December 18, 1995 12:00 PM

THEY WENT TO SCHOOL TOGETHER, studied martial arts together and, on occasion, chatted over cups of coffee. Yet when civil war swept the former Yugoslavia, enveloping the Bosnian town of Kozarac in the spring of 1992, Dusko Tadic, an ethnic Serb, turned on Emir Karabasic, a Bosnian Muslim. According to the testimony of 50 witnesses—which Tadic, 40 now under arrest in The Netherlands, denies—the former bar owner raped, tortured and murdered Muslim and Croat civilians. No single offense though, approached the savagery of what he did to Karabasic: In the garage of an “ethnic cleansing” concentration camp near Kozarac, Tadic allegedly forced a prisoner to bite off Karabasic’s testicles, then allowed his former neighbor to bleed to death.

As the first of 20,000 American GIs take up positions in Bosnia to enforce a peace treaty signed by Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia last month in Dayton, many Americans have yet to grasp the full horror of the atrocities suffered by civilians during four years of ethnic warfare in the Balkans. The United Nations’ International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the first such tribunal since the Nazi trials at Nuremberg, has charged 45 Serbs (and seven Croats) with “crimes against humanity.” So far the Serbian government has refused to extradite any of the accused war criminals, and only one—Dusko Tadic a police auxiliary officer whose sadistic acts were apparently inspired by petty envy—is actually behind bars. With his televised trial due to begin next May, UN prosecutors are determined to get a conviction. “You have to start somewhere,” says DePaul University law professor M. Cherif Bassiouni, a former chairman of the UN commission investigating the crimes. “They have Tadic and they have the evidence.”

Ironically, the father of Kozarac’s most infamous son was a local hero. During World War II Stoja Tadic was a Serbian partisan fighter who helped rid the town of occupying troops from Nazi-controlled Croatia Thereafter, neighbors treated the Tadics with respect. Yet according to Dusko’s childhood friend Husein Besic, a Muslim, Stoja was a “bad father,” a hard drinker who “treated his family like soldiers.” Dusko, the youngest of four sons raised in a dirt-floor house, dropped out of school, had few friends and rarely dated. Neighbors say his marriage to Mira Vidovic, 35, a nurse, was arranged by their parents; they have two daughters, Valentina, 14, and Aleksanda, 5, who live with their mother in Bosnia. Tadic’s main interests were drawing and karate, in which he earned a black belt. “We were always afraid of him, ” says Besic. “He was almost always aggressive. He had to settle things by force. ”

The civil war in the former Yugoslavia seemed to give Tadic a sense of purpose. In 1990 he was one of the first people in his town to join the nationalist, anti-Muslim Serbian Democratic Party. Many in Kozarac, then 90 percent Muslim, suspect Tadic was behind an abortive attempt to blow up the local Orthodox church in 1991, an-parently in the hope of inciting the town’s Serbs. Tadic opened a bar, reportedly with his party’s financial backing and wrote anti-Muslim articles for a Sarajevo newspaper.

When war erupted in Bosnia in 1992, Serbian troops overran Kozarac, destroying the mosques and nearly every Muslim-owned home. Hundreds of civilians were shot on the spot. Tadic says he left the town before the troops arrived, but survivors insist he was a frequent—and ruthless—visitor to the camps near Kozarac, where, the UN says, thousands of Muslims were murdered. Witnesses report that a uniformed Tadic often arrived in a gold Mercedes—reportedly confiscated from one of his victims—with no apparent purpose except to brutalize the inmates. At Omarska, one of about 800 squalid, makeshift camps in Bosnia, he committed most of his 36 alleged war crimes, including emptying a fire extinguisher into the mouth of an inmate and the July 1992 castration of Karabasic and two others. “So will you date Serbian women now?” Tadic allegedly asked one of the dying men Jasmin Hrnic, 27, a businessman.

Tadic emigrated to Germany after Omarska closed in August 1992, but last April police there turned him over to the UN tribunal in Holland. “There’s no doubt the events did happen,” says his lawyer Michail Wladimiroff. “The whole issue is whether it was Tadic or not.” Survivors among his alleged victims dismiss the mistaken-identity defense.

Many in Kozarac believe Tadic’s prosecution will aid the healing process, allowing communities riven by war to come together again. But others, like hotelier Tesma Elezovic, 47, are not optimistic. During a six-week stay at Omarska, Elezovic counted 4,000 Muslim corpses. “My uncle was hung from a tree by [Serbs]. They cut his head off and threw it in a river, ” she says. “And that was done by his next-door neighbor. Who can live with such people?”

PATRICK ROGERS

JOANNE FOWLER in The Hague

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