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For Serb defender of Sarajevo, Mladic's forces have won

© AFP/File / by Rusmir SMAJILHODZIC, Nicolas GAUDICHET | As one of very few Serbs who fought on the side of Bosnian Army, Gen. Divjak enjoys deepest respect by the citizens of Sarajevo and is considered an emblem of Sarajevo's multiethnical image

SARAJEVO (AFP) - 

As one of very few Serbs to fight on the side of the Bosnian Army, Jovan Divjak cannot take ten steps in Sarajevo without being warmly greeted by people who respect the former general for defending the city and its multiculturalism.

But his vision for a cosmopolitan, multiethnic, multi-religious Bosnia seems further away than ever, with the country more divided now than two decades ago.

"Today there is more hatred among young people than there was during the war," Divjak told AFP.

On Wednesday a UN war crimes tribunal will hand down a verdict to Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military chief who laid siege to the city in the bitter 1990s war -- but the judgement will only emphasise to Divjak how the country, in his view, lost a bigger battle.

The Bosnia that Divjak wants to belong to "will never exist", he said, saying that the forces of Mladic had won.

When the conflict broke out in Sarajevo in April 1992, Divjak, a retired Yugoslav army officer, was a member of Bosnia's territorial defence forces.

He immediately joined the ranks of those defending Sarajevo, which was trapped under siege for 44 months. At least 10,000 residents of the city were killed during the war.

But Divjak hates the "good Serb" label.

"It was natural to be with those who were attacked, who did not have weapons."

The conflict ended with a peace deal that divided Bosnia into two semi-independent entities: the Serb-run Republika Srpska (RS) and a federation dominated by Bosnian Muslims, known as Bosniaks, and Croats.

Sarajevo's Serb and Croat population has shrunk from a third of the population before the war to just nine percent today.

- The 'others' -

Divjak is among three percent of Bosnians -- and six percent of Sarajevo's residents -- who refuse to define themselves by ethnicity.

They are the "others", a tiny statistical category that stands as a reminder of Sarajevo's multicultural past.

"It is a battle. We have to fight, even at three percent."

Like 74-year-old Mladic, Divjak comes from a Bosnian Serb family, but was born in Belgrade as his father was a travelling teacher.

Both officers considered themselves Yugoslavs before the federation began to collapse in the early 1990s. And for both men, late Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito was a central figure.

But the similarities end there.

Divjak does not hide his disdain for Mladic, recalling him as "arrogant, sometimes drunk," when they met during wartime negotiations.

"He would say that he did not want to talk to a Muslim delegation that included a Serb who betrayed Serbs," Divjak said.

- 'Traitor' -

Divjak's name deeply upsets Janko Seslija, a 57-year-old Serb war veteran whose "White Wolves" commando unit was based in the Bosnian Serb stronghold of Pale.

"Traitor! For me he is a traitor," Seslija said.

That Divjak fought "in his country against his own people... It's a shame".

Divjak is still threatened by an arrest warrant issued by Serbia, on which he was held in Vienna in 2011.

He was allowed to return to Bosnia almost five months later when an Austrian court rejected Belgrade's extradition request.

Serbia wants Divjak over a 1992 attack on a retreating Yugoslav army convoy in Sarajevo. Belgrade says 18 soldiers were killed, Divjak says six.

The ex-general denies the allegations and insists that he ordered the shooting to stop, a claim that seems to be backed up by television footage from the time.

Near the demarcation line between Bosnia's two entities is the educational foundation set up by Divjak, which has awarded scholarships to 6,500 students since 1994.

It is open to everyone, but Serbs are rarely interested -- they do not want to be linked to Divjak.

Bosniak authorities are also cautious towards the man who loudly voices his concerns over growing nationalism and the influence of Islam on politics and society in the small Balkan country.

Divjak has repeatedly condemned war crimes against Serbs.

In 1999 he symbolically renounced his rank of general following the grandiose funeral of Musan "Caco" Topalovic, a Bosniak commander and gangster suspected of wartime executions of Serbs.

"One does not learn in Bosniak schools or media that there were crimes on the side of the Bosnian army," Divjak said.

But the unconventional Serb says he would repeat the decision he made in April 1992 to defend Sarajevo.

"If it happened again, I would be even more determined today," he told AFP.

"People have esteem and respect for what I did."

by Rusmir SMAJILHODZIC, Nicolas GAUDICHET

© 2017 AFP