Josh Irby

Live from Sarajevo

From Mafia to Minister: Slavko’s Story (p1)

Once a month, I highlight the life of one ordinary person who by facing difficulty or choosing to do hard things, lives a better story. This week, I am telling the story of my friend Slavko.
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Slavko thought there was no problem he couldn’t solve with money, power, or connections. On April 10, 1992, all of that changed.

When Slavko was nineteen he joined the mafia. His family had money, but he wanted to make something more out of his life. Of course, at less than 180lbs, he didn’t look the part. But he was a part of one of the most successful businesses in his hometown, Mostar—a mid-sized city on the western side of Yugoslavia in the region known as Hercegovina.

Slavko and his slot machines

Slavko and his slot machines

In those days, at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, the political seams of Yugoslavia had already begun to tear apart. Mostar was an ethnically diverse town—Serbs, Croats, and Muslims living together. However, the seeds of division were already sown. The Neretva River runs through the valley of Mostar and divides the city into eastern and western halves. Spanning the divide is a 16th century bridge built by the Ottoman Empire which once ruled the region. In many ways, the Old Bridge—Stari Most—bound Mostar to the east and to its past.

A few miles upstream from the white stones of Stari Most, Slavko began working in a seedy coffee bar, Café Lira, managing and repairing the slot machines. It was a small establishment—twelve slot machines, a bouncer, and a prostitute—but it was a start. The locals tested their luck with the dropping of a coin and the pulling of a lever. They then had the option of celebrating their victory, or mourning their loss, with a stiff drink and female companionship. In Café Lira, Slavko was the majstor (a word meaning both fix-it man and maestro).  To most people there, he was both: the master of the house and the one who kept their hopes, i.e. slot machines, alive. In Lira, he was somebody.

One afternoon Slavko was cleaning his family’s car outside of his grandmother’s house. In Mostar, especially in neighborhoods like the one where Slavko lived, everyone knew everyone else’s business. Slavko looked up from his work to see the woman who worked at the Café and two other prostitutes walking down the street towards him. It was like a scene out of Pretty Woman; there was no mistaking their profession. He froze. He imagined what his grandmother would say if word got back to her that prostitutes were greeting her grandson, “Hey Majstore!” Not knowing what to do, he threw himself under the car until they passed. He managed to keep his secret a little while longer.

In his first month of work, Slavko made more money than his mother—a university graduate and the director of a big hotel in town. Not all of the money was from his paycheck, though. Everyone stole from everyone else. The boss, Žorže* (pronounced like a drunk Frenchman saying George) had a contract with the various coffee shops and hotels in town where he placed his slot machines. He got 60% and they got 40% of the take. He worked hard, though, to ensure they never got their full percentage. However, while Žorže was stealing from the hotels, his chief man in Bosnia, Slavko’s boss, was stealing from Žorže. Fake jackpots. Two sets of books. It was the business inside of the business. Money exchanged hands to buy silence. Everyone was in on it. Even the bouncer.

Tired of losing money through the back door, Žorže once had his team of technicians design a box that went inside of each machine to prevent stealing. It was foolproof. That is, until the same technicians realized there is more money in stealing than its prevention. They designed a new gadget to circumvent the box. They wanted a share of the take too.

The internal business of stealing from one another was much more dangerous than the external one. Slavko wasn’t afraid to threaten a man twice his size. The whole organization—and a very large bouncer—was behind him. No one dared cross the majstor. On one occasion, though, the bouncer corned Slavko in a hallway, grabbing him by the throat and slamming him against the wall. He thought Slavko had cut him out of his take. Slavko grabbed the pistol he carried in the small of his back and jammed it in the bouncer’s chest. He backed down. That was the only time he had to pull his weapon—and on one of his own.

Slavko began rising through the ranks. Soon he was overseeing three different cafés. He was made “Income Inspector”, a position created by his boss to cut down on the stealing. It only provided him a greater opportunity to steal. Eventually he had collected enough money to buy slot machines of his own.

During this time, he also met a beautiful young girl named Sanja. She was perfect in every way except one: she was religious. Slavko was a staunch atheist and loyal communist party member. For him there was no need for religion. He told Sanja that he wanted to date her, but only if she met his conditions. First, she had to throw out the cross earrings that she wore every day. Second, she had to stop going to church. She reluctantly agreed.

Slavko and Sanja in Mostar (The Old Bridge in the background)

Slavko and Sanja in Mostar (The Old Bridge in the background)

Slavko was a success. He had everything he needed to solve the problems in his life: money, power, and connections.

Then, in April 1992, a semi truck filled with dynamite exploded in front of the Yugoslav army base only a mile down the road from Café Lira. Yugoslavia was falling into chaos. Mostar was thrust into war.

Each side of the ethnically diverse city was preparing for battle. The Yugoslav army was conscripting any young male they could find, as were the Serb and Croatian forces. Slavko had served his time in the reserves, so they were looking for him by name. He was not afraid to fight, he just did not know how to choose a side. If he joined the Yugoslav army, he would be fighting against his own city. If he joined the Serbian army he would be fighting his mother’s family. If he joined the Croatian army, he would be fighting against his father’s family.

No amount of money, power, or connections could save him from this situation. For two weeks he stayed the night with friends. He knew if he returned home, they would conscript him by force.

He felt more lost than ever before. One day he was wandering through the town with Sanja, when they passed a church. Sanja asked if she could go in to pray; Slavko reluctantly agreed, planning to stay outside and wait for her. Something, that night, compelled him to follow her into the church. He stood alone at the back of the sanctuary unsure how to pray. Eventually he just said what came to his mind, “God, if you exist, please help me.” After that he recited a list of promises that he would fulfill if God came through for him. Then they left the sanctuary.

That was the first time Slavko ever prayed.

Read what happens to Slavko and Sanja here.

*After the war, Žorže fled to France, on the run  from the police. He escaped the police but not his past. He was murdered by the Russian mafia while traveling Prague. Slavko’s direct report survived the war, but was later arrested. He spent 10 years in prison for murder.

Slavko relied on money, power and connections to solve his problems. What do you rely on? Let me know in the comments below. (Or leave a question for Slavko and he will answer it.)


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