'So, How's the Ethnic Cleansing Going?'

Radovan Karadzic in January 1993 (Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

As Weston wrote this morning, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was found guilty and sentenced to 40 years in prison for his role in the 1990s Bosnian war.

Any time I hear Karadzic’s name, I think of a remarkable interview from 1993 on the CBC’s As It Happens. It’s the network’s anchor evening radio show—a sort of Canadian All Things Considered, except three years older. I’ve always found two things delightful about As It Happens: the cheesily great theme song (Moe Koffman’s “Curried Soul”), and the hosts’ willingness to aggressively challenge any interview subject, from world leaders to entertainers to kids playing allegedly unsafe games of pond hockey.

In January 1993, still relatively early in the Bosnian war, As It Happens scored an interview with Karadzic. In a retrospective segment years ago, former host Michael Enright reminisced about preparing for the interview and his plan to ask standard questions. But he decided that wasn’t going to cut it, so he took a more direct approach when the tape started rolling:

“Mr. Karadzic, generally how—in your view, how is the ethnic cleansing going?” Enright deadpanned.

Karadzic was unsurprisingly annoyed.

“Ethnic cleansing was not part of our policy any time,” he fumed. “Ethnic cleansing was on all sides, and it was sort of ethnic shifting of the people, because Serbs have escaped from Muslim surroundings and the Bosnians have escaped from Serbian surroundings.”

Enright kept rolling, maintaining a studiously detached tone.

“If a settlement is forthcoming there will be a number of problems you will have to deal with,” he said. “Many of them will have to do with your international reputation: rape camps, the slaughtered women, that sort of thing. How will you go about dealing with that?”

Karadzic was by this point sputtering.

“First of all this is big lie! There was no camp for women, there was no single women in our prisons. This is just ridiculous,” he said.

“There were many camps, I understand, not just one,” Enright replied.

“No, not a single camp for women. … We can prove it. This is big lie. I don’t know how the international media buy this kind of lies,” Karadzic said, walking into Enright’s trap.

“I guess we bought it by interviewing the woman who were raped,” Enright answered.

It’s a remarkable interview: A reporter asking extremely tough questions of a leader, with great authority and command of facts, about a faraway conflict. You don’t hear this sort of exchange often. For one, few war criminals will talk to the media. For another, few reporters have the chops to pull it off live like this. They might worry about losing access, too—although when the interview ended, Karadzic signed off with a cheery, “Welcome, any time!”

Listening back to the interview 23 years later, there’s one other question Michael Enright asked—typically blunt—that sticks out: “It is said that you are acting as 14th-century barbarians. How will you ever come back from that reputation?”

Karadzic didn’t have much of an answer then, but what could he have said? Thursday’s verdict is the final proof that Karadzic’s brutality and evil permanently stained him.