Nikola Kavaja: Interview with an assassin
Nikola Kavaja lives in a drab, Communist-era high-rise in Belgrade, Serbia's crumbling capital. His two-room apartment is sparsely furnished: a single mattress and dresser in one room, and a scratched-up wooden desk, a couch, and a bench press in the other. The white walls are cluttered with pictures of the people who figure most strongly in his personal iconography: General Ratko Mladic, Saint Sava, Hitler, Jimmy Carter, and a young pin-up who is his current girlfriend. Guns and old military gear provide further ornamentation. A blue thermal blanket covers the street window.
Sunday 10 December 2006
Kavaja is 73, but he looks no older than 60. He adheres to a strict weight-training routine that gets him up every weekday before the sun. He is squarely built and muscular, with white hair cut to a military trim-line and a fighter's mashed-up nose. Except for the fine white thread of moustache, he is cleanly shaven. In his dress, he favours black trousers, black shirts and black combat boots.
Our conversation took place over three mornings, with classical music playing softly in the background. Kavaja spoke slowly and quietly, with an air of determined precision. At times, he paused to place his hand on his forehead in search of a long-forgotten detail. As he spoke, Kavaja stared off in the distance at nothing at all, or else looked down at his booted feet.
Christopher S Stewart You were a Second World War prisoner, a Communist soldier, a CIA hitman, a hijacker, and now a fugitive on the run (among other things). Where to begin?
Nikola Kavaja Write down my name. N-I-K-O-L-A K-A-V-A-J-A. You can call me Nik.
Stewart That's a start.
Kavaja It is a long story. Do you want some schnapps?
Stewart No thanks. I'm fine with water.
Kavaja Water's for pussies.
Stewart Most of the time I'd agree. But 10.30 in the morning is a little early for me to be drinking shots of schnapps.
Kavaja It's a hello. You drink some schnapps with me. We drink together.
Kavaja That's better. Salud. So - I was born in Montenegro in 1933. In 1941, when Hitler attacked Yugoslavia, my father and mother and I were all transferred to separate prison camps in Albania. My brothers went to the war. In October 1944, when the Russians forced the Germans out of the Balkans, I went back to Pec to find my mother. But she wasn't there. No one was there. I had to fight for myself. The first time I killed someone was that year - a German soldier. He was heavily wounded and leaning over the top of a well. He was getting water. I walked up to him, took him by the legs and tossed him in like garbage.
Stewart You weren't afraid?
Kavaja My dick, was I ever afraid. I hated them. I couldn't find my family anywhere. I searched for months. Eventually, I found my mother in Vojvodina. I learned that two of my brothers were killed in the war. I joined the air-force academy. They made me a war pilot. Around that time, my brother was thrown in jail for being anti-Communist. He wasn't. But Tito was a suspicious man. Tens of thousands of military officers finished their careers in prison. They all fought for Tito and then they were thrown in jail for bullshit reasons. What kind of leader does that?
Stewart You never liked Tito?
Kavaja I hated him. Around that time, I became a member of an underground anti-Communist group. That's where my life really started. My commander, Milutin Abramovic, was in the air force with me in Sombor. He knew about my brothers who were imprisoned and killed. I had cousins that went to jail too. That's why he started giving me top-secret missions, I think. Because my hatred was so personal.
Stewart What was the first job?
Kavaja He had me paint on the walls of the military barracks "Long live the Soviet Union"; "Down with Tito"; "Down with the Communist Party". It was a test, I think. But I did it. And for me, it was funny - a what-the-fuck kind of thing, you know?
Stewart How did Tito like your sense of humour?
Kavaja When I wrote that, it was Saturday evening. By Sunday morning, military intelligence officers were searching for who did it. There was a huge alarm. There were 4,000 soldiers at our barracks and none of us could leave. After two or three days of investigations, they started to lock people up. They arrested a major who was in charge of security that evening, and he got seven years in prison. Two of my friends were also arrested and sentenced to jail.
Stewart You weren't afraid you'd get caught?
Kavaja Who would have known? I was into football and girls. It made me laugh. The big assignment came next. It was June 1953. The order was to burn the gas tanks at the airport in Sombor. I knew all of those bases like I know my room. My commander gave me some time bombs and I set them up near the tanks, which held a million gallons of petrol. I placed the bombs around the tanks and walked away. When they went off, there was a massive explosion. It was incredible. I was far away but I could see huge yellow flames in the sky. I realised it wasn't a joke anymore. I was in big shit. Police swarmed to the base and all the towns nearby. They arrested hundreds. I knew seven of them. One was a major hero. He got the death penalty. For nothing! The others died in prison.
