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What Really Happened During The Dobrovoljacka Attack?

  • Omer Karabeg

General Jovan Divjak: "Each and every group was operating independently."

General Jovan Divjak: "Each and every group was operating independently."

On March 1, Ejup Ganic, a former member of Bosnia's presidency, was detained at Heathrow Airport in connection with an attack on Yugoslav forces in Sarajevo early in the 1992-95 Bosnian War.

Ganic was arrested by the London Metropolitan Police, who were acting on a provisional extradition warrant issued by Serbia. The warrant claims that more than 40 Serb soldiers in the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) were killed in the so-called Dobrovoljacka Street attack on May 3, 1992, after Bosnia had declared independence from the Serb-led former Yugoslavia. It also claims Ganic ordered the attack. Ganic had been appointed acting president of Bosnia the day before while President Alija Izetbegovic was being held at a JNA base in the nearby Lukavica army base.

The soldiers were withdrawing from their surrounded JNA barracks in Sarajevo's old town district of Bistrik as part of what they thought was a truce and swap deal for Izetbegovic. Their column also was loaded with ammunition and weapons that Serbian forces would use during their three-year siege of Sarajevo.

Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic (left) with Vice President Ejup Ganic in 1993
Izetbegovic, his daughter Sabina, and a member of the Bosnian negotiating team, Zlatko Lagumdzija, had been seized by the JNA at Sarajevo airport on May 2, 1992. They had just returned on a flight from failed peace negotiations in Lisbon. Earlier that day, the JNA had launched a failed attempt to occupy central Sarajevo.

Jovan Divjak, a former JNA officer, played a central role in the events of May 3, 1992. Although he is of Serbian ethnic origin, he joined the ranks of the Bosnian Territorial Defense forces at the beginning of the war. He became a key figure in Sarajevo's defense against the besieging Serbian forces and rose to the rank of general in what became the army of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Divjak recently spoke to RFE/RL about the seminal events of May 2 and 3, 1992 -- events which have been returned to the international spotlight by Serbia's extradition request for Ganic. Divjak's version of events differs from the claims in Serbia's extradition request for Ganic.

JNA 'Blitzkrieg' on Sarajevo -- May 2, 1992

RFE/RL: When we spoke to you prior to this interview, you told us that the events of May 3, 1992, in Dobrovoljacka Street could not be separated from what had happened in Sarajevo the day before, on May 2.

Jovan Divjak:
May 2 was the day when the Yugoslav Army tried to take control of the city. At that moment, units of the Bosnian Territorial Defense forces were blockading six army bases in Sarajevo, and it was expected that the Yugoslav Army would leave Sarajevo -- and Bosnia -- by the end of May. Toward the end of April, an agreement was reached between the [Yugoslav Army's] Second Military District HQ and the Bosnian Presidency that Yugoslav Army units' movements around the city would be forbidden, except for ambulance vehicles, and those vehicles used to supply the bases with food, as they did not have their own kitchens. Every other army vehicle was obliged to request permission to move around Sarajevo.

The bombardment of the city began on May 2 at 3 o'clock in the morning, and lasted until 5 a.m. They were targeting both the presidency building and the city's downtown core, in particular the municipalities of Old Town and New Sarajevo. That was an artillery barrage intended to prepare the ground for an attack to follow. That morning the main Sarajevo post office was sabotaged as well.

WATCH: Archive footage from Sarajevo on May 3, 1992, shows a JNA personnel vehicle carrying Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic and UN General Lewis MacKenzie. The vehicle is part of a convoy of JNA troops who had been guaranteed safe passage out of the city in return for the release of Izetbegovic. Jovan Divjak, a general with the Bosnian Territorial Defense forces, is seen attempting to negotiate safe passage:

RFE/RL: Is it clear who sabotaged the post office building?

There are different versions of the story, but it was obviously an inside job. It was almost certainly carried out by a postal employee. It has been claimed that Bosnian Muslims were behind it, but it is almost certain that it was a Serbian employee acting with the help of several accomplices. That act of sabotage immediately severed 60,000 local telephone lines in the Old Town, making it impossible to establish a connection between our headquarters and the individual units of the Bosnian Territorial Defense.

