Sarajevo mourns Serb general who defended city during siege

Former Bosnian army general Jovan Divjak carries flowers which he received from supporters after being released from Austria, at the airport in Sarajevo

Sarajevo on Tuesday mourned a Serb general who helped defend the city while it was besieged by Serb forces for nearly four years in the 1990s, becoming a symbol of the multi-ethnic defence of the Bosnian capital.

Jovan Divjak was a former officer of the Yugoslav Peoples Army (JNA) who quit its ranks when the former Yugoslavia begun disintegrating, and joined the Bosnian army when war began there in April 1992. He died on Thursday after long illness aged 84.

Born in Belgrade, he spent most of his military career in Bosnia and identified as a Bosnian.

Divjak earned popular respect when he climbed onto a retreating JNA tank in May 1992, trying to stop citizens of Sarajevo from shooting at JNA soldiers.

“He was the only general who yelled: ‘don’t shoot!’ instead of ‘shoot!”, Bosnian Oscar-winning film maker Danis Tanovic said during the memorial ceremony held at the National Theatre.

Divjak was the only Serb member of Bosnia’s Muslim-dominated army command during the war in which 100,000 died.

In 2011, he was detained by Austrian police on a Serbian warrant on charges related to the retreating JNA column, but released by an Austrian court which said it could not guarantee that he would receive a fair trial in Serbia.

After the war ended, Divjak retired from the army and devoted himself to “Education Builds Bosnia-Herzegovina”, a charitable organisation he founded to help war orphans, which has awarded 7,300 scholarships to students who lost parents and those from poorer families.

“This is a huge loss for me,” said Muhamed Bojadzi, who as a toddler was saved by Divjak from a hospital under attack and who was later awarded a scholarship.

Sarajevo authorities banned people from attending Divjak’s funeral on Tuesday because of a surge in coronavirus cases.

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