Stewart You didn't feel guilty at all about this?
Kavaja Guilt? My dick. You don't know about guilt. Schnapps?
Stewart I'm still working on this one, thanks.
Kavaja After my commander was arrested, I was told that a lot of officers were arrested at the airport, and they also asked about me and my friend Sveto. I took my machine gun, a pistol, three grenades, a compass, binoculars, and a bag of clothes, and I became a deserter. That's a very serious thing, punishable by death. I knew they would chase us. Sveto and I decided to cross the border illegally into Austria.
To get to the border, we walked only at night. It wasn't easy terrain. There were mountains and canyons and lots of snow. We slept in the woods. Sveto got so tired he couldn't walk. So I put him on my back. Then we came to this mountain. It was covered in heavy snow, up to my waist in places, and the temperatures were below zero. It would have taken days to go over. But there was a tunnel through the mountain for trains. I decided to take a risk and go through the tunnel. I put Sveto down and he followed. The tunnel was a kilometre long. Sveto kept falling, but I pretended not to see him because I couldn't carry him anymore. Somehow we got through.
Just before we got to the border, there was a canyon. If you made one wrong step you'd fall to your death. The darkness was deep and I couldn't see much. I heard footsteps. I turned and there was a shadow moving along the mountain road. We couldn't run away because we were so tired. I aimed my machine gun in the shadow's direction. It came nearer and I saw that it was a woman. She said to us, "Bless you." She had a hood on, and I pulled back her hood and asked who she was. "I'm a teacher," she said. I asked for her documents. She was telling the truth, so I let her go. I should have killed her because I knew she was going to report us. I don't know why I didn't.
We had trouble at the border. Someone shouted stop. Then there were shots in our direction. We were in open space. Behind us were woods. We got down and fired back. The fight went on for 10 minutes. I went through two clips and threw three hand grenades. But we managed to get back into the woods and retreat to our border. I fired all but seven bullets.
We walked for an hour or so, then tried the border again. That time was worse. We got ambushed from three different directions. It was the Yugoslav People's Army, my own fucking army. They surrounded us, three of them with machine guns. The commander approached and asked where we were going. I reached into my leather jacket and said, "We were just visiting Svatko Lacovic." The commander said, 'There's no one here with that name. Where are your arms?" I said, "We don't have any. I just have gloves." When I took out the gloves, I drew my pistol, put it to his forehead, and pulled the trigger.
Stewart What about the guys with guns?
Kavaja I had seven bullets left. I could have taken them all. But my gun jammed. From behind, I was hit with a machine gun and I lost consciousness. Sveto just stood there. When I came to, there were 20 or so soldiers around.
We were moved to a jail on the border. One morning, they took us out and put us against a wall outside of the barracks. I thought they were going to shoot us. My legs and my hands were in chains. The commander of the division marched out all of the troops - all 5,000 of them - and gave a speech. He said: "From our Communist hands, no one will escape. These men were organising against our nation. We will spit on these traitors." After that, all of them lined up and spat on us, one at a time. One of my cousins came around four times. I couldn't believe it! Five thousand people spat on me. It was a psychological thing, a show to boost morale.
Stewart Pour me some schnapps.
Kavaja I don't want to talk about the trial, about being beaten up every day and every night. I was sentenced to 18 and a half years. After four years I escaped into Austria, where I was picked up and shipped to a US Army base in Stuttgart. They thought I was KGB, but after months of interviews, three intelligence officers introduced themselves and offered me political asylum.
Stewart Is that how you started working for the CIA? How did they ask you to join them?
Kavaja They asked me, my dick. They didn't ask. They checked me out for seven months. They thought I was KGB. I had to prove myself. I bombed some Communist buses - Yugoslavian buses - in Vienna. It was their way of testing my loyalty. They liked me because of my history. I was young and fearless and hated Communism.
So I started to work dirty jobs against Yugoslavia, against Russia - sabotage, spying, exposing double agents, assassinations. I did some very bad things, but I accepted my destiny. In 1959, I uncovered a gang of Yugoslavians smuggling arms to Algeria. They would come in dressed up like priests. I tracked them down and killed them. There were never any reports about the people who disappeared. They might as well have never lived.
Stewart So you were like God, deciding who would and wouldn't die?
Kavaja My superiors made the final decisions. I killed. One person is on my conscience. She was a double agent from East Germany. I was sleeping in the desert in a tent because that was the only place safe from the war. I received an order from military intelligence to kill this woman. When I got her, she didn't know what I was going to do. She was probably 23 years old. I asked for her family name and where she lived. There would be no official report - she would just disappear - and I wanted to send a message to her family and say where they could find her.