But it's important to keep in mind what happened on the morning of May 2. Two [Yugoslav] armored vehicles crossed the bridge at Skenderija. One assumption was that they were headed for the presidency building, while on the other hand they might have been attempting to link up with the unit barricaded in the Second Military District HQ with [JNA] General [Milutin] Kukanjac. One of the armored vehicles even came as far as the Estrada building, perhaps with the intention of linking up with a [Yugoslav] special forces unit from Nis, which had been holed up in the Dom Armije building.

That day the special police unit from Nis, under the command of Colonel [Milan] Suput, was driven out of the Dom Armije building and had to relocate to the Bosnian Cultural Center. A convoy of three transports was following the two armored vehicles, but when they saw the burning wreckage of the armored vehicles they headed across the Skenderija Bridge, and along Valtera Perica Street toward the Sarajevo TV building.

RFE/RL: Who mounted the resistance against the armored vehicles on May 2?

They were tactical assault units made up of three to four members of the Territorial Defense, armed with RPGs and maybe a hand-held mortar. One group included Kerim Lucarevic and Muhamed Sisic-Dedo, and in the second was Mustafa Hajrulahovic-Talijan. Dedo had managed to improvise another antitank weapon.

Following the transports along Zagrebacka Street were also two tanks, which pulled back when they found out that the armored vehicles had been destroyed. Near the Jewish cemetery one of the tanks drove over a mine, damaging its tracks. From the Lukavica army base they dispatched a tow tank to recover the damaged tank and drag it back. All of the armored vehicles and tanks had, in fact, been sent that morning from Lukavica, where the 1st Armored-Mechanized Brigade was based.

JNA Soldiers Killed During May 2 Attack

RFE/RL: Were JNA soldiers killed during the JNA attack on May 2, 1992?

The soldiers inside the armored vehicles were definitely killed. There could have been around seven to 10 inside each vehicle. I'm not sure of the exact number. Those who were following the tanks probably also died, as well as those at the Jewish cemetery, in Zagrebacka Street, and along the route from Nedzarici to the TV building. Because they encountered resistance and were unable to secure their targets, at the end of that day, May 2, the Yugoslav Army detained the Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic and held him at the Lukavica base.

RFE/RL: They weren't expecting any resistance?

No. The fact that they pulled back suggests that they weren't expecting any resistance. They were banking on the element of surprise, in effect staging some sort of mini-blitzkrieg. But as soon as they met resistance, they withdrew.

WATCH: This video shows a brief outbreak of gunfire during the negotiations:

Swap Deal For Izetbegovic

RFE/RL: Izetbegovic was seized by the JNA on May 2, 1992, when he landed at Sarajevo airport upon his return from the failed Lisbon peace talks. What can you tell us about that situation and the events surrounding the deal for the exchange of Izetbegovic?

The first part can be verified by [Bosnian negotiator] Zlatko Lagumdzija, who later said that he tried to persuade Izetbegovic not to land in Sarajevo but rather in Split, Croatia, which was safer. Izetbegovic insisted that the Yugoslav Army had guaranteed him a safe landing. When we at the Territorial Defense headquarters found out that Izetbegovic had been arrested, we were extremely anxious. We worried that they would use physical force, drug him, or use some other means to induce him to sign something. I'm just letting you know what kinds of thoughts were going through our heads at the headquarters.

There were even suggestions that we should mount an assault on the Lukavica base, but that would have been sheer madness, as we only had rifles, a few semi-automatic rifles, and some armor-piercing weapons. Armed like that we could hardly storm a well-fortified base equipped with tanks and artillery.

I'm not sure what was going on at the Bosnian Presidency, or what [Bosnian General] Sefer Halilovic and [then-Territorial Defense commander] Colonel [Hasan] Efendic were doing at the time. There was still a dual command structure in place, even though on April 14 the [Bosnian] Patriotic League had merged with the Territorial Defense. But I think they still had their own leadership. The commander of the Patriotic League at the time was Sefer Halilovic. Following the merger with the Territorial Defense, he became the head of the operational department at the HQ.

