Stalemate in Sarajevo

An Interview with Jovan Divjak

Sarajevo, Bosnia
Stalemate in Sarajevo : An Interview with Jovan Divjak - Jovan Divjak


the Bologna Center Journal of International Affairs had an opportunity to interview Mr. Divjak in his office in Sarajevo, and subsequently over the telephone from Italy. Translation provided by Jadranka Poljak (SAIS BC, 2011).

General Divjak retraces the position his forces held in the mountains around Sarajevo. (Photo: Samuel George) 

Can you brief us on your military history?

I joined the academy for Army Cadets in 1959, and I was in the army until 1984. In 1984 I joined the territorial branch of Bosnia Herzegovina. At that point there was the Yugoslavian army, and each republic had its own territorial army. When Bosnia Herzegovina was attacked, I was not part of the Yugoslav army. I was part of the force charged with defending Bosnia.

Under former Yugoslav President Josip Tito, did you feel an allegiance to Yugoslavia or to Bosnia-Herzegovina?

I thought of myself as Yugoslavian. Tito was an eminent leader, and was recognized as such by the entire military, including the territorial armies. He was a great national leader. Other countries, for example, China and India, looked at him as a great leader. I felt the same way.

What did Yugoslavia mean to you?

All the states of the Warsaw Pact were envious of Yugoslavia. As a socialist country, the workers were at the top. The constitution guaranteed equal rights, there was access to free education, unemployment was below 10 percent, and there were limited travel restrictions. The Yugoslav passport was recognized throughout the world. Tito led us from a small agrarian economy to a middle-income state.

Of course there was a negative side. Certain economic reforms should have been passed in the 1970s, but these reforms were considered anti-constitutional, and those that supported them—often innocent people—were persecuted and thrown in jail.

After Tito died, could anyone have held Yugoslavia together?

Under Tito, there was always a concern that Yugoslavia could come undone due to ethnic divisions. There was a presidential committee with members from each republic, and Tito thought that that committee had a chance to hold Yugoslavia together. I don’t believe he realized the boiling nationalist sentiments. After Tito’s death, this nationalism exploded in every republic. The strongest strain of this nationalism was Serbian, and the Serbs looked to dominate the region. So yes, the war could have been avoided, but there was not enough political will to establish equal rights between Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians.

Slovenia and Croatia offered Serbian President Slobodan Milošević and the Serbs cooperation without domination, but Milošević’s rhetoric guaranteed that if all Serbs did not live in one republic, there would be war. Meanwhile, the European Parliament hardly reacted when Serbia attacked Croatia in June 1991.

As for Bosnia-Herzegovina, remember that we are comprised of three peoples: Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. We did not share a vision with either Serbia or Croatia. Bosnian Serbs wanted Bosnia to remain part of Yugoslavia, which meant siding with Milošević. Bosniak Muslims did not want to remain in Yugoslavia, and Bosnian Croatians felt stuck in the middle, unsure of what they wanted. On February 29 and March 1, 1992, a referendum was held on this matter, which further polarized the division in Bosnia. Even at this point I believe conflict could have been avoided if the European union had made it clear to both Croatia and Serbia that troops in Bosnia would not be tolerated.

You are Serbian by descent, and you believed strongly in Yugoslavia. You had Milošević, a strong Serbian leader working to maintain the Yugoslavian union. It would have been easy for you to support Milošević, yet you did not. Why?

I identified myself as a Bosnian, not as a Serb. I lived in Sarajevo 27 years before the aggression started. I was a general in the territorial Defense force of Bosnia-Herzegovina. I knew that Serb units were armed by the Yugoslav National Army, and I did not accept that. It was natural for me to support the weaker side. I did not agree with the politics of the Yugoslav national Army, nor with the politics of Milošević. I was in no type of dilemma whatsoever. As a professional, I had to support the weaker side in the struggle.

Did other ranking members in your position join Milošević?

There were very few high ranking Serbs in the Bosnian forces, and they remained loyal to the Bosnian army. But the majority of the generals of the Yugoslav national army were Serbian, and they joined Milošević. But my professional duty was to remain with the side that was attacked.

