Balkan War Criminals: The Most Wanted

George Magazine
June 1999

The war in Yugoslavia is so complicated that it’s sometimes hard to tell the players without a scorecard. Well, here it is–a list of the Balkans’ bad guys.

1. Slobodan Milosevic. In 1987, Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic made a promise to a crowd of Serbs in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo: “No one will be allowed to beat the Serbs again! No one!” He then returned to Belgrade and began steering Yugoslavia toward its doomsday. Milosevic is the mastermind of the wars in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Croatia. The Serbian leader has backed paramilitary squads and manipulated news broadcasts to convince Serbs that they faced genocide unless they attacked preemptively. A brilliant tactician and, in the words of a former American ambassador to Yugoslavia, “the slickest con man in the Balkans,” Milosevic is not concerned with the welfare of Serbs–their nation is in far worse shape now than it was before his rise–but with staying in power by exploiting nationalist paranoia. If family history is any guide, however, he will come to an unhappy end. His mother and father both committed suicide. Current status: Still in power.

2. Vojislav Seselj. In 1984, Serbian politician Vojislav Seselj was sentenced to prison by communist authorities for writing a nationalist tract. His two-year confinement included beatings and, reportedly, rape. Seselj emerged a different man, enraged and bitter. In 1991, he formed a paramilitary squad, the Chetniks, patterned on the World War II group of the same name, and joined the ethnic-cleansing frenzy in the former Yugoslav republics of Croatia and Bosnia. He also formed the far-right Serbian Radical Party and became a deputy prime minister. “I am proud to have been proclaimed a war criminal by the U.S,” he has announced. Current status: Minister in Belgrade.

3. Zeljko “Arkan” Raznatovoic. Serbian warlord Zeljko Raznatovic began his life of crime as a purse snatcher in Belgrade, graduated to bank robbery in Sweden, then served a stint as a gun-for-hire for the Yugoslav secret services, which earned him an arrest warrant from Interpol. He opened an ice cream parlor in Belgrade and took charge of the hooligan-filled fan club for the Red Star soccer team. When violence erupted in Croatia in 1991 Raznatovic recruited his soccer buddies into a paramilitary squad, the Tigers, which plundered, raped, and killed its way through the war. When fighting in Bosnia broke out in 1992, Arkan (Raznatovic’s nom de guerre) and his Tigers returned to action, bloodily. In Kosovo, they are apparently at it again. When Raznatovic campaigned for a seat in the Serbian parliament a few years ago, he told Serbs in Kosovo, “I won’t promise you new highways. But I pledge to defend you with the same fanaticism that I have used to save Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia.” Current status: Indicted for war crimes; at large.

4. Mirjana Markovic. As a young woman, Mirjana Markovic did what many women her age dream of doing: She married her childhood sweetheart. But Markovic was not like other women; nor was her lover, Slobodan Milosevic, like other men. Her mother, a communist militant, was arrested by pro-Nazi police officers during World War II and died under mysterious circumstances. Markovic, who is now known as the Red Witch, became a professor of Marxism and established a small political party, but she made her real impact as the guiding force behind her husband. It is widely believed that without her cunning and ruthlessness, Milosevic could not have maintained his hold on power. Current status: Living in Belgrade.

5. Frenki Simatovic. Frenki Simatovic is the rising star of Serbian war criminals. A senior official in the Interior Ministry, (and believed to be chief of its special forces), Simatovic heads a death squad known as the Frenkis, or Red Berets, most of whose members are ex-convicts and veteran participants of the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. The Frenkis are now unleashing chaos in Kosovo, where their main accomplishment is the emptying and looting of Pec, Kosovo’s second-largest city. Their modus operandi is simple: Murder ethnic Albanian men and order everyone else to leave. Current status: Active in Kosovo.

6. Radovan Karadzic. It sounds like a bad joke: What do you get when you combine a failed poet with a mediocre psychiatrist and a convicted felon? The answer, unfortunately, is Radovan Karadzic, onetime bard, shrink (his clients included Sarajevo’s soccer team), and embezzler. Karadzic was the political leader of Bosnia’s Serbs and portrayed their sieges and sniper attacks as defensive measures against Islamic terrorists. A devoted gambler–during off-hours at Geneva peace talks, he could be found at local casinos–Karadzic turned warfare into a mob racket and skimmed money from black-market shipments of food, fuel, and ammunition. Current status: Indicted for war crimes; at large.

7. Ratko Mladic. “Burn it all!” Ratko Mladic, the commander of the Bosnian Serb military, said of Sarajevo. “Beat them senseless!” Other orders, issued by radio and intercepted by journalists, included “clobber them” and “torch them.” An avid chess player, Mladic directed the storming of the Srebrenica enclave and, it is believed, oversaw the execution of some 6,000 men there. For him, the war was partly a matter of settling old scores: His father was killed by Croatian troops in World War II. Current status: Indicted for war crimes; at large.

8. Simo Drljaca. When the war began in Bosnia, in 1992, Simo Drljaca had a big problem on his hands–what to do with all the Muslims he was taking prisoner. His answer? Torture or kill them. Drljaca, a powerful Serb security official in northern Bosnia, oversaw, along with anesthesiologist Milan Kovacevic, the notorious killing centers of Omarska and Keraterm. In 1997, NATO troops tried to arrest Drljaca but instead shot him dead when he opened fire with a machine gun. Current status: Buried.

9. Franjo Tudjman. At a campaign rally in 1990, Franjo Tudjman said, “Thank God, my wife is neither a Serb nor a Jew.” Nationalist bigotry of that sort got him elected president of Croatia. Though Serbian nationalism was the dominant factor in Yugoslavia’s slide into bloodshed, Croatian nationalism under Tudjman also played a key role. After Croatia gained its independence, Tudjman and his defense minister, the late Gojko Susak, a former pizza parlor owner, threw their support behind the HVO, a right-wing Croat militia in Bosnia. The HVO committed widespread atrocities in a largely successful effort to extend Croatian control over a quarter of Bosnia. Because the U.S. and German governments view Croatia as a bulwark against Serbia, Tudjman has avoided the isolation and punishment that many human rights activists say he deserves. Current status: Still in power.

10. Ante Pavelic. During World War II an Italian journalist visited Ante Pavelic, the brutal leader of Croatia’s pro-Nazi puppet state, and was surprised when Pavelic showed off a basket of what appeared to be oysters. “It’s a present from my loyal Ustashe,” Pavelic said with a smile, referring to the Croatian troops who had murdered several hundred thousand Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies. “Forty pounds of human eyes.” The long-ago killings under Pavelic played a key role in Yugoslavia’s disintegration in the 1990s. Milosevic relentlessly warned Serbs in Croatia that if Croatia gained independence, they faced a wave of pogroms like those orchestrated by Pavelic. The Serbs chose to fight, commencing the bloodshed that continues today. Status: Died in Madrid in 1959.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.