If [the JNA] had not arrested Izetbegovic, the series of events that led to the [Dobrovoljacka Street] attack would not have occurred.
At the HQ, we were trying to piece together the course of events, and weighing our options. We soon found out that Izetbegovic was inside an APC [armored personnel carrier], being taken to the Second Military District HQ, which was then blockaded [by Territorial Defense forces], where he would be exchanged for the commander of the military district, General Kukanjac. We had no way of knowing whether Alija [Izetbegovic] would really be exchanged, or if it was all a trap. That is why we had to make sure that Izetbegovic was indeed inside the vehicle.

We decided to verify that near the Cobanija Mosque. When I arrived there, three Territorial Defense soldiers, who were near Cobanija, informed me that the convoy had passed by and had already arrived at the Military District HQ -- so I headed for April 6th Square, where around 30 vehicles were already assembled.

I noticed that the Yugoslav Army soldiers were carrying some boxes and crates out of the HQ building, and we later found out that it was the base archive. They all had sidearms, and I don't think any of them had a machine gun or a mortar. Surrounding them, on the square itself, were a hundred or so men, members of the Territorial Defense, policemen from Stari Grad municipality and many others belonging to various armed groups from Stari Grad who were not familiar to me. They were intending to attack the Yugoslav Army soldiers. From the surrounding streets and alleys we could hear chanting, like at a soccer game: "Come on! Let's go!"

I was trying to calm them down, and I used the loudspeaker to call on the Yugoslav Army soldiers to join our side, assuring them that their rights would be protected. In the law on national defense we had made it clear that all those who joined us would be able to keep their rights and their ranks, and those with the rank of major could be promoted to lieutenant colonel. Somebody made coffee, and food was brought out to the Territorial Defense soldiers. Everyone stood there, waiting for something to happen, like in a stadium. I couldn't get in touch with my headquarters or the presidency, as the walkie-talkie wasn't working. One young man ran up to me and said: "Colonel, I'm an amateur radio operator. Maybe I can help with getting through." I went with him, but after half an hour of fiddling we weren't able to get through to anyone.

Each and every [Bosnian militia] group was operating independently. It is out of the question that a single individual could have directed the deployment of such diverse units.
I returned to the square, but the soldiers were gone. I retraced my steps to Cobanija. It was somewhere between 5 and 5:30 p.m., I can't remember exactly. I ran into the convoy that had been stopped at that point. At the front was a small all-terrain vehicle with [Canadian UN] General [Lewis] MacKenzie and Lagumdzija. At the rear of the convoy was an APC, inside which were Izetbegovic and General Kukanjac. There was a security team around that vehicle. I climbed up on the vehicle. Izetbegovic then said to me: "Jovan, I don't know why we've been stopped. We have an agreement. Please, see what you can do to make sure we get through."

All of a sudden, I heard shots fired some 200 to 300 meters away, in the direction of Drvenija. I shouted, "Cease fire!"

At that moment [Zoran] Cegar showed up, one of the Bosnian policemen from Dragan Vikic's special unit. He said: "Get down. Who are you? That's my president. You have nothing to do with him!" I got down. He also spoke with the president, but I couldn't hear them. I watched him come down and open the door of the APC. That is when I finally got a glimpse of Kukanjac huddled inside, looking rather pitiful. Cegar turned to him: "Curse your Chetnik mother. If anything happens to Alija Izetbegovic, none of your Chetnik family will keep a head on their shoulders."

All of this was happening on Dobrovoljacka Street, between the Theater coffee shop and Drvenija. After that the convoy was allowed to move, though I'm not sure by whose order.

RFE/RL: Was there any more firing?

Only once more I heard some shots fired from the direction of Drvenija. The convoy was allowed to pass, and 15 vehicles followed the APC with Izetbegovic inside, while our men took the other 15 as war booty. They jumped on them and made them turn toward Cobanija or some of the smaller side streets around there. Inside each of those 15 trucks were no more than one or two soldiers. Later it was said that many documents were found inside those trucks, allegedly including a [JNA] plan to occupy Sarajevo in seven days, and the whole of Bosnia in a month. I personally never saw any of these documents.

Altogether, 215 Yugoslav Army soldiers were captured and taken to the FIS [sports] building. They were held there for two days. I know that [Bosnian deputy commander] Stjepan Siber was asked to negotiate with those people, and to offer them to stay and join our Territorial Defense and, if they refused, to assure them that they would be exchanged for some of our men. That much I witnessed firsthand. As for the rest, I don't know. It wouldn't be professional to speak about things that I neither saw, heard, nor took part in.

