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New Series no.13/14 December 1999 - February 2000
Serbia loses the murderer it no longer needed
by Marcus Tanner

The crowds, mostly women, were hysterical long before their hero arrived on stage in the converted sports stadium in southern Serbia. `Arkan, Arkan', they shouted, drowning out the sultry, over-made-up folk singers who always accompanied any public event staged by the celebrated Serb warrior.

It was 1993, and the war with Croatia, in which he had played such a sinister part, was over. The conflict with Bosnia, in which he would play an even more infamous role, was just beginning. And Zeljko Raznatovic - Arkan - was staging a concert in honour of his forthcoming bid to enter the Serbian parliament as a respectable MP.

But it was no good suggesting that their hero was a war criminal, nor that his pumped-up, muscle-bound troops, known as the Tigers, were responsible for some of the most chilling atrocities inflicted on innocent civilians in the desolate, muddy villages of Croatia's Eastern Slavonia. The Serbs had collectively decided to ignore the reports, even when they were mentioned in their own `liberal' press, of old women forced to walk through the minefields of Slavonia as a sport for the Tigers.

They did not want to know about the real nature of Arkan, even when, in 1993, Time magazine published a sensational series of photographs of the Tigers in action in the northeastern Bosnian town of Bijeljina. Close up and in colour, the shots showed Arkan's men in action. One had a cocky expression; a cigarette dangled casually from his lip as he stood with one foot planted on the bodies of the Bosnian Muslim civilians they had slaughtered.

The Tigers behaved in this swaggering manner because that was the character of their boss. Half of him was a child, endlessly showing off and boasting to the grown-ups. The other half was adult, though of a very disturbed and frightening kind - a calculating man, a precision killer operating on behalf of Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian government, but with an added streak of pure sadism.

The two halves would coalesce at the frequent press conferences he gave in Belgrade in the war years of the early 1990s. It was baby Arkan who wanted to hold such ridiculous events, to show off in front of foreigners and give speeches on the political state of the nation that sounded as if they were written by a five-year-old.

I used to sit well back at these horror shows, waiting for the adult Arkan to come roaring out. It always happened when anyone was foolish enough to challenge his simplistic views on the Serbian crisis. Immediately the baby turned into a mini-Hitler, screaming with fury and practically spraying the audience with saliva.

Serbia was the perfect homeland for this sick Peter Pan. His training in murder predated the regime. He had moved into the twilight world of the Yugoslav secret service in the last years of the Tito era. Then he worked largely as a hitman, killing pro-independence ‚migr‚ Croats whom the regime regarded as a threat to Yugoslavia. He also robbed banks, earning a string of convictions all over Europe.

But it was only after the emergence of a hardline Serb nationalist regime in Belgrade under Mr Milosevic in 1987 that Arkan found his true vocation. As Yugoslavia disintegrated into its component parts in 1990, the Serbian leader was determined to make off with much more territory than was contained inside the borders of the republic of Serbia.

This is where Arkan and the Tigers came in. Unlike other paramilitaries, the Tigers were a thoroughly modern military organization. Properly trained, they disdained other units' chintzy outfits and shaggy locks for khaki and crewcuts. They did the dirty work of terrorizing, and if necessary killing, civilians in Bosnia and Croatia - work that the regular army was unable or unwilling to do.

Arkan's men were crucial to the policy of driving out, and frightening away, non-Serb civilians from occupied towns and villages, the policy the world came to know as `ethnic cleansing'. But as the reports of atrocities multiplied, his taste for showing off declined. He was reportedly furious when Time published those pictures of his men `at workØ in Bijeljina, even though it was his vanity that drove him to invite the photographer along.

When the International War Crimes Tribunal was set up in The Hague in 1993, charged with bringing those responsible for the bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia to book, Arkan became plaintive, insisting he had never done anything. Once again he was the little boy, whimpering to the grown-ups that it wasn't fair.

The Serbs still loved his showmanship, as displayed in his sumptuous marriage to Svetlana Belickovic, a popular folk singer. But the man who counted regarded him as a growing nuisance. Slobodan Milosevic had always been careful never to appear in public with his protégé invariably informing diplomats that he knew nothing about him. He even professed not to know who he was.

Mr Milosevic allowed Arkan to carry on with his antics, and his crime rackets, but he was impatient to distance himself from a man on the UN list of suspects who could implicate him. Perhaps he had nothing to do with Arkan's violent death. But sudden, mysterious deaths are surprisingly frequent among those who fall foul of the Serbian president. Mr Milosevic will not lament his demise.

This comment on Arkan's death appeared in The Independent on Sunday, on 16 January 2000.

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