Bosnia and Herzegovina

Jovan Divjak

“It was my decision and my duty to be on the side of those who were in jeopardy, regardless of their origin”.

Interview by Haris Kušmić

Jovan Divjak was a general, and later activist, who served in the Bosnian Army during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995. He passed away in April 2021 at the age of 84.

Divjak and his family background reflect the multi-ethnic and multi-faith society of Bosnia and Herzegovina whose diversity is contested until today. He was born in 1937 in Belgrade and grew up in economically deprived circumstances in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia in the former Yugoslavia. He graduated from the Military Academy, the Command and Staff Academy and the War School as well as the French Army Staff School.

Divjak’s biography embodies the intertwining borderlines that still shape the lives of many people in the former Yugoslavian countries. Although he was born in Belgrade, he spent most of his military career of the Yugoslav Peoples Army in Bosnia. When the former Yugoslavia begun disintegrating and the war started in April 1992, he joined the Bosnian army, as one of very few ethnic Serbs.

In 1992 he was tasked with defending Sarajevo during the longest siege in Europe in modern times, which cost the lives of more than 10,000, and became a symbol of the defence of the city. Later, he was prosecuted by the Serbian state. Though he is an ethnic Serb, he publicly declares himself a Bosnian, a category which is officially referred to as the “Other” in the country. 

After the war ended in 1995, Divjak retired from the army. In 1994 he had already established the foundation „Education Builds Bosnia and Herzegovina” which provides scholarships, humanitarian activities, and other support for the youth, regardless of their ethnicity and faith. 

Divjak received much recognition for his commitment to a multi-ethnic post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina, including France’s Legion of Honour – the first given to a Bosnian.

In this interview by Haris Kušmić conducted in August 2019, Divjak spoke about his childhood and youth in the former Yugoslavia, and explained the background to the life changing decision he took during the Bosnian war – a decision against all odds in an intensely ethnically charged conflict. Divjak described his life, shaped by times of war and peace, as a marathon which he continues running. Divjak passed away in April 2021.

Jovan Divjak was interviewed by Haris Kušmić, who works for USAID at the US Embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 2017, he was given the Young European of the Year award by the Schwarzkopf Foundation.

Interview Highlights

Life during Second World War  

When I think of the war, I remember that I saw corpses on the Danube—these villages were along the Danube in Romania. I remember one particular evening in 1944, probably a winter evening. My sister and I were with my mother, she was making a cake. There was a knock on the door. It was the military—we called them the Swabians—and my mother quickly threw some sheets on the table. They came in, inquired after my father, my mother said he was off to Timișoara to collect his salary. They started looking around, checking—he wasn’t there. But they saw that on top of the cupboard there was a cake, a fruit cake that my mother had made. She offered them some cake, just to appease them. She sat down as soon as they left. “Ha!” [she said.] What for? My mother had made or sewn five-pointed stars on some caps. You can be sure that, had they seen this, the two of us would not be speaking now.

Growing up in Yugoslavia

There are also some nice stories related to Zrenjanin, typical of my youth. I tried various things there. This finger, which you can see is broken: I was the goalkeeper for Proleter. I’m bowlegged, footballs went right through my legs. I played marbles with my friends, never won. I went fishing, never caught a single fish. Nevertheless, I enjoyed myself, particularly at the movies. […] My mother could not always afford to buy tickets for the movies, but I would still get in with fake tickets. I remember, it was quarter to six, I entered the Vojvodina movie theatre, there was a screening of The Wages of Fear, with Yves Montand I think. And I sat down in row sixteen—there were two seats there, otherwise it was full. Then I saw someone walking up behind me, I saw these were their seats. I switched seats three times and ended up in the front row, in front of the screen, where there was nobody. I wouldn’t have minded being caught and kicked out; it was for my mother’s sake […] Occasionally my mother wouldn’t cook, and then I used to go to a hotel. As I was tall and very thin, the cooks would put a piece of meat at the bottom and would cover it with stewed vegetables, and I would pay for the stewed vegetables only. There you have it. I remember that materially poor but spiritually rich period.

First encounter with Europe 

Well, I encountered Europe when I went there for school. In 1964 and 1965 I was at the military school in Paris [L’École d’état-major]. At this school you could see a German for the first time; he was your enemy not so long ago. You attend the same classes with him. Listen to this: out of fourteen of us in my group, thirteen were French. I was the only foreigner. But there were people from all over the world in such groups. So, at the command headquarters academy, there were people from America, Russia, from everywhere. 

