Former general Jovan Divjak became a symbol of Sarajevo’s spirit of survival when he joined the Bosnian Muslim army to defend his city from an infamous Serb siege that left thousands dead.
Two decades on, Divjak is still struggling for a multiethnic Bosnia. However, to his fellow Serbs, he is nothing but a traitor.
On April 8, 1992, Divjak joined the Bosnian Muslim army to defend Sarajevo from what would become a grueling 44-month siege by Serb forces that left 10,000 people dead.
Residents of the Bosnian capital see Divjak as an idol who symbolizes the multi-ethnic Bosnia he fought to preserve during the 1992-1995 war.
“Jovan! Good health and long life, my general,” passer-by Smail Tokaca shouts on a recent walk through Sarajevo’s streets, near the Jewish cemetery where the frontline used to be.
Several others stop to greet the 75-year-old former soldier.
“He is a great man ... one of the rare generals who was often on the frontlines,” said Tokaca, a former Muslim soldier. “We trusted him implicitly.”
After the war broke out, Divjak opted to stand with Bosnian Muslims and Croats who fought against Bosnian Serbs backed by the former Yugoslav People’s Army.
The newly formed and mainly Muslim Bosnian army needed experienced officers to train the many volunteers lacking military experience.
“I was invited to the [army] headquarters and I was asked whether I wanted to be a deputy commander of territorial defense,” Divjak said. “I liked the idea of multi-ethnic command of the Bosnian army.”
Divjak moved to Sarajevo in 1966 and said there was never a question of him leaving his adopted hometown.
“I stayed with the people of Sarajevo, where I have been living for 47 years now in the same -neighborhood, where we are three communities [Muslims, Serbs and Croats] without any problems,” he said.
He slammed Bosnian Serb wartime political and military leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic as war criminals. Both currently face trial at the UN war crimes tribunal for their role in the war that left 100,000 people dead.
Divjak is equally critical of some of his Muslim former comrades in arms. While the war was still raging in 1993, he openly protested the murders of Bosnian Serbs and Croats in Sarajevo by some members of the Muslim army.
An unrelenting defender of human rights, he retired from the army in 1998 and symbolically denounced his rank of brigadier-general to protest the authorities’ inaction on war crimes committed by Bosnian army members.
“It was primarily a moral, -ethical and professional reaction,” he said.
Divjik surfaced in the international news last year after he was arrested in Vienna on charges brought by Serbia, which accused him of war crimes for a 1992 attack on a Yugoslav army convoy in Sarajevo in which 18 soldiers were killed.
He denies the allegations and was allowed to return to Bosnia almost five months after his arrest when an Austrian court rejected Serbia’s extradition request. The experience rattled him.
“It was a hard experience for me,” he said, adding that it taught him who his real friends are.