Though an ethnic Serb, the military commander Jovan Divjak, who has died aged 84, was a popular figure in his homeland of Bosnia-Herzegovina – particularly among the Bosniak (Muslim) half of the population. When war came in 1992, he opted to fight for a civic, multi-ethnic Bosnia. Consequently for many Bosnians he personified the patriotic rejection of sectarian nationalism, a rejection on which they prided themselves.
When Bosnia’s independence was internationally recognised in April 1992, the country was being engulfed by war, and its leadership needed to establish an army. The leadership of this fledging force reflected the country’s ethnic composition: its commander was a Muslim, its chief of staff a Croat and its deputy commander a Serb – Divjak.
The war was launched by neighbouring Serbia, using armed forces under its control but mostly comprised of Bosnian Serbs. Bosnia’s pre-independence territorial defence staff had had many Serb officers, but they all defected to the aggressor, with the exception of Divjak.
He had begun to make his choice in 1991 when, as territorial defence commander for the Sarajevo district, he witnessed the Serb-nationalist preparations for war. In consequence he distributed weapons for self-defence to local Bosnian military forces. For this he was court-martialled by the Serbian-controlled Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and sentenced to nine months in prison, but evaded imprisonment.
Shortly after the start of the war he was one of the commanders on the ground when Bosnian forces trapped a JNA column that had attacked central Sarajevo. The JNA kidnapped the Bosnian president, Alija Izetbegović, when his plane landed at Sarajevo airport, and refused to release him unless their column was allowed to withdraw.
Izetbegović agreed, but after he was freed, Bosnian troops opened fire on the column, killing several JNA soldiers. Although Divjak had tried to prevent it, he was indicted for the attack by a Belgrade court.
Divjak was popular with his troops, and during the war’s early months, when Bosnia’s survival hung in the balance, he repeatedly toured the frontlines to raise morale. Izetbegović took him with him on a trip to New York in September 1992, as a showpiece of Bosnia’s multinational resistance.
As a result, Divjak was hated as a supposed traitor by the opposing nationalist Serb-rebel officers. On one occasion, a Serb-rebel general said he would refuse to negotiate with Divjak unless he admitted he had converted to Islam; Divjak replied he would refuse to negotiate unless the Serb-rebel general came down from the trees.
However, whether because of his integrity or his Serb nationality or both, he was mistrusted by Izetbegović and some others in the Bosnian military leadership, and did not receive military responsibilities commensurate with his rank or ability. He once offered his resignation in response to war crimes that Bosnian forces were involved in that he could not prevent, but this was refused.
He was critical of the army’s failed summer 1995 offensive to break the siege of Sarajevo, which he felt had been undertaken for political reasons. When I met him in Sarajevo in 1998, he showed me the graves of young soldiers whose lives had been thrown away in this fiasco.
His differences with Bosnia’s leadership culminated after the war, when he wrote to Izetbegović to return his brigadier general’s rank, in protest at what he saw as the government’s failure to deal with war crimes on the Bosnian side, and its promotion of individuals guilty of wartime misdeeds and profiteering. He nevertheless pledged loyalty to Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Unlike many others, Divjak did not enrich himself through wartime corruption, and lived modestly after the war ended with the US-brokered Dayton accords in November 1995, and his retirement two years later. This further boosted his reputation, as did his personal warmth. He befriended a woman whose two children had been killed by a Serb-rebel shell, and became godfather to her third child; the experience inspired him to found and direct the charity Education Builds Bosnia-Herzegovina, devoted to helping child victims of the war.
In March 2011, he was arrested in Vienna on an international arrest warrant arising from his indictment in Belgrade. This triggered demonstrations in Sarajevo and Vienna. The Austrian court rejected the extradition application and Divjak was released in July.
Belgrade had been his birthplace: his father Dušan, a schoolteacher, had moved there from western Bosnia. His parents divorced when Jovan was still young, and his mother moved with him to Zrenjanin, in northern Serbia, where she became the president of the workers’ council at the Udarnik sock factory.
She could not afford to send him to university, so he enrolled in military academy and, after graduating, received additional military training in France, before being posted to Sarajevo in 1966. Among his many awards was France’s Legion of Honour.
His wife, Vera, whom he married in 1960, died in 2017. He is survived by his sons, Želimir and Vladimir.
• Jovan Divjak, soldier and activist, born 11 March 1937; died 8 April 2021
• This article was amended on 4 May 2021. Divjak was not, as we originally said, the first Bosnian recipient of the Legion of Honour.