A symbol of all that was wrong with Yugoslavia, of all that would be wrong

 

The last time I saw Arkan was at the Writers' Club in Belgrade. The courtyard was lit by battery lamps that night at the end of May, NATO bombing having shut down the nearest power plant. The explosions were so frequent even the restaurant's most devoted clientele began slinking home.

The remaining customers and white-coated waiters fell silent when Zeljko Raznatovic, the Serb militia leader, politician, football club owner, convicted bank robber, assassin and indicted war criminal - better known by one of his early aliases, "Arkan" - strode into the little garden with his third wife, the pop singer Ceca.

They emerged from the penumbra like an evil omen, a symbol of all that was wrong with Yugoslavia, of all that would continue to be wrong with it when NATO's war ended.

Ceca, a beautiful young woman with long dark hair, wore a powder blue trouser suit and glittering jewellery. In Belgrade, Arkan was said to have cured her of a cocaine addiction, and to keep her under close watch lest she stray. She was accompanied by her sister, and seemed to enjoy the public appearance. Arkan sat in the back corner of the restaurant, facing the entry like a self-conscious cowboy who fears being shot in the back.

The couple's two bodyguards, in twin skinhead haircuts, black T-shirts and shiny grey suits, sat at the end of their table. A Range Rover with two more gunmen waited in the dark street outside. Manda, the guard who was killed with Arkan in the lobby of Belgrade's Intercontinental Hotel on Saturday, must have been one of them.

I had seen Arkan once before, at Ceca's open-air concert in the Trg Republika at the end of March, two days before the international tribunal in The Hague announced that he was wanted for war crimes. The former British Defence Secretary, Mr George Robertson, had just called him "an obnoxious thug" and said Arkan's Tigers militia were "flaunting their wares" in the streets of the Kosovo capital, Pristina.

He would only go to Kosovo, Arkan responded, if he could kill British soldiers. Throughout the war, Arkan insisted that his 1,500 militiamen, who had raped and pillaged their way through parts of Croatia and Bosnia in earlier conflicts, were not present in Kosovo. But the Tigers were known to occupy a whole floor of Pristina's Grand Hotel, and I saw a man in a Tigers T-shirt leaving with the rabble that pulled out of Kosovo before NATO's arrival.

By appearing at Ceca's Belgrade concert to cuddle their small children in front of the TV cameras, and by showing up in the best Belgrade restaurants, Arkan was building his alibi. He was also, in a sense, using the Western press as a human shield.

The couple abandoned their garish, wedding-cake house in the rich suburb of Dedinje for the duration of the war.

A Serb opposition newspaper editor described the baby-faced Arkan to me as "the most dangerous man in Yugoslavia". Ostensibly his wealth came from a casino and the ARI bakery and ice-cream plant he owned, but he was deeply involved with the Albanian as well as the Serbian Mafia.

Arkan's father, a colonel in the Montenegrin secret police, had used his influence to bring his delinquent, bank-robbing son into the late Marshal Tito's intelligence service, where Arkan excelled as a hit man. One of his most prominent victims was the manager of a Croatian oil company who wrote a book divulging Tito's secrets, whom Arkan murdered in Germany.

Belgrade sources described Arkan as a sort of secret weapon, a ruthless killer whom Slobodan Milosevic's regime held in reserve for future use. His flamboyance was unusual - and ultimately fatal - for a man who knew so much and had so many enemies.