Tracking the Violent Life of Milosevic's 'Tiger' In Hunting the Tiger, journalist Christopher S. Stewart tells the story of how Zeljko Raznatovic, a petty criminal, rose to head one of Serbia's most notorious death squads.

Tracking the Violent Life of Milosevic's 'Tiger'

Tracking the Violent Life of Milosevic's 'Tiger'

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Serb warlord Arkan is shown attending a central Belgrade protest against NATO airstrikes in 1999. Petar Kujundzic/Reuters/Corbis hide caption

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Petar Kujundzic/Reuters/Corbis

Serb warlord Arkan is shown attending a central Belgrade protest against NATO airstrikes in 1999.

Petar Kujundzic/Reuters/Corbis

Journalist Christopher S. Stewart met the forces of Serb warlord Arkan during a dangerous train trip through the Balkans in the late 1990s. Amy Smith-Stewart hide caption

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Amy Smith-Stewart

Journalist Christopher S. Stewart met the forces of Serb warlord Arkan during a dangerous train trip through the Balkans in the late 1990s.

Amy Smith-Stewart

In an upscale hotel lobby in 2000, decades of petty crime, violence and state-sponsored murders finally caught up with Zeljko Raznatovic.

Raznatovic, better known as "Arkan," died in a storm of submachine-gun fire while drinking with friends and bodyguards in Belgrade's Intercontinental Hotel. The assassination ended the life of a warlord who became one of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's most valued henchmen in the country's civil war.

In his new book, Hunting the Tiger, journalist Christopher S. Stewart tells the story of how Arkan rose from petty criminal to head of Serbia's notorious "Tigers," a death squad that killed, raped and looted its way through the Balkans in the 1990s.

Stewart, who encountered Arkan's forces during a train trip through the Balkans in the late 1990s, provides a first-person look at Arkan's life. Though he became known in Western Europe as the "smiling bank robber" for his Houdini-like escapes from prison, Arkan eventually became one of the region's wealthiest men and married a pop star. Using his prison connections, Arkan rallied gangs of violent thugs to carry out crimes on behalf of Milosevic's regime. Arkan's "Tigers" were blamed for committing atrocities in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.

But in 1999, as NATO bombs fell on Belgrade, The Hague's International War Crimes Tribunal indicted Arkan for crimes against humanity. By the time he was killed the following year, several former members of Milosevic's regime had already been assassinated.

Jacki Lyden spoke with Stewart about the life and times of Serbia's feared warlord.

Excerpt: 'Hunting the Tiger'

'Hunting the Tiger' Book Cover

Prologue

His name was Zeljko Raznatovic, but when I first came to know him, most of the world called him Arkan.

I met Arkan — or at least his shadow — on a sweltering summer train ride through war-battered Serbia. It was July 1998 and my girlfriend and I had been backpacking through Europe for about a month. Most of the trip was like any other postcollege adventure — sunburned days spent wandering ancient streets, boozy nights in tiny outdoor cafes lit by strings of naked bulbs, dancing that went too late, the occasional Gypsy run-in, hangovers that didn't quit — until Arkan's men entered our world and changed everything.

Arkan was a Serbian warlord. Images of his baby face had been appearing regularly on CNN and BBC that summer, and much of the world, including the United States, believed that he and his private militia, the Tigers, were responsible for torturing, raping, and killing thousands in the Balkan wars of the early 1990s. There was also talk of other criminal exploits, how, in an earlier life, he had been one of Europe's most prolific thieves, a communist hit man, an escape artist, and an international mob boss on the scale of Al Capone. The general feeling was that Arkan had to pay for his crimes, all of them — or be killed. Arkan didn't give a damn about what anyone said. He broke up the world into strong men and weak men and lived his life accordingly.

I didn't know any of this back then, of course. When we landed at the empty train station in Thessaloniki, in northern Greece, I didn't even know we were going to Serbia. The trip wasn't planned, but trips like this never are.

We had told the man at the ticket counter we wanted to travel north to Budapest. Temperatures hovered around 110 degrees, with humidity like a rain forest. I remember sweat dripping down the man's chunky forehead. He smiled, but it was a sinister smile. "You think you have pretty faces?" he asked.

"Excuse me?" I wasn't sure if I'd heard him right. Was he speaking English? He was large and bloblike, with thick eyeglasses. His ratty white button-down was almost soaked through, and patches of chest hair curled out from his lower neck, like field grass.

"You don't want to go through Serbia," he said finally. "People die there." Then, for no apparent reason, he made a pistol with his right hand and fired it off.

It was weird, but I nodded and didn't ask.

He mapped out a northern route for us to Hungary. Instead of going straight up through Serbia, we would first travel east through Macedonia and then go north through Bulgaria and Romania. "I save you," he said, laughing. "Thank you," we said, and paid him the U.S. equivalent of about $20 in Greek drachma.

He had some trouble getting the machine to spit out the tickets, and the hassle made him visibly angry. He shook his balding head, banged the machine, wiped his face, swore in Greek. In the absence of official tickets, he decided to write them out in pen on what looked to be two take-out fast-food stubs.

