Profile of a Serbian Assassin

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Christopher Stewart interviewed Serbian assassin Nikola Kavaja, and wrote a story and their encounter for the Paris Review. Stewart talks to Scott Simon about his article, entitled "Assassin," which appears in the latest issue.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

The Paris Review is famous for its interviews with famous writers. The current issue is too with the poet James Tate and Australian novelist Peter Carey. The summer issue also contains another startling interview, with a man who claims to have been a professional assassin. Christopher Stewart was writing a book on the Serbian warlord named Arkan when he met Nikola Kavaja, who's 73 years old and fugitive from the U.S. government, living in a public housing high-rise in Belgrade.

Over a period of three days, and quite a few shots of Schnapps, Nikola Kavaja described his career to Christopher Stewart, as a prisoner in Albania during World War Two, a Communist soldier, a CIA hit man, a hijacker, and finally, wanted by the FBI. The interview is titled, Assassin. Christopher Stewart joins us from NPR's New York bureau.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER STEWART (Author): Thank you.

SIMON: How does Nikola Kavaja live now?

Mr. STEWART: Nikola Kavaja, he lives in this two-bedroom apartment. It's pretty dreary. But, you know, he lives with - he seems to know a lot of people. He has government people that stop by with their mistresses always there, and Montenegrin gangsters drop by, and, you know, royalists from the early days drop by and listen to his stories. He's sort of this folk hero.

SIMON: Trace his history for us. He wound up - he wound up in a prison camp in Albania.

Mr. STEWART: He was in a prison camp in Albania along with his family, although they were in different prison camps. He got out of prison, the camp in, I guess, in '44, he said. It was a war camp.

He immediately - well, before joining the Air Force, he claims to have killed a German soldier at 14 years old. This is his first killing. And he, the German soldier, was standing near a well and he was injured. He lifted him, his legs up, and dropped him into the well, and like he says, like a piece of garbage. From there he joined the Air Force and that was in early 1950s. And in 1953, he started his anti-Communist activities.

SIMON: Now, he didn't like Joseph Tito at all.

Mr. STEWART: Despised the man. He didn't like Joseph Tito mainly because his family had fought the war, had fought for Tito. And when Tito was - came into power he started purging any dissidents, his cousins and brothers and other people in his family were imprisoned and killed, and he resented - well, he despised him for that.

SIMON: Yeah. Describe for us the attempts he made over - it sounds like a number of years, a number of trips, to assassinate Joseph Tito, the longtime strongman, as they use to say, of Yugoslavia. Apparently tracked him through Latin America, New York City, Williamsburg, Virginia.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: Yes. He really was a shadow of Tito, if there was any such thing. He tried to assassinate Tito over the course of about a decade. The first attempt was in Brazil, second attempt was in Chile, and then it was in Mexico City. Missed him in each of these times. Didn't get another chance until 1971, when Tito came for a visit with President Nixon at Camp David...

SIMON: Mm hmm.

Mr. STEWART: ...in Maryland. Of course, you can't get very close to Camp David, but Kavaja had this very ingenious idea of dressing up as a state trooper, and he was going to make his way as close as he can into Camp David. And he climbed up to a tree that had - that according to him, had - or he could see into the compound. So his mission was to wait till Tito came outside of the house and took his walk, because apparently Tito enjoyed the outdoors. And Camp David...

SIMON: Mm hmm.

Mr. STEWART: ...of all places, was a great place for a walk. So he waited up in this tree for two days. Tito never left the house.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Didn't - was it cold or raining?

Mr. STEWART: He wasn't one to talk about weather because rain or snow or extreme heat didn't seem to bother him.

SIMON: Hmm. He did feel bad about one young woman that he killed, right?

Mr. STEWART: Yeah, this is spectacular, actually a very haunting story. He, after spending some time at Fort Dix, training, he joined the French Foreign Legion in Algeria, where he was assigned the task of assassinating people that were smuggling arms. And...

SIMON: Mm hmm.

Mr. STEWART: ...there was one woman that came. He didn't ever really seem to have a problem with killing people...

SIMON: Mm hmm.

Mr. STEWART: ...but this one woman haunted him for the rest of his life.

SIMON: Mm hmm.

Mr. STEWART: You know, he looked at her and you just seemed different from the others that he'd killed. And I asked him why. And he said, well, you know, she looked like she was 23 years old. She just looked young, and like she had her whole life in front of her. I said, so did you think twice about killing her? He said, no, but you know I wanted to tell her family where she was so they could come get her body.

And I said, well, that's nice of you. And he said, well - so what did you do? And he said, well, you know, I just told her to start walking. And I said, well, did she tell you where her parents were? No, he said, he just - she just spit in my face. She was a very proud woman. And then I shot her in the back.

SIMON: Hmm. What satisfied you that he's telling the truth?

Mr. STEWART: Huh. Hijacking, of course, is a public record.

SIMON: This is a hijacking in 1979 in Chicago.

Mr. STEWART: Yeah, in 1979, that hijacking that he pulled off, which is probably the most audacious act of all. That's on public record. We know he did that. The Paris Review, of course, did a rigorous fact check on all of his dates, on all of the people that he mentions. Everything checks out completely. And you know, on a superficial level, you know, sitting there and talking to him, he was very meticulous about the things that he said. You know, as he told me these stories, he...

SIMON: You guys were drinking a lot of Schnapps, too...

Mr. STEWART: We were drinking a lot of Schnapps. But, you know, he would - when he didn't have the detail immediately available to him, he'd wait. And he wouldn't go forward until he found that person's name, or he found that date. So that, to me, gave the sense of integrity to his narrative and the things that he had to say.

SIMON: Mm hmm. Did you ever pick up the phone and do something, as simple as call the CIA, and ask?

Mr. STEWART: I didn't, no.

SIMON: You asked him how he thought he'd be remembered. And he had an answer that was nothing if not seemingly candid and concise.

Mr. STEWART: Yes, and he didn't think twice about it. Evil, is what he said.

SIMON: How do you remember him?

Mr. STEWART: I remember him as - I don't know. You know, he says that he doesn't regret any of the things that he did. And then he brings up this woman that he killed. And, you know, when he was talking about that, he got very quiet. His voice, which was usually gruff, went down a couple of octaves. His eyes went searching in his head. And I don't know. He seems to be a haunted man. I think he's haunted more than he'll - he'll ever admit.

SIMON: Christopher Stewart's interview with Nikola Kavaja, titled Assassin, can be found in the summer issue of the Paris Review.

Mr. Stewart, thanks very much.

Mr. STEWART: Thank you.

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