David James Bruce

Multimedia Journalist

Skillset Magazine

The Serbian war criminal Arkan was enjoying a drink in the lobby of the InterContinental Hotel in Belgrade on January 15, 2000, when two men in tracksuits approached. His wife, the Serbian pop star Ceca, was shopping in La Frans Boutique, 50 meters away. Arkan and his bodyguards had good reason to be on edge. The “Butcher of Bosnia” was a wanted man for crimes against humanity. Moreover, others close to former Serb President Slobodan Milošević had been disappearing of late, with many dying of “lead poisoning.”

Thirty years ago, the world watched as the greatest genocide in Europe since World War II began to unfold in the Balkans. Communism failed, the Berlin Wall fell, and with that, Yugoslavia began dividing into six different republics drawn around ethnic and religious lines. There was no better time for Serbia’s criminal class. With Arkan’s resume of killing, robbing and sowing fear in the hearts of his enemies, there were prosperous days ahead.

Željko Ražnatović, better known by his nom de guerre: Arkan, was the leader of the Serb paramilitary group Arkan’s Tigers. Arkan’s life of crime began early. At around age 15, he was snatching purses and beating people up, but soon he graduated to full-fledged gangster assassin.

Under the regime of former Yugoslavian President Josip Broz Tito, many criminals, including Arkan, were rounded up and expelled from the country. Arkan’s particular skillset eventually caught the eye of Yugoslavian officials, and they had just the plan for him: an assassination program called “Patriotic Missions.” Arkan was thus supplied with fake identities and the passports to back them up. The baby-faced assassin then traveled around Europe taking out anyone critical of Tito. His five hits earned him a place on Interpol’s most-wanted list.

Assassination Plot Be Damned

In exchange for his service, he was allowed to return home and was given refuge from international law enforcement. The cherry on top was his new job as leader of the Red Star, Belgrade, football club’s hardcore fans. The Red Star Hooligans became known as the most troublesome firm in Europe. Some say they are more violent than the English and better choreographed than the Italians.

A week after the May 6, 1990, free election in Croatia, when a party in favor of independence became elected. One of the worst riots broke out at a soccer match in Zagreb. Supporters of Red Star clashed with Croatian fans in Stadion Maksimir.  Both sides chanted nationalistic slogans at each other. The Red Star Ultras showed up in force, some in ski-masks with their signature red flares waving in the air. A rock was thrown and in response, seats were then ripped out and thrown back. A vicious melee erupted and fans were shot, beaten and stabbed. Fans fleeing were trampled by riot police. To many, this was the opening salvo in the war.

By then, Milošević was in power in Serbia and was using his army to attack his neighbors and seize land, but military force would not be enough. He wanted to drive out all non-Serbs. For this, he needed a paramilitary force.

The Shock Troops

Arkan, seeing the opportunity, quickly formed the Serb volunteer group (Arkan’s Tigers) with hooligans from Red Star. The Tigers ethnically cleansed the areas they pushed into, using mass murder and rape to terrorize civilians. The mere mention of Arkan and his shock troops caused people to abandon their homes and flee to refugee camps. The Tigers used this opportunity to get rich. Once they occupied an area, they stole everything of value and shipped it all back to Belgrade by convoy or train.

After years of suffering and more than 100,000 dead, most fighting came to an end in 1995 after the intervention of NATO. Arkan, rich from the spoils of war, bought a soccer team, invested in real estate and drove around Belgrade in a pink Cadillac, with his ever-present security detail.

When the men in the hotel lobby approached him, they asked him if the hotel gym was for guests only. He recognized one of them—a former Tiger, and they shook hands. Just then, two more men in tracksuits with ski masks bounded toward them. The men fired on Arkan and his group with H&K submachine guns. A bodyguard and associate lay dead. The Tiger that initiated the hit with a handshake later struck in the spine with a bullet from the bodyguard and dragged from the hotel. Arkan’s wife, hearing the gunfire, ran to her husband. Hit with three bullets to the face and pronounced dead on arrival at a nearby hospital. In the end, the creator of the shock troops of ethnic cleansing died at the hands of the very instrument of terror he created.