On 15 January 2000 Arkan, who was indicted by the ICTY and at the same time celebrated as a war hero in Serbia, was murdered in Belgrade. His story is remarkable yet exemplary for the changing nature and progressive criminalization of war.


On 17 April 1952 Zeljko Raznatovic, who was later to become known as Arkan, was born in Brezice a small town in former Yugoslavia. He was the youngest of four and the only boy. His mother, Slavka, was caring and always seemed to have supported her young son. His father, Veljko Raznatovic, however was a colonel in the national army and a strict authoritarian who raised his son with a harsh military-like discipline. He wanted his son to follow in his footsteps and join the army as well but Arkan rebelled against him, just as he rebelled against almost everything else. This led to a troubled relationship with his father and he often received harsh punishments, like being beaten by his father and once he was hung outside the apartment window.


Arkan was smart but often skipped classes and in his early teens (aged 12-13) he started to get involved in petty crime. In 1966 at the age of 14 he was arrested for the first time and sent to a juvenile detention centre. After one year of imprisonment his father wanted to send him to the military school but Arkan escaped to Paris. After he had come back in 1969 he got involved in several burglaries for which he was arrested and sentenced to three years of imprisonment. In prison the charismatic Arkan formed his own gang. He was tall and strong and looked well after himself: he was always neat and clean and well-dressed. According to Stewart, who wrote a book about Arkan, unlike many other criminals Arkan didn’t drink or smoke and for some reason people started to follow him, they wanted to be in his gang. Shortly after he was released from prison in 1972 he was arrested once again. This time he was charged with armed burglary and after having been found guilty was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. Arkan, however, managed to escape from prison. While on the run he lived from his criminal activities, mainly thefts and burglaries. He broke into shops and robbed banks in Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden and Italy. In 1974 when robbing a restaurant Arkan, aged 21, shot and killed the owner, thus committing his first murder.


In the early seventies Arkan’s father used all his military contacts to help Arkan get a job within the secret services probably in an effort to get him out of the criminal circles in which he featured. Arkan then became one of the hit men within these services. His task was to assassinate political opponents and dissidents abroad and according to Stewart he was one of many hit men, when in the years 1965-1990 over one hundred Yugoslavian dissidents were killed by such hit men. It is alleged that Arkan killed the first two people in 1979 and 1981 and another 5-10 in the following years. All these years the secret service provided Arkan with money, weapons, false documents and help whenever he got into trouble. In the meantime Arkan continued to rob banks. He was often caught and arrested but he also often managed to escape from prison. He was for instance arrested in 1975 in Belgium but escaped in 1979. He was re-arrested and imprisoned in the Netherlands that very same year but he managed to escape yet again this time from the Bijlmer prison. It seems that he had help from the outside. He might have had the help of the secret services but he also had gathered a team of fellow criminals around him and became some kind of mobster. The bank robberies had made him rich and Arkan enjoyed the money and status he had gained by now. In this period he had at least three children with three different women. His eldest son was born in 1975 in Sweden. Later, in 1992 at age 17, his son joined him in Serbia to fight with him.


In the early eighties Arkan returned to Belgrade and opened a patisserie and ice-cream parlour which became famous. He was very rich, drove around in expensive cars and built a house next to the Red Star Belgrade football stadium together with his new wife, Natalia and their 4 children. Arkan became a leading figure in Belgrade’s underworld. He also became the head of the supporters club of Red Star Belgrade. These hooligans were already famous for their bad behaviour: they fought against fans of others clubs but also intimidated the players of Red Star Belgrade itself. Many of these hooligans were out of a job and frustrated but together they felt powerful. They drank, smoked and beat up people. It was a fertile ground for radical and extreme nationalism and ethnic hatred. They soon came to experience the charismatic Arkan as their new leader, their saviour.


When Yugoslavia was on the brink of war in 1990, Arkan transformed his hooligans into a private army, the Serbian Volunteer Guard, better known as Arkan’s Tigers. The hard core of men who surrounded Arkan was a group of 500-1000 men. They were however regularly joined by many others: weekend fighters and hooligans and at times the force was as large as 10.000. What was very particular about the Tigers was that they looked like a very disciplined group and certainly not as a group of thugs and bandits, There were many criminals within his group but Arkan was a strict disciplinarian. They had to wake up early in the morning, make their beds, shave and dress neatly. Training was harsh and strict and everyone feared the extremely harsh punishments ordered by Arkan. Deserters were killed. Arkan however was not only tough, he also looked after his men like a godfather. He gave them a monthly allowance of 1.000 dollars and paid for the funeral when one of his men died. Arkan was furthermore a commander who was respected and showed that he himself took part in battle, killed people and was willing to die.


