Investigation 08 Dec 14

Arkan’s Paramilitaries: Tigers Who Escaped Justice

Paramilitaries led by notorious Serbian warlord Zeljko Raznatovic, alias Arkan, fought their way through Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo – so why were none of them jailed for his unit’s crimes?

Denis Dzidic, Marija Ristic, Milka Domanovic, Petrit Collaku, Sven Milekic BIRN Bijeljina, Belgrade, Djakovica/Gjakova, Zagreb
Arkan’s Tigers in action in Bijeljina. Photo: Ron Haviv/VII.

Jusuf Trbic remembers the first time he saw Arkan, sitting in an army truck loaded with weapons in Bijeljina in eastern Bosnia. It was around 4pm on April 2, 1992, after Serb forces had taken over the town. Trbic recognised Zeljko Raznatovic’s face from television reports; he was already known as a man to be feared.

Trbic had just been captured by Arkan’s Serbian Volunteer Guard, the ‘Tigers’. Over the next few hours, through the night until dawn, he was beaten and tortured, sometimes in the presence of Arkan himself. “They knew what they were doing,” Trbic told BIRN. “I didn’t have a millimetre of white skin; all of it was black and blue.”

He was ultimately released because Arkan had seized him for a reason – he was a local journalist, and the paramilitary boss wanted him to broadcast an appeal to Bosniaks on Radio Bijeljina to give up their weapons, he said. Others were not so fortunate.

A woman from Bijeljina, who asked to remain anonymous, said she was 19 years old when Arkan’s men knocked on her family’s door one night in April 1992. “They were masked, so we could only see their eyes,” she recalled.

The paramilitaries ransacked the family’s possessions, took money and gold. One fighter kicked her in the spine and she fainted. When she woke up, she and her sister-in-law were naked and bloodied. The next day, Arkan arrived and raped her, she alleged.

“Arkan came for the first time after that night. He came, grabbed me by the hair and took me away. He took me to an apartment and he abused me there. He brought me back half-dead, and then [did it] again the next day,” she said in an interview with BIRN.

“Then other soldiers come and abused me in front of my children, my mother-in-law and everybody else,” she continued. “I begged them to kill me so that I wouldn’t suffer any longer. They just laughed cynically again and told me that they would not gain anything if they killed me, because I was going to kill myself.”

Although her testimony has never been tested in court, she has since been officially recognised as a war rape victim by the Bosnian state and compensated for what she suffered.

“He took me to an apartment and he abused me there. He brought me back half-dead, and then [did it] again the next day.”

Victim who alleges she was raped by Arkan in Bijeljina in 1992

Verdicts at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia have established that at least 48 people were killed in Bijeljina by Serb paramilitaries in the first two days of April 1992. But none of Arkan’s men have ever been jailed for murder, rape or looting – or for any of the other crimes they are accused of committing during the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Arkan had been indicted for war crimes by the UN-backed court in The Hague by the time he was shot dead at Belgrade’s Intercontinental Hotel in January 2000, but his murder ensured that he would never go on trial.

Since then, only one of his fighters has ever been convicted of committing a war crime while serving with the Tigers – Boban Arsic, found guilty by a Croatian court of killing a married couple in a small village in 1992 – and even he was convicted in absentia because his whereabouts were unknown.

Some Tigers have since been jailed for other crimes during and after the Balkan wars, such as the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003, but never for anything they did while fighting for Arkan.

Balkans expert Christian Axboe Nielsen, associate professor at the University of Aarhus, points out that the Hague Tribunal was set up to prosecute high-level suspects, not ordinary fighters: “The assumption and expectation was that the war crimes courts in the [individual countries of the] former Yugoslavia would eventually start to prosecute the rank-and-file of Arkan’s unit.”

But this did not happen. In Serbia, Nielsen explained, investigations also “studiously avoided following the chain-of-command”, never targeting the senior officials who made it possible for the paramilitary units to exist.

“There is simply little or no political will - and little public appetite - for this in Serbia even today,” he said.

A career in crime

Zeljko Raznatovic was born in the small Slovenian town of Brezice on April 17, 1952, and he was well-known to the police in many countries around Europe by the time the Yugoslav conflict began.

Zeljko Raznatovic poses with his Tigers. Photo: Ron Haviv/VII.

He was first arrested in Belgrade in 1966 for stealing a woman’s purse and spent a year in juvenile detention, before moving to western Europe in the 1970s and embarking upon a decade-long crime spree.

Between 1973 and 1983, he ran up a string of convictions and arrest warrants for bank heists, robberies and attempted murder in Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy. He managed to escape from most of the prisons in which he was held.

