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'Uncle' Radovan's Past

Historical fantasizing and a poem foreshadow Serb leader's acts

RADOVAN KARADZIC is a Montenegrin who claims he is a Serb, a psychiatrist who tries to be a poet, and a war criminal who insists that he is a politician. He bears a last name that is derived from Turkish, a sadly ironic commentary on both his pretense to Serb ethnic purity and his hatred of everything Turkish or Muslim.

The Sarajevo prewar phone book lists 10 Karadzices, most of whom are Muslims, one a Croat, and two or three Serbs, including Radovan. But as a Serbian humorist once said about somebody else: ''He is a nationalist of all hues.''

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Radovan Karadzic heads the self-proclaimed Serbian Republic within Bosnia-Herzegovina. He has, for more than three years now, presided over the destruction of multiethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina. So, he is a president of sorts.

He is a linguist, too. He has banished the name ''Bosnia'' from the vocabulary of Bosnian Serbs. There is nothing Bosnian in his domain. The name of his para-state is ''Republika Srpska,'' which is as much a violation of the language as it is of the land and the people. Karadzic's people have Serbianized all the place names in the territory they control. Some names have been completely changed, like that of the central Bosnian town of Donji Vakuf where I grew up. After it was taken by the Serbs in 1992 and its non-Serb population expelled, the Turkish-sounding name was changed to ''Srbobran'' - literally, where Serbs defend themselves.

A month or so before the Serb extremists launched the attack on Sarajevo, in the spring of 1992, Karadzic called the Sarajevo TV station in the middle of the news program and said that the Serbs in Alipasino polje (a large highrise residential neighborhood) were being slaughtered wholesale by the Muslims. What he said then had nothing to do with reality. At that very moment his army of Serb nationalists was advancing on the Bosnian capital and surrounding it on all sides.

Soon after that, Karadzic issued repeated calls to Serbs in Sarajevo to follow him to the mountains around the city and fight for Serbdom. (''Let's get down to the cities and beat up the bastards,'' says a line in one of his prewar poems.) But most Serbs either stayed on in Sarajevo or simply fled the conflict. Those who stayed earned a contemptuous epithet from Karadzic, one betraying his own rural roots and preferences: ''skyscraper Serbs.''

These urban Serbs did not want to play the role that Karadzic, in his obsession with history and myth, assigned them - that of outlaws or ''free-lance'' fighters for ''freedom,'' like their predecessors during Turkish or Austrian rule, guarding ''Serb hearths.'' The word ''hearth'' has been dredged up from disuse and much exploited. In order to guard Serb hearths, Karadzic began to kill non-Serbs. He remained true to his promise made in the Bosnian parliament several months before the war began. ''If Bosnia leaves the Yugoslav Federation, an entire nation will be eliminated,'' he said in front of the cameras. He meant the Muslims.

In the spring of 1993 I listened to a live broadcast of one of many sessions of the self-styled Bosnian Serb Parliament. Karadzic and his ''MPs'' were deciding whether or not to accept one of the peace plans (they did not). Much time was spent analyzing why the Serb army of 1389 lost to the Turks in the battle of Kosovo. They concluded that the Turkish cavalry was more mobile, whereas Serb knights wore too heavy armor. They decided that today's Serbs have to draw important conclusions from that.

I knew Radovan Karadzic slightly, through literary people and mutual friends in Sarajevo. He did not strike me as a potential politician then - or as a future war criminal. I once called him in behalf of a young woman who wanted a psychiatrist. I asked him if he would admit her in his therapy group. He said yes, anything for you, professor. But when he heard her name, he said, no, he knew her, she was ''incurable.''

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On another occasion, as I was standing one day in front of a bookstore in Sarajevo with my younger daughter, then less than three, Karadzic ran into us. In an outburst of civility (''how nice to see you, professor''), magnanimity, and megalomania, he pushed us inside and bought Dina one of his books. Inside the front cover he inscribed it: ''For Dina, with love, Uncle Radovan.''

The book, published in 1982, contains a number of children's poems, most of them innocuous enough, written in the tradition of Serbian humorous poetry for the young. But one, ''War Boots,'' is darkly prophetic of events a decade later, and of the ''splendid role'' to be played by Uncle Radovan. He dreamed his future into being. Or, as Zoran Avramovic, a Serbian sociologist, recently wrote,''the whistle of a bullet is first heard in thought.''

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