Arkan and the Tigers, 1992

I have always squirmed at the expression “the photograph that changed history” for better part of last two years. Titling my blog “Iconic Photos” rather than “Photos That Changed History”, I have always insisted that vast sociopolitical decisions, rather than trinkets, that inspired historical changes. You can almost believe all that, right up until that moment you come across the one.

Ron Haviv’s photograph of a Serb gunman about to kick a bleeding woman in the head was perhaps that one for many. Because a warlord like one of this photos, Haviv was allowed to be embedded with his troops for one day, on April 2, 1992. Over two days, the troops killed at least 48 people, many of them execution-style, according to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

Ron Haviv remembers how he took that photo in The Guardian (Nov. 2009):

During the Balkans conflict, I took a photograph of the Serbian paramilitary leader Arkan holding up a baby tiger. He liked it very much, so when I met him, in March 1992, I asked if I could photograph his troops as they fought. “Sure,” he said.

Later on, I was following some of his men when I heard screaming. Across the street, they were bringing out a middle-aged couple. The soldiers were telling me not to take any photographs when, suddenly, some shots rang out and the man went down. The woman crouched down, holding his hand and trying to stop the blood. Then her sister was brought out: more shots rang out and both women were killed.

As I stood there, I realised that it would be my word against the soldiers’ unless I could get a photograph of Arkan’s men in the same frame as these three people. So as the soldiers set off back to headquarters, I waited behind for a moment. As they moved past the bodies, I lifted my camera.

I was in the middle of the street and I was shaking. When people are in the throes of killing it’s like they are on drugs: their adrenaline is so high. It would have been very easy for any of those guys to just shoot me and say the Muslims did it. Then, just as I was about to take the picture, one of the soldiers, a brash young kid in sunglasses who was smoking a cigarette, brought his foot back to kick the bodies as they lay there dead, or dying. As he did it, I took a couple of pictures, then put my camera down. All the soldiers turned and looked at me, so I smiled at them and said: “Great. Let’s go.”

I was really nervous. I wanted to leave town before Arkan found out what I had photographed, but I couldn’t leave without his permission, so I hid a couple of rolls of film in my car, and a couple down my pants. Then Arkan arrived.

After he heard what had happened, he came up to me and said: “Look, I need your film.” We proceeded to have this whole conversation about whether or not I should give him the film. I made a really big push to protect the film in my camera so he wouldn’t think there was anything else.

In the end, I had to give him the film. Then he let me go and I immediately drove to the airport and sent my film to Paris. That night, I was very emotional about what I had witnessed, and how these people had died. But at least I knew I was able to document it. I truly believed that my pictures could have a real effect in preventing a Bosnian war.

When my photos were published in magazines around the world they caused a bit of an uproar, but not as much as I had hoped. Instead I think they made a difference on an individual level. One general specifically attributed his decision to fight for the Bosnian side to this photograph, and he was one of the people largely responsible for saving Sarajevo.

I’ve been back to Bijeljina and met people in the town who have told me how important it was. The pictures from that day were also used by the war crimes tribunal to indict Arkan, and as evidence in other indictments.

A few weeks after the pictures were published, I heard that Arkan had put me on a death list, and publicly stated that he looked forward to the day when he could drink my blood. After that, I spent the rest of the war, right through to the end of Kosovo, narrowly missing him in different places. Though during the Nato bombing of Belgrade, a friend of mine actually spent time with the kid in this picture. The kid said he was very proud of it.

It made him famous.


American Photo Magazine, 1993

Years later, Rolling Stone ran an in-depth investigation on allegations that one of the soldiers in the photo has become a famous DJ. Here is the link.

Haviv made Arkan — nom de guerre of Zeljko Raznatovic — an erstwhile juvenile delinquent and bank robber, who grew up to become a politician, famous too. The photo Haviv originally took of Arkan holding up a baby tiger became a mythic icon for Arkan’s paramilitary group, nicknamed the Tigers, whose members included some of Belgrade’s most notorious hooligans. The Tigers committed some of the most heinous atrocities during the Balkan Wars, including the Vukovar hospital massacre, in which hundreds of patients, mainly Croats, were bussed to a deserted field and executed. In the end, Arkan reaped the whirlwind of what he had sown; the man, who even Serbian President, and no angel himself, Slobodan Milosevic said he was afraid of, was unceremoniously gunned down in a Belgrade hotel in January 2000. With war-crime trials in the Hague looming, someone high-up somewhere decided that Arkan simply knew too much.

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