After he returned to Serbia, he became the leader of the hardcore Red Star Belgrade football fans, the ‘Delije’, who would provide him with some of his future Tigers. Journalist Filip Svarm, who has studied Arkan closely, told BIRN that the state security service at the Serbian interior ministry tasked him with setting up the unit in autumn 1990 to carry out “black operations” in Croatia.

“Those state security officers told Arkan precisely what they expected of him,” Svarm explained. “In return, Arkan was given different benefits for the favours he did for state security. Those benefits were mainly of an economic nature.”

Protection from prosecution for his more orthodox criminal activities was another incentive for the newly-anointed militia leader, who would go on to run lucrative smuggling operations in Serb-held territory in Croatia during wartime: “By providing various services for state security, Arkan exempted himself from the law,” said Svarm.

Although Arkan was arrested in October 1990, before the war in Croatia, and sentenced to five years in jail for plotting a terror attack after police found weapons in his car, he never went to jail for it. Svarm said he believes a widely-circulated rumour that the Serbian and Croatian interior ministries made a deal to secure Raznatovic’s freedom: “That says it all about how important Arkan was for Serbian state security, that the highest officials were engaged in order to get him out of prison.”

“By providing various services for state security, Arkan exempted himself from the law.”

Filip Svarm, Serbian journalist

The Serbian Volunteer Guard was a relatively small force made up of Delije football ultras, criminals and ordinary volunteers who admired Arkan and believed in his cause, such as Borislav Pelevic, who became his closest associate and later ran his nationalist Party of Serbian Unity.

“There were always around 500 men, some were coming and some were leaving. It is my own estimate that around 10,000 men were part of the guard at some point in those several years,” said Pelevic, who is now the president of the European Kickboxing Association.

He also denied the allegation that the paramilitaries were funded by Serbian state security. Arkan was “very rich”, he told BIRN, and wealthy expatriate Serbs also acted as sponsors.

The Tigers were mainly deployed to support the Yugoslav People’s Army – as they did during the siege of the Croatian city of Vukovar in 1991 – but their image as brutal, disciplined killers also had a chilling impact on Belgrade’s enemies. According to Pelevic: “When people heard that Arkan’s Tigers were coming, ‘Ustase’ [Croatian nationalists] and Muslims usually fled.”

A sanctuary for Tigers

One of the Tigers kicks the body of a woman who had just been shot by the paramilitaries in Bijeljina in March 1992. Photo: Ron Haviv/VII.

The Tigers were first accused of war crimes during fighting in Tenja in Croatia in July 1991, when at least 29 people were killed and over 2,900 non-Serbs expelled, according to the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Centre. Soon afterwards, the head of the Serbian interior ministry’s special forces, Radovan Stojicic (alias ‘Badza’), provided them with a training camp at an old Yugoslav territorial defence base in the Croatian village of Erdut, which remained their military headquarters until May 1996.

Ranko Momic, a Serb fighter whose family home near the Bosnian town of Doboj was burned down at the start of the war, went to Erdut to join up with Arkan’s men after previously serving as a regular soldier and as part of a special police brigade.

“I never felt better, and nowhere was nicer,” Momic told BIRN. “It was a war, and people were dying, but I never felt better anywhere than there. There was training and discipline, but everything was of the highest level… Those were unforgettable times.”

While civilians might have been killed accidentally by shells or grenades, the Tigers never committed war crimes, Momic insisted.

“While I was there, which was around two years, we were fighting honourably, defending our own country, and I never saw any crime committed. Maybe someone was saying he was a member [of the Serbian Volunteer Guard] and did something, I don’t know, but we, the real members, never committed any crime,” he said.

Some men who trained at the camp in Erdut and fought with the Tigers were not there by choice, however. Army deserters and Serb refugees were also forced to join Raznatovic’s paramilitaries.

“We were fighting honourably, defending our own country, and I never saw any crime committed.”

Ranko Momic, former Serbian Volunteer Guard fighter

Dragan Pjevac, a Serb refugee from Croatia, told BIRN that he was seized by police in Belgrade in August 1995 and sent to Erdut, after which he was deployed to Serb-controlled territory in Beli Manastir in Croatia for three months until the Dayton peace deal ended the war.

Some of the ‘recruits’ brought to Erdut were beaten, humiliated and called traitors, Pjevac said. He recalled Arkan giving a speech urging two rows of unwilling fighters to reconquer the Krajina region of Croatia, which Zagreb had just wrestled back from Belgrade’s forces.