Stewart Why her?
Kavaja There was something about her. I just wanted to do her a favour. Even when I was in prison in the United States I dreamt about her. She was not the first one or the last one. But I felt sorry for her. She was so young. But she was a proud girl. She spat on me.
Stewart And you shot her?
Kavaja What do you think? I didn't rape her. I told her to walk ahead of me. And I shot her in the back.
Stewart Did you think she deserved that?
Kavaja I never worried about killing an innocent person. I wasn't trained to kill innocent people. I killed people on my level - soldier to soldier, agent to agent. It is not my job to think about innocence or guilt. She didn't ask for mercy. She was probably guilty. But she stays with me. No one else does.
Stewart How were you paid?
Kavaja By the job. For the bigger jobs, like assassinating Tito, I would be paid US$15,000. For most jobs, US$10,000. They dropped the money off at my house.
Stewart You didn't assassinate Tito - but you tried?
Kavaja Killing Tito was a big mission. For almost a decade, I hunted him. I was never a traitor - I wanted to save my country. That's why I was good for this mission. I was ready to give my life for it. If I died one second after I killed Tito I wouldn't care. He killed my three brothers. He destroyed my country. I went to jail. I lost everything.
In 1963 I got information that Tito was coming to North and South America for a tour. Our intelligence said it would be easier to kill him in South America because the security would be much thinner down there. Tito always travelled with his own agents, about 125 State Security Service men. These men went a few months in advance to clean up all the political dissidents. When I say clean up, I mean jail or kill. They had files on these people. Of course, they had a big file on me, too. The government wanted me dead. The State Security Service sent people to try to assassinate me. When I returned to Serbia in the 1990s, a Montenegrin man came and said to me, I was supposed to kill you in 1976 in the States, but I couldn't find you. We laughed about it.
Anyway, to kill Tito, I worked with Dragica Kacikovic and a third Serbian guy that I won't name because he is still undercover. We weren't maniacs. We didn't just decide, "Hey, we're going to go kill Tito." We got our orders from the CIA and planned it out carefully.
Rio de Janeiro was our first shot. Dragica went first. He got fake documents and travelled as a Mexican journalist with a sombrero and a video camera. I followed with the third guy. I took a Colt .45 and a .357 Magnum and I was disguised as a Catholic priest - with a long black robe and a black hat.
We had informants in the town who provided us with information. We knew Tito liked to go out on the town, eat, and see chicks. I waited for word that he was out on the town and then I would shoot him. But Brazil was not our time. Tito stayed in the house throughout his stay. He didn't move from the building for two days. We didn't see him come and we didn't see him go. One day he was there and then he was gone. Like a ghost.
Stewart Was that a major letdown for you?
Kavaja I didn't panic. From Brazil, I followed him to Santiago, Chile, then Mexico City. Then I got a message to come to Washington DC right away, because Tito was on his way. That was the most dangerous place for us as a group. The FBI was searching for us. They were working with the Yugoslav State Security Service.
Stewart I thought you worked with the CIA?
Kavaja But the CIA and the FBI didn't share informants. They were rival organisations. There were rewards for our capture from the FBI. My last attempt to kill him was 1971 at Camp David in Maryland. He was going there to visit Richard Nixon. No one can carry a gun around Camp David, but I went alone, dressed as a Maryland State Trooper. I couldn't get on the actual property, but I got up into a tree where I could see the chopper with binoculars. I had my sniper rifle with me. My thought was that at some point Tito would take a walk into the woods. He liked to take walks. It was beautiful, I thought. Who wouldn't take a walk? I waited all day and night.
Stewart In the tree? You didn't sleep?
Kavaja No. I couldn't kill him if I was asleep. You don't know anything about this kind of thing. Sleep! What a fucking joker.
Stewart Did Tito ever go for a walk?
Kavaja Never. After two days, he left. And that was it. Nothing. So I didn't get him. But I did a lot of damage to his regime and to Communism.
Stewart You had a Serbian terrorist organisation didn't you?
Kavaja It was a freedom group. I called it Freedom for the Serbian Fatherland - Sopo. We got money from the CIA. We bombed the Yugoslav embassies in Washington and Ottawa, and the consulates in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Toronto. Bin Laden stole our strategies. But after that the State Department got a lot of pressure from Tito to track us down and extradite us. It was a big mess.
Stewart Did they catch up with you?
