Jessica Stern

Radovan Karadzic’s Life Script by Dr. Indira Novic


A Bosnian psychologist’s analysis of Karadžić’s life script based on Jessica Stern’s interviews

The best question to ask with regards to ancestral influences in molding the child’s life script is “What kind of lives did your grandparents lead?”, wrote Eric Berne, the founder of Transactional Analyses (TA), in his book What Do You Say After You Say Hello?. The book is about life script – the blueprint for a life course that guides the person’s behavior – by which we structure longer period of time or even whole life.

Radovan Karadžić is familiar with Transactional Analyses. I know it because he attended a few TA seminars run by Dr Zoran Milivojević, sometime in 1991, in Sarajevo.

I vividly remember him sitting in the group of about fifteen counselors, psychologists and young psychiatrists interested in psychotherapy. We’d be sitting in the group room at the Psychiatric Clinic of Koševo Hospital where he was working as a psychiatrist, talking about the key concepts in TA such as Parent, Adult and Child ego states, transactions, games, life script… “It is not easy to comprehend incredible power which a parent’s messages have over a child. Some parental directives and injunctions are identical with hypnotic suggestions,” someone would say, and Karadžić always participated in the discussions.

While I was reading Jessica Stern’s manuscript, I often thought of Eric Berne. What would he say about Radovan Karadžić’s life script? When I reached the end, I knew. He’d say that Karadžić had permission to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors.

Jessica Stern, a research professor at Boston University and global terrorism expert, met with Karadžić at The Hague and conducted 12 interviews with him. Karadžić, 74, known as the ‘Butcher of Bosnia’, is currently serving a life sentence for war crimes and horrific atrocities in 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina – Europe’s bloodiest conflict since the Second World War, including the July1995 Srebrenica massacre, which saw thousands of men and boys slaughtered.

Stern contacted me last year, during the writing of her new book My War Criminal: Personal Encounters with an Architect of Genocide. Her aim in interviewing Karadžić, she explained, was to try to discover how he became a genocidal leader and how he managed to persuade ordinary people to kill their neighbors. I am a clinical psychologist and I am asking myself the same questions. I have been working with the victims of torture and trauma since the beginning of the Bosnian war, trying to understand how an ordinary man becomes a war criminal.

Having interviewed terrorists before, Stern describes how she attempts to enter an ‘altered state’ when speaking to perpetrators, whereby their feelings become more central to her experience than her own.

“This process – of embracing the perpetrator’s subjectivity – feels necessary to me, in order to come fully to know how he thinks. I follow his moral logic so closely that it becomes my own, at least when I’m with him,” she explains at the beginning of the book. She admits to developing a ‘kind of intimacy’ with Karadžić and seeing ‘the logic’ of what he told her in order to justify his barbaric actions.

Her book has already stirred a lot of controversy and emotions since Karadžić inadvertently got a chance to spread out historical inaccuracies and standard rationalizations for the committed crimes. He always maintains what happened in Yugoslavia was ‘not a genocide but a civil war’ and that the Bosnian Serb campaigns during the war, which included the bloody siege of the capital Sarajevo, were aimed at defending Serbs. It was his duty, Karadžić claims, to defend his people!

The strongest argument Karadžić put forth is that Serbs perceived a ‘real threat’ and committed genocide ‘out of a fear’ that Bosnian Muslims were planning to impose a sharia state. It is Stern’s ‘seeing his moral logic’ but not emphasizing enough the key factor that drove the genocide in Bosnia – the territorial ambitions of Serb leaders and their plan to establish a Greater Serbia – which led to a critique of her work in The New York Times, with the reviewers accusing her of trying ‘so strenuously to empathise with her subject that she loses control of her own book’.

Nonetheless, Jessica Stern’s book is a valuable source of information about Karadžić’s family history – the data she has collected indeed can help us to gain deeper insights into his personality. I also learned from Stern about how influential Serbian mythology is in some circles, and I certainly learned more about Karadžić himself, so I have taken a chance to use the data from the book, analyze Karadžić’s life script based on her study and interviews, and attempt to answer her questions.

Could anything about Karadžić’s personal history, personality, or exposure to historical trauma shed light on the formation of his identity as a politician and genocidal leader?”, Stern asks. But Karadžić doesn’t like those type of questions. He believes political, historical and social circumstances are decisive in what happened in the Bosnian war, not a personal profile of a leader. He wrote to Stern:


“I have realized that you adopted a standpoint according to which the main element that determined the course of events – was a personal history, nature and inclinations of individuals that had a prominent or decisive role in it.”


“Relaying on the personal psychology matter in our crisis is completely in vain, losing time and point.”