Life decisions

Well, it wasn’t a special decision, it was my duty, a professional one. Yes, when I was offered, on 8 April [1992], the post of Deputy Commander of the Territorial Defence of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina . . . Journalists have asked me regularly, “How did you decide to accept?” It was my professional decision and my duty to be on the side of those who were in jeopardy, regardless of their origin. If you learn that the first person killed here in Sarajevo was on Trebević on 1 March, if you read in the newspapers that a boy was killed in April at Kobilja Glava, if in the meantime you learn that Olga and Suada were killed, then you ask yourself, “What are you doing? It is your duty to play a part in stopping it.” Thus what for many of those around me, for journalists, for the media, was a decision—“Now, there’s a decision”—for me it was a duty, not a decision but a duty. I draw the line there, a decision and a professional obligation.

On Europe

Europe is divided. Totally divided. There are twenty-nine or twenty—how many member states in the EU? But where are the others? Who runs Europe? Its economy? Its culture? Who manages it? Three, four states. So, there is no stable system in Europe that allows for the development of each country’s democracy in its own way. It imposes. Europe imposes relations upon those who are not EU members. Well, such a Europe is simply a political-military force. Military, because—why is Europe getting involved in Syrian wars? Why? Why does Europe need Afghanistan? Why is Europe dealing with that? Europe is not the world’s police. [It is] because Europe depends on America. […] That’s how I see Europe. It sets the rules. Europe has decided to accept Romania and Bulgaria because they have borders with Russia, even though they haven’t achieved much. And every five to six years they change the criteria, go looking for different ones. When I talk about Europe, I would rather talk more about individual countries. You know very well that Europe condemns Germany for being the first state to recognise Slovenia and Croatia. And it claims that if they hadn’t done so, Milošević would not have gone to war. And what about Europe? Why didn’t Europe stop the war in Croatia? Why didn’t it thwart Milošević between 1989 and the nineties, or when he enacted the new constitution in 1989, abolishing the rights of Albanians and Vojvodinans? Why didn’t Europe react then? That’s where the problems are, these are the roots of all the evil that is happening at the beginning of the twenty-first century. They mutually disagree.

On recognition

Well, praise is when people stop me on the street. Give me a hug. Take selfies. It was funny, the other day, on Sunday—or was it Saturday? [A man approached me and said,] “General, we are from Canada, we would like to come meet you.” “Excuse me? Canada?!” A man, a woman, two young girls, twelve, thirteen years old. The man started tearing up, the woman too. There it is—that’s the praise. Everywhere. The other day I was in Kladanj—sorry, Kakanj. They had a long race, two-and-a-half kilometres long, so they invited me to hand out some awards. And I was welcomed—do you know what a pleasure it is when people greet you warmly, welcome you, or when someone stops you on the street after twenty-seven years? These are my rewards.

About the Future of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia, in its current form, will last. Europe won’t let it [be split apart]. There were some attempts, even before, to do something linking it to Kosovo. Europe prevented it thanks to Merkel and the French guy. Serbia won’t give it up, it wants its own part of Kosovo. Serbia is aware that it has lost Kosovo but wants to gather as great a Serb majority as possible. Europe has taken part in it so far but we don’t know what will happen tomorrow, as Russia supports Serbia’s position towards Kosovo. And you can see Dačić [president of the National Assembly of Serbia] boasting . . . they brag about it. There you have it, they brag about it. 

The [process of being admitted to the EU] is very slow simply because they are not single-minded about Europe. Some say, “Well, there are still three peoples here, four dominant religions, and it’s difficult to harmonise.” Then they say, “What about Belgium?” It doesn’t work there either, they are constantly at war. They don’t want one another. You know, I was in Belgium four times, visiting our friend. In the north, near the sea, he has inscriptions in Flemish. He doesn’t even have them in English, his monuments, streets. Only [Flemish]. That part a bit of Germany, France. No way, no. Last year they didn’t have a government for around a year. They are not shooting but there isn’t, there isn’t this—there is peace under olive trees but there is no understanding.

To young Europeans

And another thing: for young people, of course. Mandela used to say that education was the strongest weapon we can use to change the world. New technologies in education enable young people to communicate, which means that family expands to encompass other people, which is very significant. They must communicate among themselves, to actively fight any form of fascism, nationalism, together. If it’s purely in the family, it can’t be extended to others. Young people must become engaged in politics. They must. But a politics that leads towards democracy, tolerance, peace—not extremes. […] Certainly, young people can and should play a huge role with regard to Europe. There aren’t many young people in the [European Union] or the Council of Europe. There are few young people there. They should oppose all extremists and all extremes. I mean, these are the steps that young people should learn [to take].

The views expressed in the interviews are those of the interviewers and interviewees and do not necessarily reflect those of Arbeit and Europa.

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