Arkan’s Balkan ‘Tigers’ escape accountability

Balkan ‘Tigers’ led by warlord ‘Arkan’ in the 1990s, have yet to answer for the notorious unit’s crimes.

The 'Tigers' were first accused of war crimes during fighting in Croatia 1991 [Ron Haviv/Al Jazeera]

Jusuf Trbic remembers the first time he saw Zeljko Raznatovic.

It was the afternoon of April 2, 1992, in Bijeljina, in eastern Bosnia – where Trbic was captured. The leader of the Serbian Volunteer Guard, known as the “Tigers”, was sitting in an army truck loaded with weapons. Trbic recalls that through the night until dawn, he was beaten and tortured, sometimes in the presence of Arkan himself.

“They knew what they were doing,” Trbic told BIRN. “I didn’t have a millimetre of white skin; all of it was black and blue.”

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) has released an investigation questioning the absence of legal action against the paramilitaries led by notorious Serbian warlord Raznatovic, alias Arkan, during the 1990’s Balkan wars. Trbic’s story is just one of a series of disturbing first hand experiences featured in “Arkan’s Paramilitaries: Tigers who escaped justice.”

Then other soldiers come and abused me in front of my children, my mother-in-law and everybody else. I begged them to kill me so that I wouldn't suffer any longer.

by - Anonymous rape victim of the Tigers

Verdicts at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia have established that at least 48 people were killed in Bijeljina by Serb paramilitaries in the first two days of April 1992. Yet, to date, none of Arkan’s men have ever been jailed for murder, rape or looting – or for any of the other crimes they are accused of committing during the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

The Tigers were first accused of war crimes during fighting in Tenja in Croatia in July 1991. When, according to the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Centre, at least 29 people were killed and over 2,900 non-Serbs were expelled.

Rape as a weapon of war

A woman from Bijeljina, who asked to remain anonymous, told BIRN how Arkan’s men knocked on her family’s door in April that year. The paramilitaries ransacked the family’s possessions, taking money and gold. One fighter kicked her in the spine and she fainted.

When she woke up, she and her sister-in-law lay naked and bloodied. The next day, she alleges, Arkan raped her .”He came, grabbed me by the hair and took me away. He brought me back half-dead, and then [did it] again the next day,” she reported during an interview with BIRN.

“Then other soldiers came and abused me in front of my children, my mother-in-law and everybody else,” she continued. “I begged them to kill me so that I wouldn’t suffer any longer.”

Although her testimony has never been challenged in court, this woman has been officially recognised as a war rape victim by the Bosnian state and has received compensation for her suffering.

Balkans expert Christian Axboe Nielsen, assistant professor of Southeast European Studies at the University of Aarhus, makes it clear that the Hague Tribunal was set up to prosecute high-level suspects, not ordinary fighters. Yet there would be a follow up session of related cases. “The assumption and expectation was that the war crimes courts in the [individual countries of the] former Yugoslavia would eventually start to prosecute the rank-and-file of Arkan’s unit.” Though this has not happened. 

“There is simply little or no political will – and little public appetite – for this in Serbia even today,” Nielsen explains.

‘Charming and ruthless’

Ranko Momic, a Serb fighter whose family home near the Bosnian town of Doboj was burned down at the start of the war, went to Erdut to join up with Arkan’s men after previously serving as a regular soldier and as part of a special police brigade.

“I never felt better, and nowhere was nicer,” Momic said. “It was a war, and people were dying, but I never felt better anywhere than there. There was training and discipline, but everything was at the highest level… Those were unforgettable times.”

While civilians might have been killed accidentally by shells or grenades, the Tigers never committed war crimes, Momic insisted.

“While I was there, which was around two years, we were fighting honourably, defending our own country, and I never saw any crime committed. Maybe someone was saying he was a member [of the Serbian Volunteer Guard] and did something, I don’t know, but we, the real members, never committed any crime,” he said.

