Dženita Mulabdić hugged the ground, the sound of gunfire fast approaching. The pregnant 20-year-old Bosnian woman and her husband, Muhamed, eyed the locked basement door. Their toddler played close by, unaware of the armed men outside. The commandos from Belgrade, wearing black balaclavas, jumped the fence and entered the house in the ethnically mixed Bosnian city of Bijeljina, a two-hour drive from Serbia’s capital. They trudged downstairs to the basement, encountering a barricade in front of a cramped room. Then, Dženita heard a sound: men in combat boots kicking the door. “Don’t be afraid,” one of the armed men said, Dženita recalls. “We have come to liberate you.”
It was April 2, 1992, at the dawn of the Bosnian War. The volunteer fighters were led by Željko Ražnatović, a mobster turned suave military man wanted by Interpol for crimes across Europe. People called him “Arkan,” and his men, Arkan’s Tigers. Power was shifting in Europe in the early Nineties, and fast. Yugoslavia was breaking apart. Ultra-nationalist Serbian President Slobodan Milošević exploited the myths of a “Greater Serbia” and the victimization of Serbs. One after another, Yugoslav republics declared independence, including Bosnia and Herzegovina. Milošević propaganda urged Serbs to fight, and Arkan’s men carried that message into war.
“History is coming back,” Arkan said at a training camp. “But this time, the Serbs are going to fight back.” Arkan recruited young men to do his bidding. Some were “Ultras,” hardcore soccer supporters, pulled from Belgrade’s Red Star soccer fan club, which, according to a top-secret CIA intelligence report, “began offering training in hand-to-hand combat, small arms, and explosives in Nov. 1990.” They were athletes, criminals, and idealists who wanted to fight for Serbia, and perhaps most importantly “lost people,” says Filip Svarm, editor of Serbia’s independent magazine Vreme, who made a documentary about Serbian paramilitary groups.
A brutal reputation trailed Arkan’s men from neighboring Croatia, where they killed, expelled, and looted from non-Serb civilians. Now, Arkan’s Tigers were in Dženita’s hometown to “liberate” the city from what they claimed were Muslim “fundamentalists.”
They were going door to door in search of non-Serbs, some of whom were on a list of names of people they deemed “izdajnici” — traitors.
Serbian state media portrayed the fighters as heroes. In two days, Arkan’s Tigers and other allied combatants killed at least 48 people, many of them execution-style, according to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the United Nations court set up during the Bosnian War to prosecute war criminals. It was the first international war-crimes tribunal since the end of World War II.
“Most of the dead had been shot in the chest, mouth, temple, or back of the head, some at close range,” the ICTY found in a war-crimes case against two top Serbian intelligence officials, Jovica Stanišić and Franko Simatović, indicted for financing and organizing combat units like Arkan’s Tigers. Other estimates place the number much higher. The killings would kick off four years of war in Bosnia, and a cycle of ethnic cleansing and genocide. More than 100,000 people would be killed, and 2 million displaced.
A young American photographer watched much of it happen. Ron Haviv met the Tigers in Croatia, where he had photographed them. Arkan liked one picture, in particular: the paramilitary commander standing in front of his uniformed men, posing with a baby tiger in one hand and a gun in the other. So Haviv embedded with the Tigers for one day, on April 2, 1992.
Haviv, now a renowned, award-winning photographer, captured on film one of the Bosnian War’s first apparent war crimes. One of the photos has since become a symbol of the war itself. Haviv hoped it would lead to accountability, that it might help save lives.
But 30 years later, many of Arkan’s Tigers present that day still walk free. One of them, in fact, is living a rather public life. You may run into him at a club, depending on where you party. [Continue reading…]