While Barcelona was decking itself out for the Olympics, Serbian troops were encircling Sarajevo, leading to the longest siege in the history of modern warfare (1992-1995). Despite his Serbian origins, Divjak did not doubt for one moment what he had to do: organise the defence of the capital with all the available means and, to achieve this, he formed an army made up of civilians and even prisoners.
How many people died in the Bosnian War?
Some say there were 250,000 deaths, but an NGO, along with an institute, give figures that are closer to reality of around 100,000. Of these, 60,000 were Bosnian Muslims, 30,000 Serbs and the rest were Croats. Most of them were soldiers, around 27,000 from one side and the other. Some 15,000 people died in Sarajevo; of which 1,600 were children.
What drives men to war?
Every conflict is caused by specific reasons. In the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, it was the desire of one group of people to dominate another. After Tito’s death and the fall of Communism, Milosevic and the Serb nationalists conceived the idea of a “great Serbia” which would unite all the Serbs. The Croats and Slovenians rejected it, which led to the outbreak of the conflict and the subsequent independence of these two countries. The Bosnians, like the others, also demanded independence, and once again the Serbs were opposed to it. The desire that led the Serbian nationalists was also linked to removing the Muslims from these regions. Clearly, a similar desire to “cleanse” the region emerged among the Muslims and Croats. However, if we are talking about responsibility, around 90% would lie with the Serbian nationalists, 6% with the Croats and 4% with the Bosnians, according to a 1994 study by the CIA.
You are Serbian in origin and you are not a Muslim like the majority of Bosnians. Why do you consider yourself Bosnian?
I was born in Belgrade because my parents were there to work, but my father lived all his life in Bosnia. Also, my family has never placed much importance on religious matters. Before the war, I had been living in Sarajevo for 27 years. A city where we were all the same, we visited each other on religious holidays and we never had any problems because we were Serbs. The war started with nationalist propaganda, leading to mistrust of Muslims and co-existence between the groups. Since 1984, I had been part of the army’s regional (internal) defence corps, which was also in charge of rescue work during disasters. When the Bosnian defence was being drawn up, I received the order to defend Sarajevo and I accepted. I also chose it for a more human issue, as the army in the capital was not well armed, unlike the Serbian one. The Bosnia and Herzegovina regional defence corps was multiethnic and multireligious, just like the Yugoslavian army used to be.
What does the word identity mean to you?
Belonging to something that you want to belong to, be it religion, nation, a cultural association, it is up to you. For instance, I believe in the idea of the Bosnian, not Catholic, not Orthodox, not Muslim or non-Serbian. I am a Bosnian citizen who respects what belongs to others, but who also wants them to respect what belongs to us. I show my identity in many ways: I believe in citizenship, in a lay state with no reference to religion or to issues of language. One question regarding national identity in my country is language, and so we have three official languages, which the three groups understand as they are almost identical, but they use them to demonstrate which group they belong to. The most shameful thing about my country is that politicians bring their own interpreters even though they have a very good knowledge of the other politicians’ language. Our president assures us that, as regards foreign languages, he only knows a little Russian.
Are there still people in Bosnia who consider themselves first and foremost Yugoslavian?
Yes. It’s called Yugonostalgia. Luckily, there are a lot of young people who remember that that was a very good chapter in our history. The last four or five years has seen the formation of a lot of Josip Broz Tito associations. When there are surveys about the most relevant historical figures, Tito is always among the top few, be it in Slovenia, Croatia or Bosnia (but not so much in Serbia).
The Kosovan declaration of independence has caused a division of opinions on the international stage. Who do you think has the last word in deciding whether there is a new country on the map?
As on many other issues, it is the United States who decides. A year ago in Tirana (the Albanian capital), George Bush said that Kosovo would be independent and that is what happened. Countries such as China or Russia were opposed to it because they remember how they felt about the former Yugoslavia and this feeling remained with regard to the Milosevic era; and also because of their own domestic problems: they worry that the Kosovo situation will stir up other regions. In Europe, they don’t take their own decisions. They always wait for someone to come along and solve their problems. This is what happened in 1995, in the Bosnian war. Why didn’t the Europeans decide to get involved earlier on, without waiting for the Americans?
What role is left for the United Nations if nation states ignore its resolutions or only observe the ones that suit them?
The United Nations is a neutral, advisory body. It reaches good conclusions, but many of its enterprises don’t lead anywhere. Four resolutions were passed regarding Bosnia demanding an end to the war but they did not come to fruition. They have never had the right to military reaction, so they are limited simply to the role of observers. They used this argument to justify their passivity during the massacre of Srebrenica. What is also clear is that this organisation is divided up into the different spheres of interest of the countries that comprise it.
How do you see the future of Serbia after the victory of the moderate, pro-Europe party of Boris Tadic in the recent presidential elections?
They don’t have enough of a majority to govern, so they will have to reach agreements. At the moment, the most tragic thing in terms of Serbia’s future is that the final decisions regarding the country’s situation will end up being taken by Milosevic’s party and his collaborators (the Serbian Socialist Party). In any event, both Tadic and Nikolic are against Kosovan independence.
How do you feel European integration will affect the Balkans?
The European Union (EU) is divided into the area of influence of the United States and of Russia and doesn’t make coherent decisions. There is a definite desire to include the countries of the former Eastern Bloc. Bulgaria and Romania are already members, although they have not met all the economic requirements and they have social indicators similar to Bosnia. Serbia will enter first, when the judicial questions regarding war criminals have been resolved. Bosnia still has to resolve aspects concerning its status, as it favours nationalities and religions to the detriment of the people and goes against the EU’s declaration of rights. Despite this, Slovenia also has problems with minorities and is already a member.
You now head an organisation that awards grants to war orphans. Is education the best way to prevent the mistakes of the past?
Yes, it is. But nationalisms in power smother attempts to educate to prevent these mistakes. All three groups, Muslims, Croats and Serbs, support the stance of feeding difference. Politicians encourage schools divided by ethnic group, in the same building! That’s not a decision of either the students or the parents. They also justify this attitude of segregation by arguing that a specific group represents a minority in a specific area and, therefore, they need their own institution so as not to lose their identity. The result: 27% of the population is illiterate and school absenteeism runs at between 8% and 10%.
What studies do you recommend to the orphans from your organisation?
I advise them to study technical engineering. We have a surfeit of lawyers in my country and we need to develop economically.
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It's very important that our voices be heard and that General Divjak is treated like the great humanitarian he is and not some political pawn and a common criminal.
You can also join his NGO organization helping children affected by the war