The story of Jovan Divjak, an ethnic Serb who defended Sarajevo against Serb forces during the Bosnian war.
Jovan Divjak is an ethnic Serb and former army officer who defended Sarajevo against Serb forces during the Bosnian war in the 1990s. In Bosnia he is a hero and humanitarian who, since the war, has worked to improve the lives of citizens – Bosnians, Croats, and Serbs alike. But his native Serbia accuses him of being a war criminal and has sought his extradition. As a young conscript, Divjak served in the elite guard of Yugoslavia’s first president, the country’s founding father Josip Broz Tito. Under Tito’s rule, Yugoslavia’s ethnic divisions were kept in check and Serbs, Croats, Muslims and Slovenians came together to establish the Republic of Yugoslavia on November 25, 1942.
But war changed all that and nationalist parties rose to power and fought each other for dominance. Amidst the conflicts of the 1990s Radovan Karadzic’s propaganda was that co-existence with Bosnian Muslims was impossible. For Divjak, a Serb who had made Sarajevo his home, there was a hard choice to be made.
On May 3, 1992, Divjak played a role in one of the war’s most bitterly contested incidents, a role which was to stain his reputation. Serbian forces had taken Alija Izetbegovic, the Bosnian president, hostage in a bid to secure the release of a Serbian general. But the exchange went awry and Divjak, a deputy commander who has been handling the operation, was accused of betraying his cause.
Years later after a forced exit from the army and an end to war, Divjak found solace in helping the children who were scarred by the atrocities of war through his NGO, the ‘Education Builds Bosnia’. But this newfound peace was interrupted one day in March 2011 by his sudden arrest in Vienna airport, and request for his extradition to Serbia.
Two decades later, Serbian authorities still held him responsible for the deaths of their soldiers in the bungled hostage exchange but a surprise campaign by the citizens of Serajevo who championed his release vindicated him and he was released without charge.
The siege claimed the lives of over 10,000 people, mostly Bosnians, and is often considered the worst act of genocide in Europe since World War II. Since then, the country has been more peaceful than even optimists dared to hope but the emotional scars will linger for generations.
Divjak’s NGO work with children victimised by the war is motivated by his belief in a multi-ethnic Bosnia and his own childhood loss of a father figure. And for many in Sarajevo, this has shown that Divjak not only fought to protect them in times past, but is also helping rebuild their future.
The solider who became a husband, a father and then grandfather reminices about the legacy the conflict has left and his part in it: “I never hated the ‘other’. I have created a link and a love bond with the ‘other’. At my age, I try to understand the harm that has been done.”