“He ended his speech with the words, ‘Are we going back, to take Krajina back, are we?’ We just stood there, lost in space; people were wondering what was happening to them. [Arkan’s men] were behind, pushing those in the second row to say, ‘We are!’ And those poor people from behind yelled ‘we are’, but not so loud. [Arkan said:] ‘Louder, I can’t hear. Are we?’ They beat the second row harder, because ‘we are’ was not loud enough for ‘sir’ to hear.”

Around 700 men like Pjevac are currently suing Serbia for forcing them to go to war.

A ruthless man

A Bosniak man begs for his life after being captured by the Tigers in Bijeljina. Photo: Ron Haviv/VII.

Allegations of war crimes and ethnic cleansing continued to shadow the Tigers as they entered the town of Bijeljina in April 1992. Jusuf Trbic believes that although regular Serbian troops could have controlled the town, Arkan’s men were brought in so that any killings of civilians could be blamed on ‘lawless paramilitaries’, and because they could strike fear into the local population – “to show how things were to be done”.

“He was smart, charming and ruthless.”

Ron Haviv, US photojournalist who shot images of Arkan in action

Arkan also invited US photojournalist Ron Haviv to take photographs of his men, which resulted in the famous picture of Arkan and his masked entourage posing on a tank with a tiger cub, as well as dramatic images of the shooting of a Bosniak couple and a Serb fighter kicking a corpse. “My only thoughts when taking the image was that I needed a Tiger in the same frame as the victims to prove that this war crime had occurred,” Haviv told BIRN.

As for Arkan himself, the photojournalist recalled: “He was smart, charming and ruthless.”

The Tigers then moved on to fight in Brcko and Zvornik. There, again, his men were accused of murder, looting, ethnic cleansing and rape.

Arkan’s men withdrew from Bosnia in summer 1992 after the paramilitary boss had a dispute with Bosnian Serb Army commander Ratko Mladic, who thought he was a criminal. The following year, he set up his own political party.

He returned to Bosnia for his final military adventure in September 1995, when he and his men entered the north-western Sanski Most area, abducted local Bosniaks and took them to a hotel where they were detained in a boiler room and beaten, it is alleged. Twelve detainees were then taken to the remote village of Trnovo, where all but one of them was shot dead.

The Sanski Most killings led to Arkan’s indictment by the Hague Tribunal for crimes against humanity, murders, grave breaches of the Geneva Convention and violation of the laws and customs of war. Crucially however, Zeljko Raznatovic was the only person indicted, and since he died, no one else has ever been charged with the killings.

Arkan the celebrity

Tribute to Arkan on a wall at the FK Obilic football stadium. Photo: Milka Domanovic.

The Serbian Volunteer Guard eventually disbanded in April 1996, but Arkan maintained his notoriety. Married to Serbian turbo-folk star Ceca, he took over a minor Belgrade football club, FK Obilic, which soon went on to win the national championship, reputedly through threats and intimidation. The paramilitary chief had become a mafia hero, said Filip Svarm.

“Arkan is the idol of every criminal,” Svarm said. “Why? Because Arkan was both policeman and mafia boss at the same time. Because Arkan was both paramilitary commander and the owner of a football club. Because he was in showbiz and a person on Interpol’s red [most wanted] list.”

But although Arkan would not go to war again, some of his men did participate in Slobodan Milosevic’s final military conflict in Kosovo from 1998 to 1999.

Instead of fighting as the Serbian Volunteer Guard, they mostly went to Kosovo as part of state security units, particularly the feared Special Operations Unit (JSO), according to verdicts handed down by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Some of the JSO’s members were later convicted of assassinating Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003.

“There was no need [for the Tigers in Kosovo],” explained Borislav Pelevic. “We had strong police, who cleansed the KLA [Kosovo Liberation Army] right away. We had a strong army there, we had the Special Operations Unit.”

“Arkan is the idol of every criminal. Why? Because Arkan was both policeman and mafia boss at the same time.”

Filip Svarm, Serbian journalist

Former Yugoslav People’s Army captain Nike Peraj, an important witness at the trial of Milosevic, said that some fighters wearing Tigers insignia did enter a military barracks in the Kosovo town of Djakovica/Gjakova in November 1998, where they joined other Serb paramilitaries. “They had a free hand to do anything they wanted,” Peraj told BIRN, although he believes that they were not involved in frontline fighting. “They were looters,” he said.

Peraj also said he saw several of Arkan’s men in the village of Meja after a massacre of around 500 Kosovo Albanians by Belgrade’s forces in April 1999. They were bearded and heavily tattooed, and one of them had red streaks on his trousers. “That was blood,” Peraj said.

