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Spectres of Sarajevo

News of the arrest conjures memories of those dreadful days of death. Next, for Mladic

by Janine di Giovanni

Every year since the war ended in Bosnia in 1995, I have tried to return to Sarajevo, a city in which I passed some of the saddest years of my life. I was there during the war, in those days of no water or electricity. I was there the night Slobodan Milosevic was carted off in his slippers from Belgrade to The Hague. I drove all night down to Sarajevo just to be with my wartime friends. I arrived at dawn, thinking people would be dancing in the streets. Instead there was a sombre air. I met one of my closest friends, a former sniper, and he shrugged: "What's done is done. Is Slobo in jail going to bring back my father? My best friend? My grandmother?"

All of them were killed in the war. As proof, we went for a walk through Lion's cemetery, once a football pitch and now littered with graves. The dead hang around Sarajevo: it is a haunted place. Most of the headstones were marked with dates in the 70s and 80s. I stopped to visit some women I knew, a group whose sons and husbands had been among the 7,500 who died in Srebrenica in July 1995. They weren't celebrating either, they were crying. "There will be no justice until they catch Karadzic and Mladic," they said, referring to the chief architects of the war - Radovan Karadzic, the bad poet, psychiatrist, football fan and nationalist leader who gave the orders to shell Sarajevo to the verge of madness; and General Ratko Mladic, the "Butcher of Bosnia" (still at large), his henchman, who carried out his orders with methodical, chilling skill.

It took more than a decade to find Karadzic. More than a decade of rumours that he was disguised as a woman, living in the remote mountains of Montenegro. Or that he was still in Pale, where his creepy daughter Sonya ran a radio station and once chased me off her property with dogs. But in fact Karadzic was usually hidden by Serb nationalists who refused to give up their forgotten hero. And now, 13 years after the tragedy of Srebrenica, 16 years after the siege of Sarajevo began, and almost on the exact day that British troops were deployed to Sarajevo, he is found.

So what now? In the aftermath of any war or genocide, healing and reconciliation are ultimate aspirations. But in a country where neighbour turned on neighbour, where rape became an instrument of war, where Pale - Karadzic's tinpot headquarters in his self-proclaimed country, the Republika Srpksa - became the centre of evil, it is hard to imagine that healing happening at any time over the next few generations.

Yes, Karadzic behind bars is a triumph of sorts. It's true I had tears seeing the celebrations in Sarajevo. But I still think that none of this would have happened if we had managed to corner this despot early in 1992, when the war would have been easy to contain - and had David Owen not cynically said: "Don't dream dreams that the west is going to come in and save you." Lord Owen was right. We left the Bosnians to rot.

Hatred lingers. I still get letters from teenagers who grew up without their fathers, mothers, sisters, cousins, brothers - among the 250,000 killed in a senseless war. Ethnic hatred is what fuelled Balkan wars in the past and, sadly, I am sure it will in the future. But for now, the world needs to focus on Mladic. He and Karadzic acted as tweedledum and tweedledee, and one cannot sit in jail while the other is free, wandering around Belgrade restaurants. It's true Serbia wants to join the EU, and it's also true that it finally wants to give in and help us. So go and get him, boys.

As I raise a glass to celebrate Karadzic's capture, I will make a toast, ziveli, Bosnian for "to life", and I will remember those thousands upon thousands of people in the Lion's cemetery whose lives were far, far too short.

Janine di Giovanni is the author of Madness Visible: A Memoir of War.

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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