It must have been difficult to fight for Bosnia, and give up on the idea of Yugoslavia.

Of course, I was sad when the idea of Yugoslavia died. But it was killed by the Serbs; it was killed by Slovenia and Croatia. It was never killed by Bosnia. By the time of war, I was simply defending my family and my city. I would have done the same thing if I were an Eskimo. It was about humanity, not nationality.

Were you surprised that Sarajevo was attacked?

Even when the war hit Croatia, we never thought there would be a war in Bosnia, and for sure, never in Sarajevo. In the beginning of the war, I still believed it would deescalate before it reached Sarajevo. But, by July 1992, [with the siege under way], I began to realize the seriousness of the situation. I told my soldiers to be prepared; that this would last another three or four years.

Were you confident in the position of your defense of Sarajevo?

Fear existed. We knew the artillery the Serbs had. They had between 80 and 100 tanks. We had three, and they were immediately destroyed. The Serbian army had more than three times the heavy artillery we had. We prevented them from entering the city shorthanded. People wonder why the Serb army could not enter Sarajevo. The Serbs did not have enough man power. In order to enter a city, you need to have two to three times the soldiers of the defending army. In Bosnia, we had 45,000 soldiers, even if only a third of them were armed. Serbian forces never exceeded 25,000. I think they would have needed about 80,000 soldiers. And our morale grew. Our morale was stronger than that of the attackers. We tried many times to break the stranglehold on the city, but we never had the heavy artillery or the ammunition. It was a stalemate, and that is why the city of Sarajevo remained in blockade for 44 months, or 1,350 days.

Given that this year’s journal focuses on leadership, can you discuss the pressure associated with commanding an army charged with defending an entire city?

I was always with the soldiers. I was not in an office; I was in the mountains leading the troops. For me, the people of the city were the heroes: the women who sent their husbands to the front line, who worked in the hospital, and who cooked for the men. For me, these are the heroes.

But in your darkest hour, did you ever fear what would happen if you could not defend the city? Did you ever feel that you were on the verge of being routed?

May 2 and 3, 1992.1 July 1993.2 the Massacre of May 27, 1992.3 the Massacre of February 5, 1994.4 August 28, 1995.5 those dates remain in my memory and I will never forget them. All I could do was try to help the survivors. Some people deserted from the front line, but overall, we held strong.

Was the Dayton Accord a celebratory moment for you?

Stopping the war was a good idea. Dividing the country was not. In the end, the international community concluded that the Serbs were the aggressors, yet they were given half of the country. Still now, there are tendencies within Republika Srpska, (the Serb region of Bosnia-Herzegovina), to hold referendums demanding independence, or to unite with Serbia.

Can there be peace in a divided Bosnia?

The verbal conflict creates insecurity. Our future is in Europe, but Europe has to help us overcome our ethnic divisions. Europe needs to help us establish a new constitution replacing entities with regions. Just like America and Europe forced us to accept the Dayton Accords, Europe needs to force us to accept a new, functioning, long term constitution.

Can Bosnia fix the Constitution internally, without Europe?


Notes & References

  1. The blockade by Serbian forces began on May 2, 1992 during the four year siege of Sarajevo, the longest siege of a city in the history of modern warfare. 
  2. More than 3000 Serbian shells hit Sarajevo on July 22, 1993. 
  3. Sixteen people were killed by a mortar attack while waiting in line for bread.
  4. Serbian forces bombed Markale, an open-air marketplace in Sarajevo, killing 68 people and injuring 144. 
  5. On this date, the Markale was hit again, killing 37 people and injuring 90.
Jovan Divjak was a Bosnian general and deputy commander charged with defending Sarajevo during the Serbian siege that lasted from April 5, 1992 to February 29, 1996. A self-identified Bosnian, Divjak was perhaps the highest ranked ethnic Serb to fight on the Bosnian side. His legacy remains controversial. In Sarajevo, many see him as a national hero, while in the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, he is seen as a villain. He currently directs an NGO that assists orphans of the war. On March 3, 2011, Divjak was arrested in Vienna on a Serbian warrant for alleged war crimes.