Kavaja Not until 1978. I was in New York on my way to a friend's house and more than 20 agents with guns ambushed me on
Third Avenue. They arrested over a hundred of us. A judge in Chicago found us guilty but delayed the sentencing for a month. I got out on $250,000 bail. The judge released everyone except for Stojilko Kajevic, who went by the name Priest. He helped me lead Sopo. The FBI thought he was the most dangerous. That was a mistake. After the trial I told Priest that I was ready to do a hijacking I'd been talking about. My plan was to land in Chicago, pick Priest up, and then fly to Belgrade and crash into the Communist Central Committee building.
Stewart So that's what you did when you got out on bail - hijacked a plane?
Kavaja First I returned home to see my family. One day I got a call from Priest. He said, "Send me the memorandum." I said, "For whom?" "President Carter," he said. That night, I went into my basement, where I made bombs. I made two of them built into two beer bottles. The telephone rang - this is funny - it was an FBI agent from Chicago, Al King. He said, "Hi Nik, how are you?" I told him, "I'm making a bomb for tomorrow." He thought I was joking. It was a big scandal in the trial later on. You can check the court files. It's all there. After I finished, I went upstairs. I took some long socks from my daughter's room and stuffed the bottles in my trouser legs. I put on my trousers and looked in the mirror and you couldn't see that anything was in there. I was ready. I went to sleep at around 1am.
Stewart How could you sleep?
Kavaja I had done a hundred more difficult operations. I never feared that I would make a mistake. I woke up at five, just like any other day. My wife woke up with me. She cooked me a steak for breakfast. That's all I eat - steaks. I said goodbye like any other morning. I had the bombs strapped to my leg and dynamite in a leather suitcase. A cab took me to the airport. I ordered a brandy at the airport bar and relaxed. I checked in and waited by security for the right moment to pass. I knew if a police officer stopped me, I would have to kill him. I was going to get on that plane. That's all that was on my mind. I saw an albino couple with a lot of camping equipment passing through security. So I went with them. They set the alarm off. The police stopped them, but not me.
I got on the plane to Chicago. It was an American Airlines 727. My seat was number 23 on the left side of the plane. Next to me was a woman from Poland who had never been to the United States. Imagine that. She has to get on my plane! We drank a brandy together. We talked. Fifteen minutes before we landed, I said goodbye to the her and went to the bathroom.
I got the bombs ready, then went to the cockpit. The stewardess asked me what I needed. I said, "Give me the key to the cabin." She was paralysed. I put my hand in her pocket, took the key, and opened the cabin. There were four pilots. They didn't hear me open the door. When one of them tried to stand up, I forced him down. His name was Mitchell. I showed them the explosives and said, "This is my plane now, I am responsible for your lives, if you make a mistake, we will all go to God."
After a few minutes, Mitchell asked me what I wanted - money or what? I told him to get me in touch with the FBI. Al King got on the line. He was absolutely crazy! He said, "Nik, you're late for court." I said, "Listen, in five minutes I'm going to fly over the courthouse. I told you last night that I was making bombs." He said, "Why do you make jokes?" I said, "You'll see me in five minutes."
I flew over the courthouse three or four times. The stewardess brought me a brandy. Eventually, we landed and I parked the plane at the far edge of the airport. There were 128 passengers and eight crew members. Hundreds of police surrounded the plane on the runway. The FBI asked me what I wanted. I said, "I want Priest." Passengers kept asking for things. One woman said she was going to give birth and I said, "What the fuck is going on? I'm not a doctor, I'm a terrorist."
The FBI sent a lawyer out to the plane to talk me out of it, but I said it was too late. Then he begged me to release the passengers. That was the riskiest moment. I worried that the FBI would attack. But I had the bomb trigger in hand and I told them not to mess around because I could blow the plane up in a second. The briefcase of dynamite was at my chest. I gave the passengers five minutes to get off. You should have seen these fat Negroes! It was hilarious. Looking at them you wouldn't expect them to be so fast. But they were off in seconds. At the end there were four people left: Mitchell, a co-pilot, my lawyer, and the stewardess.
Stewart What about Priest?
Kavaja Priest finally called me. But it wasn't good. He said, "Brother Nikola, I'm not coming with you." That was the most difficult moment. I sacrificed everything for this, my wife, my kids, my life. We had a deal. We were going to take the plane to Yugoslavia. It was his job to show me the building we were going to hit. I hadn't been back to Yugoslavia for decades. The Communist Central Committee building was built in the 1960s. I didn't know the land. I didn't know what to do at that point. But he got off the phone and it was over.