Karadžić is right; if you are a hero who is protecting his people, who cares about the psychological characteristics that inform your actions?! Your heroic deeds are what matters! But being the hero is one thing and to imitate a hero is another. What’s the difference? When you are a genuine hero, you protect life and you want to make this world a better place for all people, regardless if you are praised for it. When you are a hero imitator, being praised is the point. You want acknowledgement and admiration, and the lives of others end up being not as important. Karadžić believes he is genuine – he is a heroic man in love with his heroic people. Besides, his politics and deeds were driven by external circumstances, hence no need to ‘psychoanalyze’ him. Psychoanalyzing him is just a waste of time! Not for us. We must explain why and how the psychiatrist who writes poetry became a war criminal. The knowledge from TA could help us to answer the question.

Most of us seem to operate in life with an unconscious or pre-conscious life plan to which Berne gave the name of life scenario, life script or simply script. Our life stories are not only influenced by our inborn tendencies, experiences and perceptions (or misperceptions) about the environment we live in, but also the conscious and unconscious intentions of our caregivers. Life scenario is usually developed early in life as a result of the messages and directives we receive from parents and other people close to us. The aim of TA psychotherapy is to change an unhealthy life script which is the result of self-limiting decisions – made in childhood in the interest of survival. This is based on the supposition that even though we originally made the decision to follow parents’ injunctions and directives, we ultimately have the power to change our life trajectory as adults.

Script messages – borne from our parents’ own frustration, pain, resentment, fears, envy, jealousy, unhappiness, disappointment, frustrations or secret desires – have the most important influence in the formation of the offspring’s life scripts. They can be sent to the child as non-verbal permissions to do or achieve something (“It is ok if you are successful”), or injunctions – prohibitions or negative commands such as “Don’t succeed”; “Don’t grow up and leave me!”; “Don’t be smart”; “Don’t fail”; “Don’t be a traitor!”; “Don’t outdo me”, and so on. Script messages are also seen as coming from suggestions (“Always do your best”), attributions that indirectly tell the child what he or she should be (“You are your mother’s hero!”; “You are so stupid!”; ”You’re just like your father!”), and modelling – visible ways parents behave. It is not about one-off message. For a script message to be locked in solidly in the mind of a child, it must be repeated frequently, although there are exceptional cases where a single shattering experience may engrave a message for life.

Some scripts are banal, and some are tragic, but they usually have a particular theme similar to those in fairy tales, myths, Greek tragedies, or epic stories. As children, we tend to imitate the mythical heroes and heroines from our favourite stories, and later in adolescence we emulate real people we admire, so the characters in real life or fiction can become a significant component of the script. “It is important to know what the person’s favourite story or fairy tale was as a child, since this can be the plot of his script”, writes Berne. The character chosen for imitation can be highly stylized – like Tsar Lazar or Alexander the Great, for example, completely mythical figure such as Robin Hood, Luke Skywalker or Marko Kraljević, or a live, flesh-and blood person like Lord Byron or Gavrilo Princip. “If the description fits – and when it does it often does uncannily – then it can be safely assumed that the mythical hero has been identified, writes Claude Steiner, another big name in TA. So if we are to analyse Karadžić’s life script, we must know who his mythical heroes were in childhood. But before that, we need to work out his script matrix.

The script matrix is a diagram designed to illustrate the messages handed down from parents and grandparents to the current generation. They may determine the person’s life scenario and the final payoff i.e. the ultimate destiny or ‘final display’ that marks the end of a life plan. There are good, neutral and bad payoffs. If the payoff is really a bad one, the person will end up in the morgue, state hospital or prison. But, let’s forget TA for the moment, and go back to Stern’s question.

“Is there anything about Karadžić’s personal history that could help us to understand how he has become an architect of genocide?”, Stern asked. Nobody could have predicted that Karadžić would become a war criminal! Yes, we knew that in 1985, he was tried for embezzlement of public property while building a family house. He was accused of fraud and financial crime; he pled guilty to the charges and served 11 months in jail of a three-year prison sentence. But, Karadžić a nationalist?! Before the war, neither his political view nor his personal style seemed hateful or intolerant. His colleagues at the Koševo Hospital Department of Psychiatry, where he was working from 1979 to 1992, had no idea that he would end up as a genocidal political leader. That was a surprise even for psychiatrist Dr Ismet Cerić, Karadžić’s professional mentor, who knew him for more than 15 years. “It’s impossible to understand him”, he told US program Frontline. “If you know somebody for many years and he behaved in one way… for example he never in that time was a strong nationalist. All around him were the Bosnia Muslims; majority of his friends were Bosnia Muslims. And, after a few months or one year of political activities, when he became leader of the political party, he changed his mind, he changed everything and went up on the hills and with heavy artillery destroyed the town, destroyed this clinic, killed the people with whom he lived for more than twenty years…”, said Dr Cerić.1