Not 40, But 'Eight Killed' On Dobrovoljacka Street

RFE/RL: How many casualties were there in the Dobrovoljacka Street attack?

As far as I know, eight people were killed.

RFE/RL: Is it clear who started shooting first?

: I don't know.

RFE/RL: Why was there shooting?

I'm not sure about that either. I doubt that anyone gave the order. Rather, I think that certain individuals were acting on their own initiative. I later heard the story from one of the soldiers who was present on the scene: "One crazy guy took a rifle and fired at the windows of a bus where the officers were sitting." I didn't witness that myself. But these are the words of someone who was there. He also added, "Some old man took a gun and started firing."

I later heard the story from one of the soldiers who was present: "One crazy guy took a rifle and fired at the windows of a bus where the officers were sitting."
RFE/RL: Which units were on the scene in Dobrovoljacka, and who took part in the shooting?

I wasn't able to tell who belonged to which unit. However, it's a fact that the streets of Old Town were primarily defended by [Bosnian] Military Police and members of the [Bosnian] Green Berets. The Territorial Defense also operated in small groups, not complete units. They would be made up of 10 or so Territorial Defense members, and another 20 or so policemen and Green Berets. It was always a mix and it was almost impossible to know who belonged to which particular unit. Only some 10 percent had some sort of uniform. That day, in particular, most of those present [on the Bosnian side] were people in civilian clothing.

RFE/RL: Were these men stationed on both sides of Dobrovoljacka Street expecting the convoy to pass through there?

Yes, simply because they followed the convoy from its origin on April 6th Square. From my vantage point, I didn't notice that many people -- mostly those who were assigned to Alija Izetbegovic's security detail.

'There Was No Torture'

RFE/RL: Do you know whether the wounded Yugoslav Army soldiers were treated in Sarajevo hospitals?

Yes, certainly. Colonel [Enes] Taso was severely wounded and was transferred to a hospital for treatment. He was later airlifted to Belgrade and was promoted to general. Incidentally, he was of Bosniak origin.

RFE/RL: There were allegations of torture in the FIS building, where the captured JNA soldiers were held for two days.

Then let the witnesses come forward. I know from conversations with my friend Siber [who was present] that there was no torture.

RFE/RL: Was it possible that a member of the Bosnian Presidency planned all of this in advance, stationed members of the Territorial Defense, Patriotic League, and the Green Berets along Dobrovoljacka Street and ordered the attack on the convoy?

That is impossible, because each and every group was operating independently. They were all mixed, and it is out of the question that a single individual could have directed the deployment of such diverse units along the route from Second Military District HQ all the way to Drvenija. That is inconceivable, and practically impossible.

RFE/RL: You believe that there was no order given for the attack, but rather that it happened spontaneously?

It could only have happened spontaneously.

RFE/RL: Was it avoidable?

Of course. Why did the Yugoslav Army attack Sarajevo on May 2? What was the Yugoslav Army doing in Sarajevo on that day? They were testing to see what the reaction would be from the Territorial Defense, the police, and others. Also, they should not have detained the Bosnian president, Alija Izetbegovic. If they had not arrested Izetbegovic, the series of events that led to the attack would not have occurred. It is certain that eventually, as a result of negotiations, the blockade of all the army bases would have been lifted without the need to fire a single bullet.

RFE/RL: So in your opinion this was not a premeditated attack?

I was present on the spot and was able to see for myself that it was not planned. I repeat, on May 3 on the April 6th Square, an attack on the Yugoslav Army was brewing. People surrounding the square were chanting "Come on! Let's go! Let's go!" It was not a command. The only command issued by the senior officer was: "Don't go. Wait. Do not attack. Do not fire." Likewise, the unit commanders acted to prevent any shooting. If someone had wanted a massacre, it would have happened on April 6th Square.

RFE/RL: Who is, in your opinion, responsible for what happened in Dobrovoljacka Street?

Individuals who gave themselves the right to decide whether someone should live or die.

RFE/RL: Do you consider what happened in Dobrovoljacka Street to be a crime or not?

It is a crime committed by certain individuals but cannot conceivably be attributed to the regular units of the Bosnian Territorial Defense, the police, or the Green Berets as a whole.

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