The turncoat heroes who fight for Bosnia: Serbian soldiers defy hatred to join Muslims

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'NEVER has a Serbian boot stepped on this ground,' a Bosnian government commander said proudly to his general, who was visiting the armija trenches on Mount Zuc, part of the defensive line around Sarajevo. 'Good,' replied General Jovan Divjak, No 2 in the Bosnian army, 'but what about me?' The commander laughed: 'You? You don't count.'

General Divjak is the most prominent of several thousand Serbs still fighting against their ethnic brothers for a united, multiracial Bosnia. A bluff, eccentric and former officer in the Yugoslav National Army (JNA), he was born in Belgrade but moved to Sarajevo 26 years ago. 'I always felt Bosnian, that I was part of Yugoslavia,' he said. 'I never felt that much a Serb. I didn't have that sense of national pride - it's more important to me to belong to the city, and to Bosnia-Herzegovina.'

Men such as General Divjak are loathed with a passion by those they are fighting; one Bosnian Serb official struggled to find a word in English bad enough to describe him and his ilk, a word beyond 'traitor'. 'They are just . . . not Serbs,' he said finally, the ultimate insult in a statelet where Serbian blood is everything.

For General Divjak, his enemies are not only the product of 'psychopathic thinking', but also savages who must be stopped. His views are shared by his soldiers, even those desperate to escape the army. Aleksa, 25, crossed the line from Grbavica in May 1992 to avoid the Bosnian Serb draft, then volunteered for the armija. 'When I came to this side, the war had already started, so I knew what was going on. I was ashamed,' he said. 'We all volunteered for the army. We had to defend this town or the Muslim population would have been exterminated.'

But now? 'I would give two fingers of my left hand to get out of the army', he said. 'After two years, is it still possible to talk about the salvation of Sarajevo and Bosnia? I don't think like this because I am a Serb. I have a lot of non-Serb friends who share my opinion.'

General Divjak is aware of such thinking, but insists that his armija will triumph if it receives the weapons and technical support so conspicuously lacking. Once the JNA had waged war in Slovenia and Croatia, he felt he had no choice but to fight his old comrades. 'It was so clear the JNA stood only for the interests of Serbs. I didn't accept that the Serbian people were at risk in Bosnia.'

But even 'loyal' Serbs had problems, although the treatment of Serbs in Sarajevo and elsewhere in Bosnia could not be compared to the brutality meted out to Muslims in the self-declared 'Republika Srpska' across the front line. 'Given the behaviour of (Radovan) Karadzic's extremist Serbs and Chetnik forces, it was very hard for us to win the confidence of the Bosnian side,' General Divjak said. The percentage of Serbs in the armija had fallen from about 15 to 3 per cent; some had left the country, some had moved to the police force, others had defected. 'Serbs are still expelling Muslims from Bijeljina and Banja Luka, so why should Muslims treat Serbs here better?' he asked. But they do.

Dragan, a policeman, insists that, as a Serb, he has never been bothered. A photograph of a smiling teenager is displayed in the sitting room of his flat: Milana, his 13-year-old daughter, lives in Grbavica with her grandmother.

Dragan comes from Foca, one of the nastiest places in the sinister Drina valley. The pre- war Muslim majority in Foca has been reduced to just one Muslim man. The rest were 'cleansed' or murdered, the town renamed 'Srbinje' (Serb place). Dragan, who moved to Sarajevo as a young man, shudders at the thought of Foca.

'When I visited my wife's family in Serbia, they called me 'the Bosnian' - they never used my name,' said Dragan, who joined the Sarajevo police force nine months ago. 'It didn't matter whether we were Serbs or Muslims or Croats, we were all Bosnian in our hearts and in the minds of other people. In the hearts and minds of normal people, this is how it will remain after the war.'

Britain would face a serious rift with the US over former Yugoslavia if Washington lifted the arms embargo on Bosnia, British sources said in Usedom, Germany, yesterday, writes Andrew Marshall. EU foreign ministers meeting on the Baltic Sea island approved in principle an easing of sanctions against Belgrade if Serbia allowed outsiders to monitor its blockade of the Bosnian Serbs.

(Photograph omitted)