In retrospect, I should have seen it as a sign that something was completely wrong. Of course, there were other things that weren't quite right after that, like the fact that he directed us to a train car holding goats and chickens, and that our assigned seat numbers didn't even exist. We were young, however, and perhaps most important, traveling on a tight budget like every other Lonely Planet–armed backpacker, and all we cared about was escaping the punishing heat and humidity and making it to Budapest by the next day.

So we boarded the train. Of the hundred or so other passengers, we appeared to be the only backpackers, let alone Americans. Most of the passengers appeared to be peasants with sun-beaten faces and ratty clothes. The train was littered with cigarette butts, wrappers, and crumpled papers. Windows were either permanently closed or permanently open. Soon we found an empty cabin of six seats. The walls, like the outside of the train, were scarred with colorful graffiti in languages I didn't know, and the plastic-tiled ceiling was stained with moisture and caving in. "What do you think?" I wondered. My girlfriend looked at me. "Your call." The departure bell twittered. We didn't get out. We stayed. That was our mistake. My big mistake.

2

The first hour or so of the trip was undramatic, just another picturesque tour through provincial Europe: grassy fields, an occasional shepherd, and tiny villages whisking past. Pretty. In fact, so pretty and brimming with green life that it was strange and almost obscene to imagine the evil that lurked out there.

We passed into Macedonia and left its capital, Skopje, just as day drained into night, but instead of heading for Bulgaria we soon found out from a Polish man who spoke broken English that we were crossing into Serbia. Whatever motivated the ticket man to send us into what was an emerging war zone not yet on the public's radar, I'll never know --but we'd been duped.

Deep in the countryside, at an unmarked station in Serbia, the train came to a snorting halt. Men with guns emerged from shadows and boarded the train. We heard screams. Metal hitting metal. Eventually two men barged into our cabin.

They resembled the Billy Goats Gruff — short and scrunched with bad teeth, dirty fingernails, and ragged beards. Both wore high-water gray pants with blue button-downs stained black and brown and missing buttons. One had a mashed-up fighter's nose and a revolver tucked in his leather belt.

These were the conductors. They did not welcome us. "Ticket or jail," said the fighter when we explained that we only had the handwritten tickets. The fighter pointed out the window at the decrepit concrete building that acted as the station. We had no dollars for bribes. Only Greek drachmas, which were worthless.

That's when his revolver popped out and everything started to turn ugly.

The fighter looked into my eyes and looked at my girlfriend. Behind him soldiers slung with automatic weapons carted off two passengers tied up with a rope. Fights erupted between the soldiers and the passengers. I saw a soldier put his boot on the back of a fallen man's head. We heard more screaming. A crying woman passed our cabin, her dirty hands desperately reaching out for something left behind.

They didn't throw us off. Not yet. Stuffing his revolver back in his pants, the fighter leaned in close to me, pressed a fat index finger to my temple, hard, and then murmured, "Painful trouble. You understand?"

3

This would be my first taste of Serbia's horror, my first look at a country crippled and broken by fear. Until this time, I had only heard stories about this part of the world, distant and improbable stories of war, which had been waged on and off for centuries — from the wars with the Turks, Austrians, and German Nazis to the blood-soaked civil wars in the 1990s, where Yugoslav brothers fought brothers over religion, where genocide was probably committed, and where even now there were freshly shoveled mass graves hiding thousands of bodies.

The train moved on. What had we gotten ourselves into? I chain-smoked a pack of cigarettes in less than an hour, I scuffed the dirty floor, at one point I turned to my girlfriend and asked, "Should we get off the train before full night comes?" She shrugged. Her lips were chaffed from grinding her teeth on them. "We could probably catch a train going back the other way. Or walk."

We stayed, decided to take our chances, and full-on night came. Crawling north, the train seemed to stop every twenty minutes or so, with Serb soldiers climbing on and off. Some sported green uniforms that looked military; others wore commando-black jumpers that seemed less official, maybe paramilitary or just local thugs. Most were young, college aged, with pimply faces and spotty beards that hadn't quite filled in yet. I noticed that some had patches on their arms. One that stuck out featured the face of a tiger. Again, we tried to explain that we didn't mean to get on this train. "We're Americans," I said a million times. They laughed and went through our bags, stealing a watch, a pen, and some stupid shot glasses and key chains from a gift shop near the Acropolis.

The other passengers were even worse off. Every stop had its unique horrors. I witnessed men's faces bloodied from pistol whippings, women in head scarves separated from children, slapped, and dragged off to "train station jail," which is how the Polish passenger described the guarded makeshift rooms at nearly every stop. When I asked him why they kept taking people off, he simply replied, "This is Serbia," as if that would explain it.

At one stop a soldier took his rifle butt and cracked open the skull of an old man. From the window of our cabin the two conductors watched the man writhe on the ground and looked back at us, shaking their heads, as if to say, see what you've gotten yourselves into.

Copyright © 2007 by Christopher S. Stewart. All rights reserved.

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