Arkan had been indicted for war crimes by the UN-backed court in The Hague by the time he was shot dead at Belgrade’s Intercontinental Hotel in January 2000. His murder ensuring he would never go on trial.

Since then, only one of his fighters has been convicted of a war crime while serving with the Tigers – Boban Arsic. Arsic was found guilty by a Croatian court of killing a married couple in a small village. He was convicted in absentia because his whereabouts were unknown.

Some men who trained at the camp in Erdut and fought with the Tigers were not there by choice. Army deserters and Serb refugees were also forced to join Raznatovic’s paramilitaries.

Around 700 men are currently suing Serbia for forcing them to go to war.

Arkan infamously invited US photojournalist Ron Haviv to take photographs of his men, which resulted in the famous picture of Arkan and his masked entourage posing on a tank with a tiger cub, as well as dramatic images of the shooting of a Muslim couple and a Serb fighter kicking a corpse.

“My only thoughts when taking the image was that I needed a Tiger in the same frame as the victims to prove that this war crime had occurred,” Haviv told BIRN. 

As for Arkan himself, the photojournalist recalled: “He was smart, charming and ruthless.”

Tortured and killed

The Tigers then moved on to fight in Brcko and Zvornik. There, again, his men were accused of murder, looting, ethnic cleansing and rape. 

Arkan’s men withdrew from Bosnia in the summer of 1992. The following year he entered politics and set up his own political party. 

He returned to Bosnia for his final military adventure in September 1995, when he and his men entered the northwestern Sanski Most area. Here it is alleged that his paramilitaries abducted local Muslims and took them to a hotel where they were detained in a boiler room and beaten. Twelve detainees were then taken to the remote village of Trnovo, where all but one of them were shot dead.

The Sanski Most killings led to Arkan’s indictment by the Hague Tribunal for crimes against humanity including murder, grave breaches of the Geneva Convention, and violations of the laws and customs of war.

In March 1999, the United Nations criminal tribunal for former Yugoslavia disclosed it was seeking the arrest of the Serbian paramilitary leader.

The tribunal said Arkan and his men were held responsible for some of the worst massacres in the course of the Balkan conflict. Until then, his name had  been on a sealed list of war crimes suspects; kept secret so that an arrest could be pursued. This never happened.

In January 2000, Raznatovic was shot dead at Belgrade’s Intercontinental Hotel  by a group of masked men. He was shot in the left eye and died in hospital hours after the attack. One of his bodyguards, Momcilo Mandic, died at the scene.

Now, questions remain as to why none of his violent gangs members have received similar interest from national or international authorities.

Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic, who allegedly invited Arkan to Bijeljina, admitted she was guilty of overseeing the atrocities and was jailed for 11 years by the UN court. Yet, those who allegedly perpetrated the crimes walk free or are at large in Serbia – living among their victims.

The Bosnian prosecution said it would not comment on whether any of Arkan’s men are currently under investigation. However, Bosnian war crimes lawyer Miodrag Stojanovic, currently defending Ratko Mladic in The Hague, said it was impossible for Sarajevo to prosecute as Belgrade is not willing to send Serb suspects for trial.

Emir Musliu agrees. He remembers seeing Arkan wielding a bazooka in front of the municipal building in his hometown of Bijeljina in 1992, while his men abused Muslims in the streets before taking them away to be tortured or killed.

“He [Arkan] was the tool used to kill, but also to control. The thing I want to say is that his unit was not paramilitary, he was part of Serbian state security,” Musliu told BIRN. “This is why things are getting hushed up.”                               

Some of the infamous Tigers have been jailed for other crimes during and after the Balkan wars, such as the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003.

To date none have not been tried for any of the crimes committed while fighting for Arkan.

Musliu says he has little hope that this will change: “Arkan was killed, and with him, the entire case went cold.” 

This article was produced by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network’s Balkan Transitional Justice programme.

Source: Al Jazeera