Page last updated at 11:13 GMT, Saturday, 17 October 2009 12:13 UK

Bosnia, a 'world of parallel truths'

As the trial date of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic - charged with crimes against humanity - is fixed, the BBC's Allan Little finds he still retains some of his old power in a country divided by the past.

Rows of caskets containing the remains of victims of the Srebrenica massacre (file image)
Some 8,000 Muslim civilians were killed in the Srebrenica massacre

In Srebrenica they are still digging.

The old battery factory where a small battalion of Dutch peacekeepers once had their headquarters is now mostly derelict.

It is a sprawl of vast and echoing industrial hangars, damp and chilly in the encroaching winter.

This is one of the darkest places in contemporary Europe, full of ghosts.

I stood in the doorway of one of the hangars, sheltering from the rain and watched a mechanical digger scrape a little slit trench in the earth, looking for the bodies of five people who died from natural causes or committed suicide here in the middle of July 1995.

That month, the Bosnian Serb army, lead by General Ratko Mladic, had marched down the road.

When his men got here, they rounded up the people.

The Dutch UN troops offered no protection, even to those inside their own base.

The men and older boys were separated from the women and children, and in the space of five days about 8,000 of them were murdered.

Fourteen years on, they are still finding the bodies.

'Flooding back'

There is an ossuary in the Bosnian town of Tuzla, which is grim enough to look at but worse still to smell.

Collections of bones are bagged up and stacked on shelves like books in a library.

We, as reporters, were also once subject to the intensity of the Karadzic persona

I turned my back on the digger and its careful probing of the damp earth and walked into the dankness of the hangar.

Shahida Abdul Rakman had agreed to join me there.

She was among the thousands who crammed themselves into this place in the hope that the Dutch UN peacekeepers, who were billeted here, might offer some protection.

"Every time I come back, the horror of it comes flooding back too," she told me.

"Every now and then someone would come to the window with a rumour that the Serbs were coming and people would run into this corner, or that.

"I remember the sound of it, the feel of it, the fear of it all," she said.

Most of the male members of Shahida's family are buried in the cemetery across the road.

Bosnia today is a world of parallel truths.

A line on the map separates the Serb half, Republika Srpska, from the rest of the country.

A similar line runs through the hearts and minds of the people.

Cross it and you enter a universe in which the Srebrenica massacre never happened, or if it did, it was the work of someone else - a nefarious effort to discredit the Serbs.

'Sufficiently revered'

Radovan Karadzic, file photo
Radovan Karadzic is defending himself at the tribunal

The other day, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic appeared in court at The Hague for his pre-trial conference.

It was the first time I had seen him in the flesh for 15 years.

He stood and chatted to a group of Dutch police officers in his effortless articulate English.

He seemed relaxed and untroubled.

He cracked a joke, made the officers laugh, and said something that might have been self-deprecating. It was the same old Radovan Karadzic - affable and charming.

We, as reporters, were also once subject to the intensity of the Karadzic persona.

Somewhere I have in my possession a scrap of muddy paper bearing his signature.

"This is the BBC journalist Allan Little," he had written in the half light of a storm lamp in his mountain headquarters.

"Please ensure that he is free to travel throughout the territory of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, signed Dr Radovan Karadzic, President of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina."

For the most part, the document worked, his name was sufficiently revered, his authority recognised.

Serb public opinion

It still is, for Radovan Karadzic sold the Serbs a narrative in which they were the true victims not the perpetrators.

And often they were - at least a quarter of those who died in the war were Serbs, many of them at Srebrenica.

The prosecution in The Hague alleges they died in the pursuit of a criminal enterprise. Serb public opinion is not ready for this.

In Srebrenica we joined a group of Serbs at the Orthodox Church on the hill above the town centre.

They were there to celebrate an Orthodox Christian holy day.

They ate bean soup and grilled meat and drank homemade plum brandy.

They embraced us with a genuinely warm and touching hospitality.

Outside, the young men gathered with cans of beer and cigarettes.

To the throbbing techno beat of a backing track, they sang songs to the glory of the canon of Serb national leaders down the centuries, the last of these going by the name of Radovan Karadzic.

From loudspeakers mounted on stands, it echoed through the streets of the town from which 8,000 people were taken and murdered in the space of five days.

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