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Karadzic's Dual Life: War Fugitive, New Age Mystic

Watch Radovan Karadzic's progression from wartime president to a fugitive in hiding as a new age guru.
Watch Radovan Karadzic's progression from wartime president to a fugitive in hiding as a new age guru.

Since the arrest of Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader wanted for war crimes, the news in Belgrade is filled with details of his double life. He disappeared more than a decade ago, after his indictment, and he reappeared with a new identity — passing himself off as a New Age health guru. Karadzic practiced alternative medicine, wrote articles and even lectured under an alias.

Morning Edition's Deborah Amos interviews NPR correspondent Sylvia Poggioli, from Belgrade.

Share with us the details of Karadzic's life as a fugitive, as you know them.

For years there were rumors that Karadzic was in Bosnia or Montenegro, hiding in monasteries or even caves. There were also lots of reports that NATO peacekeepers based in Bosnia maybe looked the other way, and they knew exactly where he was. There's been a lot of rumors. But now it turns out that, at least for the last couple of years, he was here, in New Belgrade. It's an area of very anonymous looking high-rise buildings, where it's easy to blend into the scenery and lose your identity, and especially if you change your disguise. And, as you said, Karadzic looks completely different today. Long white hair, white beard. He looks more like a character out of [J. R. R.] Tolkien or Harry Potter than the very showy, pompous wartime leader that I remember.

When I look at those photographs, I wonder — it's really hard to tell that it's him.

Absolutely. Looking at one next to the other, it's totally different. It just shows how easy it is to completely transform yourself. He is also a lot thinner than he used to be. You know, he was originally trained as a psychiatrist, but now as a fugitive, he passed himself off as an expert in something called "human quantum energy." He used the name D.D. David, or Dragan Dabic. And it turns out he gave lectures all over Serbia on alternative medicine.

He also had his own Web site, I've read.

Exactly, and it has photos of metal, bullet-shaped amulets, Orthodox crosses; it offers alternative cures and meditation for diabetes, stress, depression, even impotence. He was a regular contributor to the Serbian alternative medicine magazine, Healthy Life. He signed himself as "spiritual researcher" and his editor was really shocked to see who his contributor really was. And today the newspaper Blic carried interviews with average people who say they knew him as Dragan Dabic, and there's one really incredible anecdote: Karadzic, aka Dabic, was a regular customer at a cafe, a hard-line nationalist hangout. He would go there and pick up a traditional Serbian stringed instrument and strum along as he recited mournful, Serbian epic poems of his own composition. And the cafe owner said that he always sat facing photographs on the wall of the other wanted war crime criminal Ratko Mladic, and of Radovan Karadzic.

So it's clear that he moved around in circles that were friendly to the nationalist cause, so it's hard to say how honest all these people are who claim surprise at learning who Dabic really is. But in this daring public exposure, I do recognize one aspect of the personality of Radovan Karadzic of 15 years ago. He was an inveterate gambler, he loved poker, and we reporters often had to track him down in gambling casinos in Geneva when the Vance-Owen peace negotiations were under way.

[In 1993, United Nations Special Envoy Cyrus Vance and European Community representative Lord Owen co-chaired a conference to negotiate a peace plan for the former Yugoslavia.]

You bring up Gen. Ratko Mladic, who is also wanted on war crime charges. Are the Serbian authorities any closer to finding him? That's who they were after when they stumbled upon Radovan Karadzic.

They've been giving very, very few details. We don't really know the exact details of how Karadzic was arrested. They just said "as he was moving between one location and another." And they said they are purposefully not giving details, because they want to study, they want to analyze the way Karadzic moved, that's what they say, in preparation for Mladic's arrest. In other words, they will not reveal anything until Mladic has been arrested.

It's basically now the political atmosphere, the new government, it looks like it could happen soon, because this was certainly done by a new government that is pro-Western, wants to end Serbia's international isolation, and that depends on handing over the war criminals. So sooner or later, it is likely that Mladic will be arrested.

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Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.