Former Tiger Ranko Momic also went to fight in Kosovo in 1998, but as a member of a Serbian police reservist unit. When the NATO bombing started in 1999, Momic then joined the army. Earlier this year, he was jailed for 15 years for his involvement in killing over 100 Kosovo Albanian civilians – but as a member of the Yugoslav Army’s 177th Intervention Squad, not as part of the Serbian Volunteer Guard. Momic is currently on bail while he appeals against the verdict, which also saw another former Tiger, Milojko Nikolic, jailed for 20 years for the same crime.

Uncomfortable truths

A Bosniak woman with her husband who had just been shot by Arkan’s Tigers in Bijeljina in March 1992. She was shot moments later. Photo: Ron Haviv/VII.

Some of Arkan’s most important allies are now dead. His special forces sponsor, Radovan Stojicic, was gunned down in a restaurant in Belgrade in 1997, while his alleged political puppet-master, Slobodan Milosevic, died in custody in The Hague in 2006. The most notorious of his Tigers, Milorad Ulemek, alias ‘Legija’, is serving 40 years in jail for his role in the assassination of Djindjic.

Former Serbian state security chief Jovica Stanisic and his deputy Franko Simatovic were acquitted by the Hague Tribunal in 2013 of controlling units like the Tigers, although the court did find that they supplied and financed Serb paramilitaries.

Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic, who allegedly invited Arkan to Bijeljina, admitted she was guilty of overseeing the atrocities and was jailed for 11 years by the UN court. But some of those who allegedly perpetrated them still walk free in the town. Other former Tigers are at large in Serbia and have never been indicted.

The Bosnian prosecution said it would not comment on whether any of Arkan’s men are currently under investigation. But Bosnian war crimes lawyer Miodrag Stojanovic, who is currently defending Ratko Mladic in The Hague, said it was impossible for Sarajevo to prosecute because Belgrade is not willing to send Serb suspects for trial.

“It is difficult for the Bosnian prosecution or court to ever do this. They might raise an indictment, but Serbia wouldn’t ever extradite,” Stojanovic said.

“It is 20 years since the war, how is it possible that no one [of Arkan’s men] was indicted by the Hague Tribunal or the Serbian war crimes prosecution?”

Borislav Pelevic, former Serbian Volunteer Guard fighter

The Serbian prosecution said it was cooperating with other state prosecutions in the region over cases related to crimes committed by Arkan’s Tigers, but could not give any details because investigations are ongoing.

Former Tiger Borislav Pelevic said however that the lack of prosecutions showed they were innocent: “It is 20 years since the war, how is it possible that no one was indicted by the Hague Tribunal or the Serbian war crimes prosecution in 20 years?” he asked rhetorically. “How is it possible that no one from the Guard was charged, no one at all?”

Clint Williamson, the prosecutor who led the Hague Tribunal’s investigation into the Sanski Most killings, said that the problem with indicting Arkan’s fighters was that they concealed their identities. “They often wore masks and we just could not find witnesses to identify them,” Williamson told BIRN in 2010.

“We investigated Arkan’s Tigers’ activities for a long time and gathered solid evidence for Sanski Most. We planned to go on with the investigations for Zvornik, Bijeljina, Vukovar, but then he got killed,” Williamson added.

Jasmin Mesic, a Bosnian prosecutor with a lot of experience in war crimes investigations, agreed that there were serious practical problems with bringing Serb paramilitaries to justice.

“These people have come from other areas, from other states, so none of the victims or the survivors knows them. They usually use nicknames, so this is why it is very, very difficult to identify perpetrators through victim testimony, which is what is usually done in war crimes cases,” he explained.

In Bosnia however, many believe that Arkan’s men have not been prosecuted because of their leader’s links to Serbian police officials, politicians and organised crime.

“His unit did the same things in every place they went, but a lot of other people in Serbia, politicians in high positions, are also involved, and prosecutions of those crimes could bring to light a lot of things which would be uncomfortable truths,” suggested Jusuf Trbic.

Emir Musli, who remembers seeing Arkan wielding a bazooka in front of the municipal building in his hometown of Bijeljina in 1992, while his men abused Bosniaks in the streets as they took them away to be tortured or killed, said it was clear then that the paramilitary boss had much higher status than ordinary troops.

“He was the tool used to kill, but also to control. The thing I want to say is that his unit was not paramilitary, he was part of Serbian state security,” Musliu told BIRN. “This is why things are getting hushed up.”

Just as Arkan escaped from so many cells during his criminal career, his men too have so far managed to avoided jail time for their wartime exploits with the Tigers.

Musli said he had little hope that this would change: “Arkan was killed, and with him, the entire case went cold.”


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