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Belgrade is an unfortunate city. For hundreds of years, Ottoman conquerors repeatedly entered and destroyed Serbia’s capital, wearing it down to bone and gristle. In the twentieth century, the city was bombed more times than any other major European metropolis, excluding Warsaw. The Austrians shot it up, the Nazis shelled it, and so did the Allies. In the 1990s, there were civil wars, assassinations, mafia kings, and more bombing, this time by NATO planes, payback for the country’s genocidal operations in Kosovo. It was a frightening place to be then, awash in black market goods, guns, and crazed warlords, and some got to calling the city Mordor, the name J. R. R. Tolkien gave to his depraved shadowland.
Today, having spent much time in a state of conflict, Belgrade is still a battered and corrupted place. Similar in size to Philadelphia, it is home to about 1.5 million people and sits at the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers. Ugly and gray, the city is dotted with blown-up buildings, grim apartment blocks constructed in the sixties and seventies, half-built condominiums, and shantytowns, with little left architecturally from earlier centuries. Rusted Lada sedans and noisy city buses bump along the potholed streets that rise and fall. Gypsies dwell in the damp shade of the Branko Bridge, which divides the old and new parts of Belgrade, their ashen faces and emaciated bodies huddled around garbage burning in oil drums, with only the brown river water to wash in. Amid the visible poverty there is also garish wealth, late-model Mercedeses and Audis with bulletproof windows, heavily fortressed mansions, and glitzy restaurants and nightclubs inhabited by sharply dressed gangsters, reform-talking politicians, and surgically modified pop stars.
Arkan is one of the city’s saintly warriors. When he died thousands attended his funeral on a freezing midwinter day in 2000. As the black vehicle transporting his casket glided into the central Belgrade cemetery, people reached out to grasp him one last time. Television cameras rolled, reproducing images of the dreary scene all over the world. Tears were shed, and baskets of flowers and sticks of incense were piled atop his grave at the peak of a hill. Even today, there are always fresh flowers on his headstone, with candles flickering in the open air. The gravesite, still guarded by his men, is mentioned in travel guides, and it’s not uncommon to find tourists there, snapping pictures or saying prayers. The organizers of his assasination remain unknown.
After everything that has happened to this country and to this city, after the civil wars, after all the pain and killing, after the imprisonment and then the death of former Serbian president and dictator Slobodan Milosevic, and after the promise by new politicians to heal, reconcile, and move on, Arkan, even in death, remains a visible force in Belgrade. His beret-wearing mug is painted in bright colors on the concrete side of a high-rise apartment building. A similar portrait is wallpapered on the Obilic Football Club stadium. Tabloids regularly feature him and Ceca on their front pages, and teenagers worship his tough guy ways like American kids talk excitedly about 50 Cent, as some gangster to be glorified. A considerable number of people also believe that he is still alive, out there somewhere in the world, waiting to make a comeback, to wreak his revenge. As a Red Star soccer fan in his twenties told me one night at a local nightclub, “Arkan is fucking God.”
No one seems to know exactly how Arkan acquired his famous nickname. I asked dozens of people, and heard several different stories. According to one version, Arkan was the name that appeared on a forged Turkish passport he employed during his bank robbing and hit-man days in Europe, and it just stuck. Marko Lopusina, in his book Commander Arkan, proposes another idea, that he took the name in his twenties after a tiger in a favorite comic strip, though I could never identify that comic. In general, Arkan did like tigers because, as an old friend of his told me, tigers were “beautiful and gentle and could also kill.” Still others conjectured that the name was a shortening of the Latin word arcanus, meaning secret, a theory that I subscribed to, not because I found it more convincing than the others but simply because that’s what his life was.
Although Arkan occasionally dropped hints about his early adventures, much of those days are as vague as the origins of his nickname, shot through with conflicting accounts and tinted by myth. When I asked Ceca if she knew anything about his life before she met him, she said cryptically, “I only know what I read in the papers.” So, I wondered, you weren’t at all curious about what he did when he was a kid? “Not really,” she said and shrugged. I didn’t believe her, but that was beside the point. I did hear many stories, some more than others. It was in these told and retold stories that the fog of mystery slowly began to melt and give way to a clearer, if not truer, portrait of the man’s youth.
Arkan was born on April 17, 1952, in the Yugoslav National Army barracks in Brezice, Slovenia, a town famous for red wine and thermal baths. His father, Veljko, was a decorated colonel in the national military, based in Brezice at the time. There were three older sisters, which meant that the family was always fighting for space in tight apartments. Early on, comic books seemed to provide passing pleasure, as did science-fiction novels, but movies, especially American and European spaghetti Westerns featuring headline actors such as Gary Cooper, John Wayne, and Clint Eastwood, were said to have been his refuge. Yugoslavia was in fact one of the only communist countries that imported Hollywood films, making Arkan a lucky communist kid. In these cowboy flicks, people said, he found role models. He transformed those grainy black-and-white Western narratives into his own Technicolor dreams. Like those great outlaws, he knew from an early age that he wanted to be big, perhaps like John Wayne.
