Yugoslavian Federal Army Destroys Croatian City of Vukovar

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Yugoslavian Federal Army Destroys Croatian City of Vukovar


By: Antoine Gyori

Date: November 21, 1991

Source: Corbis Corporation

About the Photographer: Antoine Gyori is a photographer for the Sygma photo agency, and has also contributed photogrpahs to the Corbis and Contrasto collections. Gyorgi specializes in photographing events in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.


The former Yugoslavia—a federation of six republics—Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia plus two autonomous regions within Serbia: Vojvodina and Kosovo—was founded after the Second World War by Josip Broz (better known as Tito.). Tito ruled by a policy of "brotherhood and unity" that in reality only suppressed long-standing ethnic identities and hatreds.

Not surprisingly, when Tito died in 1980, Yugoslavia started to disintegrate. The key figure in the breakup and the hostilities that followed was the communist Serbian politician, Slobodan Milošević who exploited Serb nationalism within Serbia and among Serb minorities in other republics to extend his political influence. In 1988 he became president of Serbia, and arguably the most powerful politician within the Yugoslav federation. Seeking to extend his influence further still, he stripped the semiautonomous provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina of their freedoms within the federation, and took control of their votes in the rotating presidency that had replaced Tito's rule.

His actions aroused deep concerns in Yugoslavia's other republics, many of which had large Serb minorities. Slovenia and Croatia seceded from the federation in 1991; Bosnia followed a year later.

Although Slovenia left the federation after only the briefest of independence wars, both Croatia and Bosnia became embroiled in bitter conflicts with Serbled Yugoslav forces. These were supplemented by Serb militias, usually operating in parts of Croatia and Bosnia with large Serb populations. Purporting to protect Serbs in these areas, they actually engaged in brutal ethnic cleansing—including rape and mass murder—to rid Serb areas of their Croatian and Bosnian Muslims. Nominally independent of Milošević's government, they actually received arms and funding from Belgrade and were involved in massive violence against non-Serb populations.

The most notorious of these groups was the Serb Volunteer Guard or "Tigers," led by Željko Ražnatović—better known as Arkan—a Slovenian-born Serb and career criminal. Born into a military family, by the 1970s Arkan had become an international bank robber and political assassin for Tito. He returned to Belgrade in the mid-1980s both rich and, through his patronage of brigades of football hooligans, powerful.

When war broke out in 1991 he turned his thugs into an irregular armed force called the Tigers. They carried out acts of extreme violence and ethnic cleansing in Croatia and Bosnia for the Milošević government, but were detached enough to afford Milošević a vestige of deniability.

The men like Arkan who ran these militias became almost messianic figures for ethnic Serbs, because they were thought to bring nationalistic dreams of a Greater Serbia—a homeland that extended beyond the country's borders into other former Yugoslav republics—closer to reality. Even after the war ended in 1995 and the full extent of their crimes became known, they were largely untouchable figures within the former Yugoslav republics of Serbia and Montenegro.



See primary source image.


Although Arkan was implicated in the November 1991 Vukavor massacre in Croatia, when three hundred civilians taking sanctuary in a hospital were massacred by his men, he was not indicted for this crime for a further six years. In Bosnia he was accused of leading horrific attacks against civilians in Bielijina in April 1992 and of throwing mutilated Bosnian Muslim bodies in the Drina at the town of Visegrad. But in a conflict where excess and disregard for humanity were daily occurrences on every side, where atrocities were perpetrated by both militias and regular armed forces, and with propaganda and misinformation dominant, it was sometimes difficult to get an accurate picture of the reality.

Certainly though, Arkan's reputation preceded him. A mere rumor of his force's arrival was usually enough to empty a Bosnian Muslim or a Croatian village, so appalling were crimes of which he had been accused.

In the West a more complicated view emerged. Journalists documented a string of crimes against humanity and linked them directly to Arkan and the Tigers. Despite this, Arkan, who spoke fluent English, courted Western journalists and even allowed an American photographer, Ron Haviv, to follow him and the Tigers.

When the Bosnian war ended in 1995, the Tigers were officially disbanded. In reality, however, they remained a sleeper force, ready to be called up in case of "national emergency." When war erupted in Kosovo in 1998, although Arkan publicly urged his men to join the army, they still operated under his orders and carried out appalling attacks against the province's Muslims. His continued presence in Pristina's main hotel (which he also owned) throughout the conflict pointed to a man once more directing militia operations.

In 1997 he was indicted by the UN for war crimes, although this was not made public for two years. It did not matter. In Milšsevié's gangster state the law could not touch him. His business interests were many and the legal ones ranged from hotels to a football club. He entered Serbian politics, and in 1995 became half of the country's most famous couple when he had married the pop star Ceca. On top of all that he had his own private army.

On January 15, 2000, he was assassinated in the lobby of Belgrade's Intercontinental Hotel. It was initially assumed that his death had been ordered by foreign agents or rival gangsters, but more likely his killing was carried out on Milošević's instructions to protect him from the testimony of his allies in the event of a UN trial.

Although democratic elections have taken place in Serbia and Montenegro, many warlords still live freely, their interests spanning legitimate business and the underworld. Several became politicians or transferred the wealth they accrued during the civil war into business concerns, while at the same time maintaining underworld interests such as gunrunning, drug smuggling, and human trafficking.



Glenny, Misha. The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers 1804–1999. London: Granta, 2000.

Judah, Tim. The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.

Sacco, Joe, and Christopher Hitchens. Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992–1995. London: Random House, 1997.