Really, is it possible to understand how and why Karadžić has become a war criminal? TA psychotherapists claim that it is possible to find (at least partially) an answer to the question about the underlying motivation of genocidal leaders if we knew the leaders’ scripts. So if we studied his biography and analysed the script directives he received from his parents, the script themes and his mythical heroes, we’d better understand what he has done and who he has become. We also need to know about his family ethos – a set of ethical standards, ideology and family values – and about the ‘mission’ of his ancestors – the ‘noble cause’ that expresses the ‘goal of our people’. Why is that important? It would help us to understand how Karadžić has become a nationalist-separatist – “loyal to parents and grandparents who were disloyal to the regime because they were damaged by the regime”.*2We could find out more about it from the messages he received from his parents.


*2At the beginning of the modern era of terrorism, usually dated to the early 1970s, the two major group types dominated the social scene: the social revolutionary terroristsand the nationalist-separatist terrorists, writes Jerrold Post, author of The Mind of the Terrorist. The social revolutionaryterrorists were striking out against the generation of their parents that was loyal to the regime. The nationalist-separatistterrorists were loyal to parents and grandparents who were disloyal to the regime because they were damaged by the regime. They were carrying out the mission! They were fighting for the noble cause and a mission that expressed the ‘goal of our people’. They didn’t believe that what they were doing was wrong, for from childhood they had been socialised to be heroic revolutionary fighters for the nation. Their mission was to carry on acts of vengeance against the regime or those who oppressed their ancestors. Is Radovan Karadžić a typical nationalist-separatist?


Transactional analysts believe that the directives that shape the person’s script come from the Child ego state of the parent of the opposite sex. The program – the ‘instructions’ on how to follow these main verbal and nonverbal messages – comes from the parent of the same sex. Thus, the boy becomes the man his mother, overtly or secretly, wants him to be (of course, if he decides to follow the directives), but the father demonstrates how to achieve that – the father ‘transmits’ to the boy a host of “Here’s how to …” modelling behaviours. So if we are to work out Karadžić’s script matrix, we must know what his mother wanted him to be, and what he learned from his father. But things are not that simple. The problem is that we receive so many explicit and implicit, conscious and unconscious directives from our parents. It is not easy to select and prioritise them. How do we know what are the decisive directives Karadžić has received from his mother – that showed him what to do and who to become – and the decisive patterns of behaviour he learned from his father that show him how to do it? The most reliable clues are offered by the question, ’What did you have to do to make your parents smile?’, Berne noted. So, what did Radovan Karadžić have to do to make his mother Jovanka smile?

What do we know about her? We watch her on YouTube3showing the photo of her first-born son Radovan, telling with great pride that she gave birth to a son who is highly regarded because he is fighting for Serbdom. She also said in the interview to Serbian magazine Svedok4 that she had known that Radovan was destined for something important. “I don’t know whether you will understand me but ever since he was small, I have noticed in him some traits which distinguished him from other children, both mine and those of others. He has always had a kind of proud, distinguished bearing.” Jovanka mentioned one more detail which suggested that he was destined to become a great man. Once when he was a baby, Radovan cried because he was hungry, and she had no milk to nurse him. A woman who happened to be in the house told her: ‘Give that child some cream so that he does not perish from hunger. It would be a shame since I see he will become a great man’.

What else do we know about her and her relationship with her first-born son Radovan? We know that they were close, and Karadžić took care of her until her death in 2005. We also know that Karadžić heard from his mother about the Ottoman occupation, the enslavement of Serbs and the antipathy between Serbs and Muslims, mostly via the epic poetry she recited to him when he was a child. Stern writes:


“She used to recite epic poetry for me almost every night,” Karadžić told me. Then he demonstrated how she chanted. “I didn’t understand the words, but the sound was moving. There was a change in the atmosphere of the room”. He was getting excited. “I learned many of these poems by heart before I learned to read,” he said.


The theme of the epic poems Jovanka was telling Radovan is Serb martyrdom – the loss of Kosovo to the Ottoman invaders, the five-century-long occupation and the suffering of the Serb people. Radovan heard from Jovanka about legendary Serbian knights, Miloš Obilić and Tzar Lazar – venerated in the Orthodox Christian Church as a martyr and saint – who tried but failed to fight back the Ottoman invasion. To sooth the pain of the audience, the tragic ending of the story is embellished with the narrative that the heroes chose to sacrifice themselves for the greater good of their Serbian people. Jovanka was also telling stories about Vuk Branković, Serbian traitor who failed to heed the call of his father-in-law, Tzar Lazar’s, to the Battle of Kosovo, in June 1389.

