In Memoriam of Jovan Divjak: the Hero of Sarajevo

By Dr Carna Pistan 

Dr Carna Pistan is an affiliated Scholar at the Center for Constitutional Studies and Democratic Development and Marie Curie Global Fellow for the project “Illusions of Eternity: the Constitution as a lieu de mémoire and the Problem of Collective Remembrance in the Western Balkans”

(11 March 1937 – 8 April 2021)

It is with sadness that the Center for Constitutional Studies and Democratic Development has learnt of the passing of Jovan Divjak – the former Bosnian army general, who defended Sarajevo during the 44-month-long siege of the city. The siege of Sarajevo began 29 years ago and lasted until 29 February 1996. It was the longest siege of a capital city in modern history (1.425 days), and one of the most dramatic and emblematic events of the violent dissolution of the former Yugoslavia, with thousands of civilians killed and wounded. 

With the outbreak of the war in BiH in April 1992, Jovan Divjak firmly rejected the logics of nationalism and division along ethnic lines, and fought for a multi-ethnic BiH. Although he was an ethnic Serb born in Belgrade and a retired officer of the Yugoslav National Army (JNA), he immediately chose to fight against the army he had served under and joined the practically unarmed Bosnian army, which was just being formed, to defend Sarajevo and BiH’s independence. As he once explained: “It was natural to be with those who were attacked, who did not have weapons […]. The idea of a multi-ethnic Bosnian army had won me over.” Divjak identified himself as a Bosnian and anti-nationalist: […] I did not stay in Sarajevo as a Serb. I do not define my identity through religion or nationality. I am Jovan Divjak, a citizen of this country.” During the Sarajevo siege, Divjak coordinated the defense of the city, and became the Deputy Commander of the Territorial Defense of BiH and the Sarajevo Territorial District. Divjak’s memories of the Bosnian war (1992-1995) are to be found in his books: “Sarajevo, mon amour” (Buchet-Chastel, 2004 with a foreword by Bernard-Henri Lévy; Italian edition: Infinito edizioni, 2015), and “Rat u Hrvatskoj i Bosni i Hercegovini 1991–1995” (The War in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, Jesenski i Turk, 1999). 

After the war, Divjak continued to fight for a “civic BiH” by devoting himself entirely to humanitarian work. In 1994, he funded the Association “Obrazovanje gradi BiH” (OGBH – Education builds BiH), which assists with the education of children who lost their parents in the war. Over the years, OGBH has granted thousands of scholarships to orphans and children from poor families. In July 2001, Divjak was awarded the Legion of Honour by France for “his civic sense, his refusal of prejudice and ethnic discrimination.” He also won other international and national awards, including the Order of Lafayette, Sixth of April Award of Sarajevo, the International League of Humanists Plaque, and the Plaque of the Sarajevo Canton. He appeared also in the BBC documentary “The Death of Yugoslavia” (1995), Sergio Castellitto’s “Venuto al mondo” (2012), and is the subject of the Al-Jazeera World documentary “Sarajevo My Love” (2013). 

Nonetheless, in the post-war period Divjak faced several lawsuits related to the war. While in Sarajevo he remain one of the most beloved wartime figures, the hero who defended the city and the symbol of multi-ethnic BiH, in neighbouring Serbia Divjak is seen as a “traitor.” On 3 March 2011, while on his way to Italy for a conference, Divjak was arrested in Vienna in response to a Serbian arrest warrant accusing him of war crimes related to an attack on a Yugoslav Army convoy in Dobrovoljacka Street in Sarajevo of 3 May 1992, during which several JNA soldiers were killed. Although his name did not appear on the lists of the ICTY or those of Interpol, the Austrian police arrested Divjak on the basis of a “black list” drawn up after the Bosnian war by Milosevic’s Serbia, where his name appeared along with 17 other people who, like Divjak, opposed the war of ethnic cleansing. A few days later after being arrested, Divjak was released on bail, and finally an Austrian court rejected Serbia’s extradition request by basing its ruling on an earlier decision of the Hague tribunal (ICTY), which stated that there was not enough evidence to start proceedings against Divjak, as well as due to the inability to guarantee a fair trial in Serbia. Divjak denied the allegations and insisted he ordered the shooting to stop. Indeed, in a television recording of that event, Divjak can be seen shouting: “Do not shoot!” Furthermore, in January 2012, the Bosnian State Prosecutor’s Office suspended an investigation against 14 suspects, including Divjak, although in 2018, the Constitutional Court ordered the prosecution to reconsider the case. In March 2017, the Croatian State Attorney’s Office indicted Divjak and several other Bosnian Army officers for war crimes against Croats during the war in Bosnia. The lawsuits Divjak had to face in the post-war period sadly reflect what one could define as “Balkan stylememory-making” where heroes are often considered as war criminals, and war criminals as heroes. 

For many years now, students from the Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe and the University of Bologna have had the opportunity of meeting Jovan Divjak at his Association “Obrazovanje gradi BiH” during the annual CCSDD Sarajevo Study Trip – a four-day study trip to Sarajevo organized to give students the opportunity to meet with representatives of organizations currently engaged in post-conflict reconstruction, human rights issues and democratic development of BiH. During these meetings, Divjak would tell students about the past and current political, social and economic situation in BiH, as well as historical facts about the former Yugoslavia and the conflict of the 1990s. With the former general as their guide, our students also had the unique opportunity of visiting two important places of memory: the Tunnel of Hope(the only connection Sarajevo had with the outside world during the siege), and the Old Jewish Cemetery (the largest Jewish cemetery in Southeast Europe, which was on the front line during the Bosnian war). 

General Divjak with a group of students of the CCSDD Sarajevo Study Trip

We will all remember these meeting and visits with utmost gratitude.

Thank you “Hero of Sarajevo” for everything generations of SAIS and UNIBO students have learnt from you!  

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