I told them to fuel the plane and then I told Mitchell we were leaving. There were 40 or 50 cars following the plane as we drove down the runway. Mitchell asked me what the plan was and I said, "New York." On the way, I demanded a 707, a much bigger plane, and a new crew to meet me at JFK. No one knew what I was going to do. When we landed, the 707 was there. We pulled up. I took Mitchell and the co-pilot and tied them to me. I wanted to make sure I didn't get killed on the way across and that the new pilots were not impostors. There were hundreds of police snipers. But I had this living wall around me.
After we left New York, I finally told my lawyer the plan. You should have seen his eyes. He was a baby. We flew for hours. But then I had second thoughts. I was ready to die. But I didn't know where the Central Communist building was in Belgrade. I didn't want to kill regular civilians. That was never my job. I wanted to kill Tito and the biggest symbol of the Communist Party - not go down as the guy who killed innocent people. My friend betrayed me and I lost the target.
Stewart So you're up there with a stolen 707, a bunch of hostages, and nowhere to go.
Kavaja I didn't want to lose my life for nothing. That was the point. But you don't have time to think. My lawyer said that Ireland didn't have an extradition agreement with the United States. I'd get political asylum, I'd be safe. So we landed there. I gave up the explosives and let everyone go. Then the negotiations started between the authorities of Ireland, my lawyer, and the States. Of course, they all betrayed me. Ireland sent me back to the US. That was it. This time it was over for real.
I was in prison from 1979 to 1997. First, I went to Marion prison in Illinois. Solitary confinement. Noriega was in the same place. I never left my cell. I had three shirts, three pairs of trousers, three towels, and two blankets from like World War One. I had a mouse friend who visited me at night. There was no regular toilet - it was in the floor and you had to be a good pilot to get everything in there. I did push-ups - thousands of them a day - and thought about my wife and kids, and I thought about Tito.
Stewart After 20 years, they let you out.
Kavaja Yeah. It was a long time. And I'm on parole until 2019.
Stewart So how did you get back to Serbia?
Kavaja I'm supposed to be in the States. But I left. I didn't ask anybody. Now I can't go back or they'd send me to prison. I can't see my wife or kids. I went to Mexico and then Brazil and then South Africa. From there, I went to Athens, then Serbia.
Stewart How were you treated when you returned to Serbia?
Kavaja I had a reception at a military bunker in the mountains. It was early 1999, when Kosovo was going on. They were cooking mushrooms. That shit's not for me. I only eat steak. I told them, "We need to fight on their territory. Let's go to Albania and Macedonia and fight the Albanians that way. That's the only way we are going to win." They didn't listen. A few months later, they bombed Belgrade. And the war was over.
Stewart Do you have enemies?
Kavaja I have lots of enemies - ex-Communists, State Security Service from Tito's day - but I'm not afraid. I have protection. And I can take care of myself. If someone wanted to assassinate me, I know how they'd do it because I was an assassin myself. See this? This is my best friend in all my life. It's a German gun from before World War Two, made in 1938. A Luger 9mm. Very good gun.
Stewart Is it loaded?
Kavaja Not right now.
Stewart What's the point of having a gun under your table if it's not loaded?
Kavaja You know nothing about guns! There are bullets in it, but they aren't engaged. I can engage it in a second. My dick. You're a silly man!
Stewart So you're still ready to fight?
Kavaja I'm still strong. I work out every day except Saturday and Sunday. My hands are scarred from explosives, but I can still get down on the floor and do push-ups. I do 200 push-ups, squats, like this, off the side of bed. At one time, I could do 3,000.
Stewart How many people have you killed so far?
Kavaja There are so many things that I can't even tell you. How many I killed is not important. I count to 17 and then stop counting.
Kavaja It's just a number. My first kill was when I was 14 and my last was, I don't know, maybe in 1976. But I'm not going to talk about that. I probably shouldn't have said a lot of the things I said. I have my wife and kids in the United States still.
Stewart What does it feel like to assassinate someone?
Kavaja What the fuck?
Stewart After such an extreme life, it must be hard to settle down and call it quits?
Kavaja It's not over. I still fuck good. I've got a couple of young girls. You see this one here? Her tits! Her hair! I also have other jobs to do, but we won't talk about that. I have money and girls and that's a good life for me. I've got a house in Montenegro, a big apartment in Novi Sad. I got this apartment in Belgrade. I'm set up.
Stewart I see pictures on your wall of Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. Are they idols?
Kavaja These are big men.
Stewart And big murderers.
Kavaja American presidents killed too.
Stewart How do you think you'll be remembered?
Christopher S Stewart is writing a book on the Serbian warlord Arkan, published next year. This interview originally appeared in 'The Paris Review'. A new collection, 'The Paris Review Interviews, Vol 1', is published by Canongate on 18 January, priced £14.99
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