Radovan Karadžić was born on 19th June 1945, in the village Petnjica, in Montenegro. What kind of life did his mother lead and how did she feel at that time? Jovanka lived alone with a small child and struggled to survive in the first years after WWII, all while her husband Vuko was imprisoned for the war crime he committed as a Chetnik. Here is what we can find about it in Jessica Stern’s book:


Jovanka must have barely known her husband until seven years into the marriage; before that, he was either serving as a Chetnik soldier or living behind bars. Jovanka was left alone to raise her young son, to plow the fields, and to plant the potatoes and grain. “It was a struggle,” she said in a television interview. “I had no wages, nothing. I’d been pushed out,” punished because her husband had been a Chetnik.


Jovanka must had felt very frustrated when her husband was imprisoned. She was ‘pushed out’ – ostracized as a wife of a war criminal, found herself without any income or support… Did she fantasize about revenge? While she was telling Radovan stories about the Serbian heroes, and perhaps indirectly encouraging him to be the hero himself fighting for Serbdom (a Greater Serbia), did her frustrated and hateful inner Child ‘whisper’, “Kill them! Kill them all!”? Eric Berne would argue that it is not uncommon that a leader’s mother’s own frustrations, her power hunger or personal agendas, could have been a driving force behind her son’s actions and deeds:


“A script is an ongoing program, developed in early childhood under parental influences, which directs the individual’s behaviour in the most important aspects of his life. Alas, the parental directives may give the child a licence to inflict enormous damage on other people. Historically, such parental directives have been given to many wartime leaders”, writes Berne. “The leader’s mother’s Parent ego state would say, ‘Be a hero who is protecting your people’, while her Child whispers ‘Kill them all!’. The leader’s father then shows the boy how to kill innocent people with the rationale that it is being done for the noble cause.”


Was a similar parental directive given to the wartime leader Radovan Karadžić? Let’s not forget that he is dubbed the ‘Butcher of Bosnia’, and that both Robert J. Donia and Jessica Stern call him an architect of genocide. And why did his mother, as Karadžić said to Stern, recite epic poetry for him almost every night? It would be interesting to hear from Jovanka about her thoughts, preoccupations or, perhaps, desires while she recited the poems about the Serbian traitors and the heroes for Radovan. Did she fantasize about her first-born son, as she was wont to say, to become a ‘golden’ man, glorified and celebrated like the great men from the medieval Serbian folklore, even though every single story had a tragic ending – embellished as the ‘hero’s act of sacrifice’? Did she see Radovan as a man of Tzar Lazar’s heroic proportions and herself as a proud mother of such a man? We don’t know that. But we know what she didn’t want him to be. She didn’t want him to be like Vuk Branković, the Serbian Judas, whose name is synonymous with betrayal. “If, God forbid, it should happen that they try to arrest him, I would prefer that he take his own life than that they take him to The Hague”, Jovanka said in the conversation with Svedokreporter. She seized the opportunity to send the message to Radovan: “Do not surrender to them alive, Radovan, my son; better to be dead than to end up like Vuk Branković!” Indeed, Karadžić didn’t surrender. He was arrested in 2008, 3 years after his mother’s death.

What about Jovanka’s political views and values? We know that Karadžić’s father Vuko was a Chetnik – a member of Serb royalist-nationalist forces during World War II. The Chetniks’ political aim was a creation of a Greater Serbia, and it is well known fact that they committed horrific atrocities against the non-Serbian population (mainly Muslims and Croats). They also collaborated with the Nazis against Tito’s partisans, and when Tito took control of Yugoslavia after the war, the Chetniks were banned and many members – accused of brutal killing, torturing and raping – were jailed. Vuko Karadžić was one of them. Did his wife share his Chetnik ideology? It is important to know that. Why? That information can help us to understand her influence on her son. In many cases, when the son and the mother are in a close relationship, and the mother does not support her husband’s extremist ideology such as jihadist terrorism, for example, the son finds it difficult to believe in the ‘mission’ or the ‘noble cause’ the father is fighting for, and may refuse to follow father’s values and ideology. But if the mother, for example, justifies Chetnik ideology and denies the war crimes they committed, she may, directly or indirectly, encourage her son ‘to follow in father’s footsteps’ and fight for Serbdom (a Greater Serbia). “I place my faith in God, and I hope that Radovan will remain firm and unwavering. Because it is nothing new in her family to perish for Serbdom”, Jovanka told Svedok’s reporter.


