In the Luda Kuca bar — or “mad house” — in New Belgrade, life has slowly returned to normal.
Just over a year ago, this cramped, shack-like place was invaded by a world media desperate to find out more about the elaborate double-life of Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader now on trial in The Hague for war crimes.
For years one of Europe’s most wanted men had regularly come here to enjoy a glass of red wine. All the time Mr. Karadzic was hidden behind a heavy beard, high pony tail and thick-rimmed glasses, presenting himself as an alternative healer, Dragan “David” Dabic.
He had sat beneath the photos of Serb strongmen that adorn the walls of the bar: the former Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic — himself tried at The Hague — the former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic, and pictures of Karadzic himself.
Since his arrest in July last year, a new portrait has hung on the walls: of the friendly doctor, Dragan Dabic, who nobody here suspected of being Radovan Karadzic.
In the corner of the bar, 29-year-old Djordje and his friends try their hand at the “Gusle” — a traditional Serbian one-stringed musical instrument. They tell me proudly how Mr Karadzic himself would entertain customers here with performances on the instrument. “It’s absolutely right that he boycotted the start of his trial,” Djordje says.
“That’s the only way to show his anger at the injustice of this quasi-court. Throughout the 1990s wars, Serbs only defended our land, our people and our faith,” he adds.
Away from this hotbed of Serb nationalism, the start of the Karadzic trial has had a rather more mixed reaction here. Radovan Karadzic does still have a network of supporters — but he was never as popular in Serbia as his military commander, Mr. Mladic. Many Serbs feel indifferent towards the whole affair.
When I asked one Belgrade taxi driver how he would feel when he sees Karadzic in the dock on television, he replied: “I’ll just change channels.”
The irony for Karadzic is that while he defies the court, sitting in his cell in The Hague, his deputy during the Bosnian war has been granted an early release from a Swedish prison for good behaviour. Biljana Plavsic succeeded Karadzic as President of the Serb-dominated part of Bosnia, Republika Srpska, in 1996. Plavsic turned herself in to the tribunal after she was indicted for genocide and other war crimes.
She initially pleaded not guilty, but later admitted guilt on one count of crimes against humanity, in exchange for all other charges being dropped and a shortened sentence of 11 years. A former academic, she is said to have spent most of her time in detention cooking and baking: a substantial change from her wartime reputation as the “Serbian Iron Lady,” famous for comments like: “Muslims are the genetic defect on the Serbian body.”
Her return to Belgrade has divided public opinion. While many believe she should be left in peace, others are outraged at her early release. On the main pedestrian street in Belgrade, Marko, a maths student, tells me he is disappointed. “People who did the things she did should stay longer in prison. I’m just not happy about it at all.”
In Bosnia, there were large public demonstrations by Muslims against her early release. But her biggest supporter remains her sister-in-law, Vasilija Plavsic. The two girls grew up together and have remained close ever since. In her cosy Belgrade living room, Vasilija shows me the family photos, many of which are of Biljana. “She was always so dignified and beautiful,” she tells me. “More than I.”
When I ask her how she reacted to Biljana’s indictment, her fixed smile breaks a little. “I just thought ‘Oh God,’ we used to drink coffee together every day in Bosnia, so how can you say she was involved in killing people?”
The ambivalent reactions to both Karadzic and Plavsic reveal the deep divisions that remain here. Serbia still struggles to accept its role in the Balkan wars and its portrayal ever since. Many here see The Hague as biased against Serbs: “But all sides are guilty” is the phrase I have heard so often in the last week.
Karadzic’s trial is unlikely to change that perception — his condemnation of the tribunal and refusal to accept the charges will resonate with those who feel Serbia has been unjustly demonised in history books. But perhaps Mrs Plavsic, who expressed full remorse and pleaded guilty, will have a more significant impact on entrenched attitudes. Perhaps once she talks publicly, she will be the one who encourages Serbia to face its past. — © BBC News/Distributed by the New York Times Syndicate