Wednesday March 12th was the first sunny day after a long and boring winter that had haunted Europe in this year of 2003. About one-thirty in the afternoon the media started to report breaking news: there had been an attempted assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic! Shortly after that it was officially announced that he hadn't survived the sniper shots fired from the two-story building across from the headquarters of the Serbian Government. Many people were at work at the time, and it was only when they left their offices and factories and saw police cars dashing around and most traffic being blocked that they realized there was "something going on".

This happened in the central area of Belgrade, and a friend of mine was incidentally passing there on her way to the main train and bus station when she heard two shots and saw the car carrying the Prime Minister ( by then already unconscious), rushing to the hospital… At that moment she didn't know what was going on, but when she got to the station to buy a ticket to her home town in Central Serbia, she found that all traffic leading out of town was blocked, so she had to phone a friend in order to find some place to stay in Belgrade another night.

The details of the Djindjic assassination were appalling. He was an easy target as at the time he was on a crutches and moving slowly because he had previously injured his leg in a recreational soccer match between Government officials and members of the Police. Just a few weeks before he had joked that "somebody might think that it was intentional".

The team of trained assassins was positioned behind an open window deep inside the room, aiming through the telescopic sight mounted on their rifle… This meant that no one could see the barrel of the rifle or the smoke from it. This gave them time to make their escape in a casual manner carrying the rifle with them (instead of abandoning it at the site, which is more usual). Investigation later showed that they had been dressed like workers supposedly renovating the building from which the shots were fired.

Anyway, it took some time before Security officers were able to find the place in the closely populated area from which the shooting was executed. By then the assassins were already gone, but soon witnesses were found who saw three people in work clothes leaving the building…

The area where this all happened is still marred by buildings badly damaged during the NATO bombing of 1999. You can still see large buildings, once containing the offices of the Army or the Serbian Government, riddled with holes made by NATO's cruise missiles… While passing, you can see rubble inside the buildings where entire floors collapsed… Right in the modern heart of the city you can look at these ruins, frozen like strange sculptures, observable from public buses packed with people on a busy day… You can also still see on windy days dusty and torn curtains moving behind glassless window. It was not possible to remove the curtains from buildings in which interiors were destroyed, so they remain as eerie reminders . It'll take years for a troubled and impoverished country to repair or rebuild all this. Such damage has almost become part of the everyday routine, and after some time you just can't help taking it for granted…

In fact, while passing or waiting for the bus, I would often go to near-by steps made of stone blocks, a little bit aside from the road, leading to the base of the hill. I would spend some time there observing the stones in the pavement--to the puzzlement of passers-by. These stones contained the remains of nice specimens of fossil shells, but most of the people never looked carefully enough to see them… The last time I was there, just a year ago, when a Belgrade artist had chosen these hilly platforms off the pavement as an impromptu stage for a play/performance dealing with the nature of power and it's violent and criminal aspects… Little did she know that just a little bit later this place was going to become a stage where real bullets were going to fly and where bloody street theater was going to be performed in front of the whole nation…

The assassination of Djindjic became one of these turning points in the life of the nation. He was in reality not that popular, because of his political hits and misses. Plus he wanted to modernize and reform a country that was deeply traumatized by events of the last decades… But still, his execution was instantly perceived as unacceptable. I remember that initially I recognized that people around me were at first afraid of the mere possibility of such a cold-blood murder, but that feeling soon turned into rage. If we were allowed a glimpse into the collective mind, it seems like everybody was asking themselves if they had judged Djindjic too harshly.

The assassination happened on the same day that the police were supposed to start arrests of criminals connected with the so-called Zemun Clan. Zemun is a small town on the Sava River that has over the years became a Belgrade suburb. These thugs had operated for years due to their connections within the police, the judiciary and some politicians, to name but a few! Yet it was widely known that one of their number had turned witness against them, and it didn't take Sherlock Holmes to realize that these people were the organizers of Djindjic's assassination… The assassins were counting on a resulting chaotic situation and quarrels among politicians once the Prime Minister was gone. They hoped that this would pave the way for conservative politicians supportive to their operations to rise to power again.

But it happened that the response by the government, pushed by overwhelming rage, was very resolute and approved by almost all segments of society. A State of Emergency was declared until April 22nd, and police and gendarmerie were given permission to use some extra interrogation measures. The Prime Minister's funeral turned into a firm expression of solidarity, with many hundreds of thousands of people flooding the streets of Belgrade. It was a sight unseen since the upheaval against Milosevic in October 2000… A sea of people left flowers in front of the military jeep carrying the coffin containing the body of Zoran Djindjic.

Soon photos of the unsympathetic faces of Zemun Clan members started to appear in the media and in Wanted circulars hung in public places. Personally, one of the things that struck me, somehow, was that most of them were close to my age. I started to wonder - were we, like, reading the same comics when we were kids? There were so many questions that were raised by every little guy on the street.

And yet this was only the beginning! Members of this criminal group were unknown to most of the people, but their nicknames and aliases and their thuggish faces told it all.

The police action was wide, and it revealed more then expected. A series of arrests showed that the Zemun Clan's leaders not only had connections with state institutions, with public prosecutors and lawyers and judges, but they also had their collaborators in show business and the media. Moreover, they even had their own publication! The name of the magazine financed by money they got from drug smuggling and kidnapping was Identitet (Identity), and I remember seeing it on newsstands. But now that all the issues have been confiscated, I'm sorry that I never actually leafed through it… Who would not be curious to see what kind of articles the mafia liked to read?