“And Radovan would not be the first among his lineage to meet with this fate. The Karadžićs never supported the Communist government and Tito! Immediately after World War II, 99 male members of this family were executed. My husband Vuko was to have been the 100th executed Karadžić; however, fate determined otherwise. And he lived. Nevertheless, after that he was arrested and spent five years in prison. That is why I believe that all this is not happening to Radovan by chance and that he inherited the defense of his people and his faith from his forebears. His father fought for the same thing,” Jovanka concluded.


Did she feel proud when she said, “He inherited his faith from his forebears; his father fought for the same thing”? In her book, Stern described Jovanka’s relationship with her son Radovan as close, thus she was able to influence him and transmit to him the ideology she shared with her husband. If Jovanka hadn’t supported her husband’s Chetnik ideology, Karadžić would have had difficulties following in the father’s footsteps – TA psychotherapists would argue that his life script would have been different.

What did Jovanka say about her son’s ‘heroic deeds’? “He has not done anything bad to anyone; he has not gone to anyone’s door to bring them any evil, nor has he ever ordered anyone to be executed or killed. He has only defended the people who elected him to be where he was. He fought together with that people and defended the Serbs with all his might. And now he is suffering because of his people, as any other man of integrity would have done,” said Jovanka to magazine Svedok. Suffering because of his people? Jovanka often used the expression ‘suffering’ and portrayed Karadžić as a martyr – he is as a modern Tzar Lazar who sacrifices himself for his people. Why? Because she wanted to reframe his heinous war crime into ‘heroic sacrifice’?

What else do we know about Jovanka? How did she feel being Karadžić’s mother? “Therefore, my son, you should know that I am suffering but not ashamed to be the mother of Radovan Karadžić. Do not yield; may your courageous heart never betray you!”, she said in her message to Karadžić. No doubt, Jovanka portrayed his son as a ‘golden man’. How does Karadžić see himself? Here is what Stern writes about him:


“Tsar Lazar,” he (Karadžić) would say, with reverence, as if by uttering his name he hoped to bring light into the room and into my ignorant mind, “chose to die as a Christian martyr rather than achieve victory on earth.” Again and again. So much so that I began to think that Karadžić saw himself as a contemporary Tsar Lazar, sacrificing himself for the Serbian people, protecting his fellow Serbs from those he refers to as “Turks,” the Bosnian Muslims.


Not everybody with a script has a clearly defined mythical hero. Some people see themselves as “Mr. Nobody”. But Karadžić sees himself as ‘somebody’ – somebody important! And not only as a national hero, but poet as well.

Later in life, the script created in childhood makes us go in search of characters that fit the roles in our own life plan, thereby increasing the sophistication in the design of our script. In adolescence, we tend to replace the mythical or magical heroes of our early scripts with real people, alive or dead, whom we can emulate. Stern discovered that young Karadžić’s hero was Gavrilo Princip. Why Princip? Princip was viewed as a brave man who was fighting to liberate Bosnia from the invaders. (At the age of 19, he assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and the Archduke’s wife Sophie, in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, which led to the outbreak of World War I). He was dreaming of a Yugoslavia, which he had fervently believed could unite all the South Slavic peoples. Karadžić too sees himself as a historic figure who was fighting the invasion of Muslim extremists in Bosnia, and who’d unify all Serbs in a common country. Gavrilo Princip wrote poetry. “Princip had two natures. He was not just an assassin, but also a poet,” he explained to Stern. Karadžić writes poetry!

But how did Karadžić, a doctor and poet, turn into a war criminal who orchestrated ethnic cleansing and the Srebrenica massacre, which aimed to kill ‘every able-bodied male’ in the town? What is his life script all about?

Radovan Karadžić would like to be acknowledged as a poet, however, his life script isn’t about being a celebrated poet. He’d rather others write epic poetry about him. His dream is to be a national hero. He is a Montenegrin, but he wanted to be a saviour not of Montenegrins but the larger Serb nation. He prefers to see himself as a majestic historical figure who is fighting for a Greater Serbia… or a Greater whatever… and if he had to commit horrific crime and end up in jail as a war criminal in order to make that dream come true – so be it! He’ll pay the price and explain it away as his sacrifice for his people. His mother would say the same: “He defended the Serbs. He is suffering because of his people…”

What about Karadžić’s father? Transactional analysts believe that the boy becomes the man his mother wants him to be, but the father demonstrates how to achieve that. So if we are to work out

Karadžić’s script matrix, we must know what he learned from his father. Are there any similarities in their life scripts?

