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Why Do We Celebrate The Wrong Heroes?

After spending a few days in an Austrian prison, and a few months under house arrest, General Jovan Divjak finally cleared his name.
After spending a few days in an Austrian prison, and a few months under house arrest, General Jovan Divjak finally cleared his name.

On September 29, 1991, Rear Admiral Vladimir Barovic received an order from his Yugoslav Army superiors to start bombing the Croatian coast. It was an order he could not obey, and yet he felt duty bound to do so. Not long before, while negotiating the army's withdrawal from the port of Pula, he had said, "There will be no destruction here while I'm in charge -- and if I'm forced to order the destruction of Pula and Istria, then I will no longer be [in charge]." When the order came, Barovic was as good as his word. Instead of turning the guns of his fleet on Croatian coastal towns, he took his own life.

Barovic made the ultimate sacrifice: giving his own life because he refused to take those of others. To order an attack against the Croatian people, who had done him or his country no wrong -- as he explained in his suicide note -- was against his sense of honor as an officer and a Montenegrin.

While every child in the former Yugoslavia knows about Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity at The Hague, few will have ever heard of Admiral Barovic. While a student residence in Pale, Karadzic's wartime headquarters, is named after him, there is no building or street in Montenegro, or Croatia, or Serbia named after Barovic.

Vladimir Barovic (left) in 1989
Vladimir Barovic (left) in 1989

Barovic was 52 at the time of his suicide. His death was reported in Dalmatian newspapers, and Agence France Presse issued a short notice. He was buried in Herceg Novi, in Montenegro, without fanfare or publicity. News of his suicide was buried as well. That was hardly surprising at the time, but it pains me to think that Barovic has still not claimed his rightful place in the public consciousness. Now, almost a quarter of a century later, the Civic Alliance NGO is campaigning in the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, on behalf of Admiral Barovic. They have petitioned the country's president, Filip Vujanovic, for a posthumous award to be issued, but there has yet been no response.

Another army officer who did much to save the reputation and honor of his nation was General Jovan Divjak. A Belgrade-born ethnic Serb and a Yugoslav Army officer, when war broke out in Bosnia in April 1992, Divjak found himself in a position similar to that of Barovic a few months earlier. With the Yugoslav Army and Serbian paramilitaries taking positions in and around Sarajevo and indiscriminately shooting at civilians, Divjak made his choice. He joined the ranks of those defending the city, soon to be under siege and cut off from the outside world. At the time, his decision could have been described as suicidal, given that the odds were stacked in favor of the heavily armed Serbian forces.

Improbably, Sarajevo endured -- and so did Divjak.

Although Karadzic and Mladic left a trail of blood across Bosnia, they did not prevail. The war and the siege lasted another 3 1/2 years, during which Divjak rose to deputy commander of the Bosnian Army. He could have simply turned his back, but he stayed to help coordinate the successful resistance against a far superior and ruthless enemy.

In Serbia, he was proclaimed a traitor and a warrant was issued for his arrest on trumped-up charges. In 2011, he was detained in Vienna based on this Serbian warrant. After spending a few days in an Austrian prison, and a few months under house arrest, he finally cleared his name. The Austrian judge recognized that there was no evidence to support the charges against him.

Divjak is currently running an NGO in Sarajevo, which provides scholarships for Bosnian children who lost their fathers in the war. It would not be stretching the truth to say that it is thanks to Divjak that Serbs have been able to live in Sarajevo after the war -- without feeling ashamed. He made this possible by making the right decision at the most difficult moment.

How long will it take for my fellow Serbs to see that it is General Divjak who should be celebrated rather than General Mladic, who directed the shelling of Sarajevo and who was protected by the Serbian authorities until May 2011?

During his detention in Austria, Divjak was asked by RFE/RL's Balkan Service to keep a diary. One quote from his journal has stayed with me ever since:

'It's a sad and unfortunate place, our Balkans. Unfortunate for being a place where worlds collide and great powers clash, and for being repeatedly conquered and then liberated, but also sad because its denizens so easily allow themselves to be manipulated by their leaders."

Divjak cannot set foot inside Serbia today, not even to visit his family, because he would be immediately arrested. He is still seen as a traitor, even though he stood up to convicted mass murderers. In Sarajevo, he is immensely popular among ordinary people, and yet his treatment by the Bosnian Army leadership and government has been indifferent, at best. The Balkans can seem like a sad and unfortunate place also because its people are unable to recognize their true heroes.

About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.


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