined streets, and a cafe culture reminiscent of Aix-en-Provence. The cushy living here, combined with a population that strongly supports Radovan Karadzic, has made it a place that Karadzic has visited much more frequently than I originally thought.
I went to Trebinje and nearby Lastva to investigate a Karadzic sighting in Lastva early last year near an old Yugoslav Army compound. After just a short period in town, I learned that last year's sighting was not just a fluke report, but just one of many known Karadzic sightings in the area throughout the last four years. The local people, who generally admire Karadzic and despise NATO and EUFOR, seem to uniformly treat as common knowledge that Karadzic maintained a regular and frequent presence in the area. Just as uniformly, they seem to doubt that Karadzic is currently present in Lastva / Trebinje.
While in the west we treat Karadzic sightings with alarm, they are commonplace around Trebinje. And even if the locals wanted to talk about it, the western press and local EUFOR soldiers would be the last they would want to assist with the new information.
Karadzic frequently met people or stayed in buildings of grandeur and historical significance: the home of a poet, the Orthodox monastery on the hill overlooking the town, or the elegant monastery west of town. The dry climate with the regular breeze from the Adriatic is said to be very agreeable to his health, after a heavy toll from years on the run. In Trebinje, he can eat well, drink well, live with comfort, and enjoy a more intellectually vibrant cultural life amongst poets and former politicos than was possible in his hamlets in Celebici or even Niksic.
Most importantly, the population of Trebinje / Lastva is homogeneous in its support of Karadzic and the Republika Srpska, just as much as its people share disdain for EUFOR, NATO, Carla del Ponte, and the concept of a Bosnian state. There is little chance of Karadzic being ratted out to passing by EUFOR soldiers in these parts.
Karadzic's comfort with staying in Trebinje may also come from the area's continuing ethnic homogeneity. Lastva has remained in the Bosnian news in the last twelve months for the virulent resistance its residents have demonstrated to Muslims trying to reclaim their homes in the area.
Karadzic is unlikely to stay anywhere that he cannot escape if he senses trouble. In this sense, Trebinje and Lastva are ideal. Lastva enjoys access to Montenegro through at least eight small roads, only one of which has a border control point. Impressively, these traditional smuggling routes now have a Bosnian customs officer at a chokepoint along the road between Lastva and Trebinje. However, this is a search only for smuggled cigarettes, alcohol, and timber, not war criminals. Indeed, the control officer I met was a Karadzic supporter.
The military presence in the area is puzzling. I was pleased to see that the Spanish EUFOR command of MND-S, based in Mostar, has assigned Spanish troops to a small operating base south of Trebinje. Upon further investigation however, I was disappointed to see that this assignment for the Spaniards is seen as just closer access to the Croatian beach. Perversely, troops in the heart of Karadzic territory view their job in terms of its beach proximity. The observer is left to wonder whether Bosnia is now a "lifestyle" assignment to give troops a break after Afghanistan or Iraq. Needless to say, I do not think that Karadzic or his minions fear these Spanish soldiers.
Surprisingly, the only troops in town I saw were French, even though the city is not part of their sector. I have a high opinion of French soldiers and their military abilities, but they always seem to end up in places where Karadzic needs protection. It has happened three times before and surely could be happening again. I doubt that the French presence here is linked to two previous instances of French officers directly tipping off Karadzic about pending military actions. Rather, it is more likely a passive understanding made with local leaders of military parameters, vis-a-vis Foca in 2002.
I have some revealing pictures from Trebinje and Lastva, and will try to post them to this article as soon as possible.