We know that Vuko Karadžić was imprisoned for his war crimes against civilians during WWII. His son Radovan Karadžić too was convicted by a United Nations International Criminal Tribunal of genocide and other war crimes in his campaign of terror against civilians in the Bosnian war.

Both father and son supported the same Chetnik ideology. The typical Chetniks‘ method of warfare is ethnic cleansing – carried out by means of expelling of non-Serbs from their homes, murder, torture, rape, burning of villages, destruction of the property – in order to cleanse the land from the non-Serb population and consolidate an ethnically ‘pure’ Serb territory and thus create an ethnically homogeneous Greater Serbian state.

What else do we know about Karadžić’s father? Jessica Stern found that his father Vuko served a prison sentence after he had killed a cousin when she, allegedly, rejected his marriage proposal. It happened before World War II, long before Karadžić was born. Interestingly, before the Bosnian war, Radovan Karadžić also served a prison sentence. So, did Karadžić follow in his father’s footsteps? Yes, he did. And he ended up in prison, like his father. Twice! First time as a criminal, second time as a war criminal. Exactly the same as his father!

Now we could, at least partially, answer Jessica Stern’s question: “How did Radovan Karadžić become an architect of genocide?” because we better understand the messages he has received from his parents: “Be a famous hero who fights for Serbdom, and if it turns out infamously, present it as your willing sacrifice for your Serb people!” and “Do what your father did – kill non-Serbs and end up in prison as a war criminal!”

But we still need to explain how he persuaded the audience of his pre-war and war speeches to kill their neighbors.

There is nothing great, nor heroic about Karadžić, however there is something about him as a skilled manipulator. He managed to turn a large number of the people who were neither psychopaths nor trained thugs, into killing machines. How did he do that? He inflated and fabricated the threats (“the Muslim-led government will impose an Islamic State”) to ‘his people’ (Serbdom) and proclaimed that he had a sacred duty to protect Bosnia’s Serbs. To further this narrative, Karadžić, a psychiatrist and a writer, put the painful memories into the stories about the Serbs’ suffering in the past, and told the stories, often in prophetic and electrifying ways, in his speeches. That too, helped to propel many Serbs toward the nationalist ideology around which they could organize their newly awakened ambitions and channel their frustration or discomfort at becoming a minority in an independent Bosnia into ‘action’. Karadžić, a storyteller, was good at marketing military aims and policies, and he knew how to deny or justify war crimes and depict them as self-defense. Here is what Stern learned from him:


This is the recipe that Karadžić has taught me. Remind the public of the enemy’s all-too-real past transgressions or, better yet, atrocities. People need to feel: we are the victims, you are the assailants. My people, my culture, my values are under threat. I am fully justified in protecting my people. It is self-defense, not offense.


Many of Karadžić’s followers still deny that the ethnic cleansing of non-Serbs, shelling of civilians in the cities, and 1995 Srebrenica massacre constituted genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of war conventions. They are in denial not only because they want to dismiss the implications of their behavior in order to avoid the sense of guilt and/or fear of punishment for the crime they committed or supported. The problem is self-perception. If they face the fact that demonizing the ‘enemy’ (the neighbors) and weaponizing history (“Look what the Turks did to us!”) to incite the Serb population against other ethnic groups was just the usual war propaganda, they’ll perceive themselves as victims of such propaganda. Nothing takes your power away quicker than the self-perception of being fooled, so not many people would admit that they have been misused and manipulated to join the ‘wrong side’ in war or political conflicts. But how did Karadžić drive them to ‘his side’ in the first place?

Karadžić:As a psychiatrist I can tell you that a great part of what goes in our mind has nothing to do with real events. The whole of psychiatry revolves around irrealities, around illusions and deceit. The truth, at the time, was warped, and many people formed their opinion on the basis of illusions. Especially those people who did not even try to question the things they saw on television and read in the newspapers.

 – From Stormfront: Radovan Karadžić – an interview with the great man himself5  –


“How does one get neighbor to kill neighbor?” Jessica Stern asked Karadžić. The answer, he (Karadžić) said, is fear. Why fear? Everyone who has read the genocide playbook knows the first steps are two simple techniques of mass manipulation: playing the fear card and fulfilling the need for revenge. Playing the fear card technique has been used for thousands of years to advance political agendas and is the most effective technique of mass manipulation. How does it work? You know that if you openly propose to start a war, expel the people from their homes, centralise power or remove basic freedoms and human rights, there will be a public reaction against it. So you don’t openly talk about that, instead you create a problem that will generate fear – the existential fear, the fear of losing privileges or status, etc.