As if all this weren't enough, soon the news was released that among those suspected of collaborating with the Zemun Clan was the famous "turbo-folk" singer, Ceca (pronounced Tsetsa). Soon everybody was stuck in front of the TV watching as the heavily-equipped police started to bring out unlicensed weapons of all sorts from her house - an entire arsenal! They even confiscated crossbows, "ninja"-type masks and boxes full of ammunition! Only a year ago Ceca, a singer with big silicon tits, gave a concert in a stadium in front of 100,000 people! I realized the impact of Ceca's arrest only when the next day I went to buy a newspaper, and they were all sold out.

Many people agree that this event had not only a "criminal" but also a "cultural" dimension. Ceca was a symbol of turbo-folk, mindless pop music with cheap lyrics and false traditional "background" often perceived as an expression of escapism and glamour in a country drowning in crisis… Furthermore, Ceca was the glamorous widow of Arkan, the most famous Serbian paramilitary, who was murdered only few years ago.

This leads to another aspect tied to the people who assassinated Djindjic. A lot of them were connected with paramilitary forces that "operated" in the civil wars in ex-Yugoslavia. As there was no professional army in former Yugoslavia, nor in the countries that were formed after the break up of the state, many of the newly formed governments hired either domestic or foreign mercenaries or thugs of all kinds, even criminals who were freed from prison and recruited into "elite forces"… It's not so difficult to imagine that these types were responsible for many of the war crimes of the '90s. They used "patriotism" and national rhetoric as an umbrella for looting or gaining better positions for organized crime. An example that became evident after the Djindjic assassination was the so-called "Red Berets" who were formed from paramilitary groups created by Milosevic during the wars of the '90s. Milorad Ulemek , who changed his surname to Lukovic but was widely known by the nickname Legija, was until recently one of the commanders of this unit that functioned as a special police force in which police and criminals were involved in more then one way! After leaving the Red Berets, Legija became one of the principal mentors of the Zemun Clan and was suspected of being the man behind the assassination of the Prime Minister. During the State of Emergency, the Red Berets were finally disbanded. One of its members, who was arrested as a suspect involved in the assassination was reported to have, waking up in his cell one night, confessed that it was he who shot Djindjic with the sniper rifle. The murder weapon was soon found hastily buried in a Belgrade suburb.

Operation "Sabre," as it was called, lead to the arrest of many thousands of criminals involved with drugs, prostitution and gasoline smuggling… Soon the prisons were full, and the police had to relocate many less important suspects. But another unexpected problem arose after it became evident that many drug addicts were in crisis because drugs became either unavailable or too expensive. Some pharmacies had to hire policemen to protect them from addicts who might raid their shops in order to get hold of the drugs they needed.

Anyway, the situation highlighted some of the absurdities of life in this country. We had seen criminal types driving the most expensive cars, living in exotic villas, even traveling around the world while most people were forced to struggle for survival in a country that had been under economic embargo for years… Though most people couldn't afford to travel or faced rigorous restrictions for visa applicants, photos confiscated by police showed happy thugs having a good time in Paris or posing in their swimming trunks down in St. Tropez… To top it all, these were the same people who killed indiscriminately while in the paramilitary, claiming that they were doing it for OUR good or in the name of the nation… On the other hand, they collaborated closely with similar "enemy" groups belonging to the other ex-Yugoslav republics and had connections all over Western Europe and the Americas…

Among other peculiarities was that some of them also served as protectors of the Milosevic regime during the demonstrations against it. After that employment ceased, and they were left without cash--they returned to more explicit criminal activities (including drug smuggling and kidnapping), and as a result were chased by the police, just as THEY chased others while they were the "police"! Reports showed anti-mafia gendarmes organizing hold-ups and capturing criminals in their underpants, and soon many of these groups went deeper underground.

One of the "symbols" of the Zemun Clan was a villa in Schiller street-- name came after Friedrich Schiller, a foremost German dramatist, whose most famous play was - ironically- titled The Robbers. This house was a combination of many things: it had a children's playground in front, with swings and nice benches. But behind this innocent façade there was hidden a fortress of crime.. Sometimes it was used for the enjoyment of swimming pools, and sometimes it served as a private prison…. Police bulldozers attempted to destroy the villa completely, but they discovered that its construction was too strong! The police started to use explosives, but even that was ineffective, as we saw during a live TV broadcast … The building finally collapsed after nine days of hard work. A few days later Dusan Spasojevic, the owner of the 'fortress' and a leader of the Zemun Clan, was killed (together with his closest collaborator) while trying to activate a hand grenade during a police siege in the quiet suburban village where they were hiding…

Before the end of the State of Emergency, many of the most prominent members of the several leading criminal clans had been arrested, but some are still on the loose, including the "main suspect" - Legija. This means that many "dramatic" events are probably yet to come in this country tired of "dramatic circumstances". Legija got his nickname because of his service in the French Foreign Legion, but his background is rather untypical. He went to music school, and it will take some additional research to explain how somebody who used to handle classical instruments ended up carrying guns (and using them, too)! He was involved with many "actions" which were supposed to be "secret operations". But he could never resist boasting, so he ended up being very "visible" in some café, a big bullish guy with lavish tattoos. How is this all going to end? We'll see.

After the wars, sanctions, NATO bombing, anti-Milosevic revolution, even The State of Emergency became part of our experience, with fully-armed gendarmes with masked faces, standing in front of all of the important buildings in Belgrade. And yet, life went on. There was a Fashion Week and rock concerts. I promoted a new collection of my comics in Serbian (entitled "The Moon and the Heart on Fire"). There was even a festival of Alternative Culture with Max Andersson exhibiting his comics, and Arbe Garbe, friends from Udine (Italy) playing an "agropunk" concert on the street with the same old confused commuters watching it all from the public buses of Belgrade….

Sasa Rakezic alias Aleksandar Zograf