Although it was not official, it is commonly suspected that during the war in former Yugoslavia Arkan had a secret agreement with Slobodan Milosevic, who at the time was president of Serbia. Stewart notes: ‘everyone was almost certain that Milosevic controlled them.’ The arrangement was as follows: Arkan had complete and exclusive control over his troops, they would conquer and capture villages and could more or less do what they wanted: they murdered, tortured, mutilated, killed and raped. One victim was quoted by Stewart to say: ‘They came, and if they didn’t kill you, they got inside your head because of what they did, and that was just as bad as death.’ After the killing they looted the village and either kept what they found as war booty or sold it on the black market. Then they left the village which was taken over by Milosevic. It was a lucrative business as they earned a lot of money with smuggling cigarettes, alcohol, food, wood and oil. Serbia suffered from the UN sanctions and Arkan as well as many other criminal groups made huge profits. He also continued drug trafficking as no one dared to stop him. It is alleged that in some cases he was paid between 250.000 and 2 million dollar by rich Bosnian Serbs to cleanse a town. He had a good reputation in fulfilling such assignments. Arkan thus became one of the richest people in Bosnia.


In 1992 he caught the attention of Interpol who put him on a wanted list. When US Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger compiled a list of ten war criminals, Arkan was on this list besides Milosevic, Karadzic and Mladic. In the meantime in Serbia his popularity grew and he became a war hero. In 1992 he was elected into Parliament in Kosovo together with Milosevic. The Albanian majority boycotted the elections and thus the Serb minority won. They felt Arkan could protect them. In 1995 Arkan married the pop star Svetlana Velickovic, better known as Ceca, who was extremely popular at the time in the Balkans. They had met in 1993 when he was still married to Natalia but he divorced her and married Ceca. The wedding was a big event in Serbia and was broadcasted live on television. Together they have two children.


After the war ended the Tigers became part of the Yugoslavian state security services. The ICTY issued an arrest warrant for Arkan in 1997 which was unsealed in 1999. In 1999 shortly after the public release of the indictment Arkan was interviewed by the British journalist John Simpson on television (an interview which can still be viewed on youtube - see the link). In the interview Arkan  declined all the allegations, accused the US and NATO of war crimes during the Kosovo bombings and said that all he wanted was peace. Yet, the ICTY charged  Arkan with crimes against humanity and war crimes.  The charges all related to incidents between 18 and 25 September 1995 in which his unit killed a total of approximately 80 men. In many other sources it is however alleged that Arkan and his Tigers were responsible for the deaths of over 24.000 people.  Arkan however was never apprehended. He would have been an important material witness in the case against Slobodan Milosevic who was indicted in May 1999 but he never actually testified against Milosevic.


Fate struck on January 15, 2000. Arkan and two of his friends were killed in the lobby of the hotel Intercontinental in Belgrade. Allegedly a total of 38 shots have been fired and set Arkan in a coma. Arkan died on his way to the hospital in the arms of his wife Ceca. Thousands of people attended his funeral. Many people considered him to be a war hero rather than a war criminal. That same year Milosevic gradually started to lose his power. He was arrested in April 2001 by the Serbian authorities who handed him over to the ICTY in June 2001. His trial started in February 2002 but was officially terminated on March 14, 2006 three days after Milosevic had died in his Dutch prison cell.


The story of Arkan is both remarkable and exemplary for the changing nature of war. Arkan a common criminal who became a war lord during the Yugoslavian war. In the eyes of many Serbian people he was a war hero while the international community considers him a war criminal. His story shows how in former Yugoslavia criminal gangs were involved in the war effort and is thus an example of how in contemporary wars ordinary crimes and international crimes become progressively intertwined.



Stewart, C.S. (2007). Hunting the Tiger – the fast life and violent death of the Balkan’s most dangerous man, New York: Thomas Dunne Books

Mueller, J. (2000). The banality of civil war, International Security 25(1), 42-70.

Weerdesteijn, M. & A. Smeulers (2011). Propaganda en paramilitairen – de normalisatie van geweld in het  Servië van de jaren ’90, Tijdschrift voor Criminologie 53(4), 328-344.  (read more)


Posted by Alette Smeulers, 14 January 2015