“Real power is fear.” As Karadžić put it, if someone fears he will be killed, he may kill. Neighbors will turn against neighbors.


In early 1992, many Bosnians were painfully aware that their country was under the serious threat; they tried to preserve multiculturalism, they organised anti-war protests… however, the fear of ‘others’ was spreading as quickly as a virus. Stern writes:


An intercept of a conversation between Dobrica Cosić and Karadžić caught the two men seemingly discussing the importance of spreading fear among Serbs in particular.

In his testimony before the ICTY, Miroslav Deronjić, the civilian administrator for Srebrenica who reported directly to Karadžić, explained how paramilitary volunteers would deliberately create a “fearful atmosphere” among both Bosniaks and Serbs. He said that the paramilitary volunteers “would start chasing around town with their cars, going into Muslim neighbourhoods, Serbian neighbourhoods, turning their sirens on, shooting into the air, so that an atmosphere was created in which Serbs and especially Muslims were extremely fearful.”


However, if you are to incite fear, you must have dangerous enemies, so you create an ‘us vs. them’ division. But how do you create the division in the multicultural Bosnia? A significant percentage of the population lived in ‘mixed marriages’ and had children! Karadžić revealed to Stern that he used metacommunication:


He told me that he never wrote his speeches beforehand. “I would come into the hall, sense the atmosphere. I would try to achieve rapport with the crowd. I used metacommunication.”


– Metacommunication –

Gregory Bateson coined the term in the early 1970s, to describe the underlying messages

or the ‘messages between the lines’, in what is said.

It is critical to ‘metacommunicate’ when you want to successfully discuss something tricky

that has the potential to trigger a reactive response in your listeners.



In silent cooperation with the nationalists from all other ethnic groups, he used ‘metacommunication’ to spread the terror that was required for the annihilation of the multiethnic way of life in Bosnia, especially in Sarajevo and Mostar – the cities that were the embodiment of pluralism. And not just the terror. During the lead up the Bosnian war and throughout the entirety of the war itself, the Bosnians were bombarded with the narrative that ‘mixing of cultures to create new hybrids entails loss’. Here is what Karadžić said about ‘mixing’ people:


Karadžić: I would not mix people. That is something very bad for this world.

If the Croats think that there should be two Mostars,

then why not? Why would one lock up dog and cat in the same room?

– From Stormfront: Radovan Karadžić – an interview with the great man himself –


However, the information that ‘mixing of cultures and nations’ means that the nationalists and war lords will lose their needed ‘enemy’ was suppressed. There was an enormous pressure on all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, including the children from so called mix marriages, not to identify simply as Bosnians. Instead, they were labelled in separate categories as Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks, and constantly reminded that ‘others’ were dangerous enemies who were plotting against them.

Almost overnight, the Serbs’ enemies (their neighbors) in Bosnia and Herzegovina became the Ustashe – the butchers who slaughtered Serbs during World War II, and the Turks – the invaders who occupied and terrorised the country of the Serb ancestors for 500 years.

In the part of Bosnia that would later be morphed into Republica Srpska, the motif of ‘the Turk’ was prevalent. Graffiti written on public and private property alike read: “Muslims, Balijas (derogatory words for Bosniaks), Turks – move out, you’re going to be slaughtered!” Karadžić’s agenda was a creation of an ethnically cleansed Republica Srpska that could be added to Serbia, however he didn’t talk about that openly. Instead, he created a problem and skilfully portrayed it not as a fabrication or exaggeration, but a real and serious threat: “Muslims want Islamic state, we have evidence for that! If you Serbs do not defend yourselves, you’ll be wiped out by the Muslim extremists”. Stern noted in her book about Karadžić: “Leaders play an important role in arousing as well as strengthening ethnic fears. They will often exaggerate threats to ‘our group’ – whether that group is a nation-state or a single ethnic group within a state – and then claim to have the solution to the threat”.

Indeed, Karadžić offered a solution to the problem. He told a newspaper interviewer that a simple sentence: “Serbs, you still exist and are allowed to be Serbs, despite the persecutions, slaughters, pressures and suffering,” brought him to the fore of the Serb Democratic Party. “He was talking about Serbs the way white identitarians speak about whites and the threat of ‘white genocide’,” Stern wrote.

Once he spined the background to the events in a way that instilled fear, the next step was to encourage Serbs to demand that something must be done, and then offer protection.


“People needed my leadership because they were afraid,” Karadžić told me. “We waited for the moment when the last Serb was frightened – not by our activity, but by our inactivity.”