Soon the family moved to Zagreb, and then to New Belgrade, north of the Sava River, and finally to old Belgrade, where they occupied a cramped walk-up in the city’s crowded center. It was a busy time for the country, as it moved into an age of industrialism. Tito (Josip Broz), an ex-machinist and champion fencer, was the country’s anointed communist leader, after he and his partisan army muscled out the Nazis and Fascists in 1945. Dreaming of a unified country, he had put a lid on the dangerous ethnic rivalries between Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians and forced his people into full-throttled work mode. Whatever atrocities had happened during the war or before, he didn’t give a damn. Leftover nationalists were killed, imprisoned, or driven out of the country.
Tito made Belgrade the capital of the new Yugoslavia, which consisted of six republics and two semiautonomous provinces. After having been obliterated by the Germans in 1941, Belgrade needed a face-lift—and it happened fast. From 1950 to late 1960, the city experienced a quadrupling in population, with peasants from the countryside flooding in, moving from houses into small state-subsidized apartments with state-subsidized health care and state-subsidized vacations. In what became known as the age of “Belgradization,” blocks and blocks of concrete high-rises mushroomed up everywhere, especially in New Belgrade. Streets were laid out and paved, hospitals rebuilt, schools erected, and factories opened.
People labored long hours for the state at low wages, digging away in mines, manufacturing automobiles, and working in the government bureaucracy. After Tito abandoned Stalin’s domination, from 1954 to 1975 industrial jobs grew at an average annual rate of 4.3 percent, and Serbia’s industrial working class grew from 1.1 million in 1947 to 6.3 million in 1985. Wagewise, the industrial jobs beat farming peppers and cabbage any day, though the money wasn’t going to make anyone rich—or completely happy. Still, the new age was a change, or at least it felt like a change. So what if there was only one shoe store in Belgrade, or that you could buy only Super Rifle jeans and not Levi’s, or that no one sold Coca-Cola? There was no time to think about that.
Outside the Raznatovics’ window you could hear the quotidian cycles of Belgrade life, the chatter of the sidewalk, the whistles of policemen, the droning sound of buses and cars and vendors bumping along March 27 Street, one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares. At night, especially in the summer and fall months, when the kosava winds tunneled in from the east, the dusty streets were packed with dark faces, people coming and going from state jobs, trying to get places, to get home, to get out, to get settled.
I remember what Marx said about communism, it “is not to make a man better but to change his nature.” Arkan would not have liked Marx. He certainly wasn’t about to have his nature changed—not ever. Seeking an edge, he decided to rebel. He rebelled against the state roles, the careers, the socially programmed assumptions about how life was meant to be lived in communist Serbia. Rules were for suckers. The people who followed them, hell, they were just like deer stuck dumbly in high beams.
While other kids woke, slipped into bland uniforms, and went to school, where they genuflected to the communist leader and learned about “Brotherhood and Unity,” Arkan wandered. When he showed up at school he was supposedly a good student with a quick mind who appreciated a good argument, but school wasn’t for him. He skipped classes, hung out on the street with delinquent friends, and went with pretty girls to Kalemegdan Park, a sprawling green oasis in the middle of the city. There were other things, too. He hustled, played cards, got in fights, and threw coins.
The city tightened in on him like a noose. He had to get out. As city lore goes, he ran away for the first time when he was nine years old, long before most boys got to first base with their girlfriends. With his dark hair cut short, he traveled eleven bumpy hours to Dubrovnik, at the southern tip of the Croatian coast. Most likely he traveled by a series of overnight buses and trains, although there is one story that he stole a car. Once there, he stopped at a camp perched at the crown of a craggy hill, with a view of the Adriatic. Europe was a boat ride away, but from there it seemed like you could reach out and touch it.
Officially, it was tough, if not impossible, to leave Yugoslavia back then. Tito only issued priority passports, as he needed his good comrades to stick around and help build his personal empire, which was fast becoming more decentralized as it broke away from the Soviets’ postwar influence. Still, that didn’t keep Arkan from dreaming. The kid had lots of dreams.
Standing there on the coastline, he could almost see it: his future outside of the deadening miasma of Yugoslavia. Across the gleaming water there were wheelbarrows of money to be made. There were roads paved with Levi’s and lakes of Coca-Cola. That first night you could almost see him sitting there, staring out at that big black rolling mass of sea, thinking about what was in store for his life, perhaps imagining his future existence: Young gun John Wayne takes Europe.
Unfortunately, it was over before it began. His father, who had apparently intercepted a letter from Arkan to his mother, arrived soon after to transport the young delinquent home. Still, even if it was a long ride back to Belgrade with a dour father, Arkan had gotten what he needed, and that was the taste of freedom. After that, the dream of chasing life outside of Yugoslavia would never diminish. It would only mature—like a cancer.
Copyright © 2007 by Christopher S. Stewart. All rights reserved.