Stern also describes Karadžić’s favourite rationale for the mass atrocities carried out against non-Serbs in Bosnia:


Karadžić told me many times that the loss of Kosovo in 1389 followed by the five-century Ottoman occupation, was far more significant than the more recent traumas of World War II. “A lot of our people were stolen,” he said. “They became yanichar, or janissaries [elite soldiers in the Ottoman military]. It was massive – the stealing of Christian boys to serve as the sultan’s elite troops.” Unfortunately, the sultans found that the Bosnian Christian slaves were particularly good soldiers.

“For 500 years we were under imperial occupation,” he complained, bitterly and repeatedly, as if the occupation had affected him personally, as if he wanted to imprint the memory of this pain into my mind so that I would understand the need for revenge against the “Turks,” the term he used for Bosnian Muslims, who were neither Turks nor Ottoman slaveholders.”


“I shared with Karadžić the concept of chosen trauma, the term that political psychiatrist Vamik Volkan used to describe the way nations so often choose a historical wrong as part of their national myth, even if the trauma occurred centuries earlier, sometimes as a way to justify attacks against an enemy,” Stern said. But Karadžić insisted that he was not trying to ‘justify attacks against an enemy’ and that Stern should understand the need for revenge against the ‘Turks’. The need for revenge?! Where does that come from? Every architect of genocide knows that if he is to carry out atrocities, ethnic cleansing or massacres, he must gain acceptance for his intentions and justify them. He’d always claim that he acts in defence of his army and the people, or that his acts are justified punishments for the enemy’s evil deeds. If he is accused of committing crimes, he’ll quickly turn the accusations around, and blame his enemies! This was clearly showcased in an interview he did with Stormfront:


Q: In August 1992 your vice-president Nikola Koljević signed the order to destroy

the National Library in Sarajevo, an order that was consequently carried out by

General Ratko Mladić. Moreover, the indictment in The Hague holds you responsible

for the deployment of snipers. Is all of that a mere phantasy?

Karadžić: Can someone please show me that order from Mr. Koljević?

The library was set on fire by the Muslims because it was a Western institution,

built by Austria and Hungary. The Muslims rejected this cultural heritage.

I saw pictures of the fire. The library was burning in many places simultaneously.

If you look at the television pictures you can see that the building was set on fire deliberately.

Q: But those snipers in Sarajevo – they were part of your army, weren’t they?

Karadžić:The snipers were an invention of the Muslims. It is possible that some Serbs

fired back. But I can assure you that General Mladić would never agree to the

deployment of snipers – and certainly not against civilians!

 – From Stormfront: Radovan Karadžić – an interview with the great man himself –

Karadžić knew very well how to carry out his ‘mission’: he relieved his followers from personal responsibility for the crimes they committed, constantly reminding them that they were not the perpetrators but the victims. He did it not only to prevent or erase their sense of remorse and guilt, or reduce their fear of punishment, but to bring about more frustration and hatred necessary for completion of the ‘mission’. He also knew how to present the attacks on the civilians in Bosnia as justified punishment or retribution for the crimes the ‘enemy’ committed – whether the crimes were real or fictional, recent or ancient. Stern described how the architects of genocide do that:


On July 11, 1995, units of the Bosnian Serb Army, under the command of General Ratko Mladić, captured the town of Srebrenica. Mladic announced that he was “presenting this city to the Serbian people as a gift,” and that “the time has come to take revenge on the Turks in the region,” referring to an 1804 Serb rebellion that was savagely crushed by the Ottoman rulers.


So how did Karadžić persuade normal people to kill their neighbors? He reframed the word ‘neighbors’ into ‘Turks’ and ‘Ustache’. What neighbors?! Serbs didn’t expel, kill, torture and rape their neighbours! They just defended themselves from the dangerous enemies who would do the same to them. What genocide?! We were protecting our homeland!


No doubt, Karadžić is a good manipulator but he is not the only one. Many share his skills. Their ideology and methods of manipulation are like a dangerous virus – they spread incredibly fast, and as long as we don’t know how they affect the mass consciousness, we won’t know how to protect ourselves from them. What to do?

Perhaps we too, should study the architect’s playbook – the same old playbook used throughout history and throughout the world… in Rwanda, Cambodia, you name it… – to inoculate ourselves against nationalist demagogues who know how to spread fear and hatred that lead to genocide. Demagogue infect the populace with their genocidal narratives, and it is only by understanding the specifics of how they craft their virus can we possibly stop it in it’s path.



Indira Nović, a clinical psychologist at STARTTS (NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors, Australia)




4 “Karadžić’s Mother – Do not Surrender, My Son,”  Stormfront (forum), September 19, 2003)

5  Radovan Karadžić – an interview with the great man himself



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