The Blitzkrieg of 2 May 1992 and the events on Dobrovoljacka Street

Author: Jovan Divjak - interview
Uploaded: Wednesday, 03 March, 2010

Interviewed in October 2009 by Omer Karabeg of Radio Free Europe, retired Bosnian Army General Jovan Divjak describes the events of 2 and 3 May in Sarajevo, in which he was a direct participant


RFE: You told me just before this interview that what happened in Dobrovoljacka Street on 3 May cannot be viewed in isolation from what had happened in Sarajevo on the day before, 2 May. 


Divjak: 2 May was the day when the JNA tried to take control of the city.  At that point in time, its six barracks were surrounded by our Territorial Defence, and it was expected that the JNA would leave Sarajevo and Bosnia-Herzegovina by the end of the month.  An agreement had been reached at the end of April between the Bosnian presidency and the 2nd Army command, according to which JNA troops and vehicles, other than ambulances and vans supplying food to barracks lacking their own kitchens, were not allowed to move around in Sarajevo.  Any other JNA vehicle had to get permission in advance.   On 2 May at 3.30 o’clock in the morning the JNA started to shell the city.  The shelling continued until 5 o’clock.  They targeted the Presidency, the city centre, and the municipalities of Old Town and New Sarajevo.  This was an artillery softening-up for the attack that was to follow.  That same morning an act of sabotage also occurred at the Main Post Office on the Obala. 


Do you know who did it?


There are various rumours, but we know it was an inside job.  It was done by someone who worked in the post office.  Some say it was done by Bosniaks, but it is more likely that it was done by a Serb employee and his circle.  As a result 60,000 telephone lines in the Old Town went down, including the telephone link between the Main Staff of the Territorial Defence and its units.  But to go back to what happened on 2 May.  Two pinzgauers crossed the bridge at Skenderija.  Some thought that they were going to the Presidency, others to the 2nd Army district headquarters to join up with the unit commanded by General Milutin Kukanjac.   One of the transporters managed to reach the Estrada building, possibly in order to enforce a special police unit from Niš situated at the Army Hall.  That day the police from Niš, commanded by Colonel Milan Šuput, after being expelled from the Army Hall, removed itself to the Bosnian Cultural Centre.   A column of three transporters followed the pinzgauers, but when they saw that the latter had been set alight on the other side of the Skenderija bridge, along Valter Peric street, they turned towards the Television building.


Who resisted the armoured carriers?


Our tactical assault groups, made up of three or four Territorial Defence members armed with osa and zolja [hand-held anti-tank weapons] , and perhaps also mortars.   One of the groups included Kerim Lucarevic and Muhamed Šišic-Dedo, another Mustafa Hajrulovic-Talijan.  Dedo contrived a kind of steamroller to use against tanks.  Two tanks had followed behind the transporters along the Zagrebacka street, but they also withdrew on learning that the pinzgauers had been destroyed.  One of the tanks ran into a mine at the Jewish Cemetery, which damaged its tracks.   The JNA sent a tank-tow which got it out and took it to Lukavica.  The armoured vehicles had been sent out that morning from Lukavica, which housed the 1st armoured and mechanised brigade. 


Did any JNA soldiers die on that occasion?


I know that the soldiers manning the transporters died.   There were probably seven or eight in each vehicle.  I don’t know the exact number.  It is likely that those who accompanied the tanks died,  at the Jewish Cemetery, in Zagrebacka street and along the stretch between Nedžaric and Television.  Having met with resistance and being unable to realise its aim, at the end of that day of 2 May the JNA took Alija Izebegovic prisoner and held him in the barracks at Lukavica. 


They had not expected such resistance?


No, they had not.  The fact that they withdrew meant that they did not expect resistance.  They played the card of surprise, it was meant to be a kind of small blitzkrieg, but as soon as they met with resistance they withdrew.



Taking Alija Izetbegovic prisoner


How did it go with Alija Izetbegovic?  He was seized when he landed at the Sarajevo airport on his return from the negotiations in Lisbon.


There is a story which I am sure Lagumdžija would tell you.  He says that during the flight he tried to persuade Izetbegovic to land not in Sarajevo but in Split [Croatia], which would be safer.  Alija replied that he had a JNA guarantee he could freely land.  When we in the Main Staff of the Territorial Defence learned that Izetbegovic had been captured, we became greatly concerned.   We feared that they would use physical pressure against him, drug him to get him to sign something.   This is what we in the Main Staff were thinking.  what was going through our minds.   We even considered attacking the Lukavica barracks, which would have been a crazy thing to do, because we had nothing but rifles, a few machine-guns and some anti-tank weapons.  Such weapons cannot be used against a heavily armed fortress full of tanks and artillery.  


I did not know what was happening at the Presidency, what Sefer Halilovic [of the Patriotic League] and Colonel Hasan Efendic [of the Territorial Defence] were doing.  At that time there still existed a dual command, despite the fact that the Patriotic League had joined the Territorial Defence on 14 April.   The commander of the Patriotic League, Sefer Halilovic, joined the Main Staff after the League had fused with the Territorial Defence and became head of its operational section.   


We of the Staff were carefully monitoring developments.  We learnt that Izetbegovic was to arrive in an armoured vehicle at the 2nd Army district building, which we had surrounded, to be exchanged there for the commander of the 2nd Army district, General Kukanjac.  We did not know whether Izetbegovic would really be exchanged, or whether it was simply a trap.  It was therefore necessary to check whether he was in the vehicle.  We decided to do so near the Cobanija mosque.  When I got there three Territorials, who were at Cobanija, told me that the column had passed by long ago and had already arrived at the 2nd Army district command, so I set off for 6 April Square, where I found around thirty vehicles.


The soldiers were taking wooden boxes from the building, which we later learnt contained archives.  They carried personal weapons.  I did not notice any of them carrying a machine-gun or mortar.  Standing round them in the square were about a hundred Territorials, policemen from the Old Town, and many other people unknown to me, who belonged to various groups from the Old Town.  Their intention was to attack the soldiers.  One could hear football-style chanting coming from the nearby streets and courtyards: ‘Go on! Forward!’  I tried to calm them down, and through a loudspeaker invited the JNA soldiers to join our side, where they would enjoy all rights.  We wrote into our Law on National Defence that all those who joined us would retain their rights and their rank, and even that those with the rank of major could be promoted to that of lieutenant-colonel. Coffee was made, pies offered to the members of the Territorial Defence.  Everyone was waiting, as if in an arena, for something to happen.  I could not establish contact with the Main Staff and the Presidency, my walkie-talkie was not working.  Then a young man rushed up to me and said: ‘Comrade colonel, I’m a radio ham, let’s try to establish contact through the radio hams.’  I went to his place and after half an hour of fiddling we managed to establish the link.


I returned to the square, but the soldiers had left.  I went to Cobanija.  It was between 5 and 5.30 in the afternoon, I don’t recall exactly the time.  I came across  a column that had halted. A small four-wheel car was at the front, with General Lewis Mackenzie and Lagumdžija.  Behind it was an armoured carrier with Izetbegovic and Kukanjac.  This vehicle was surrounded by security guards.  I climbed into it.  Izetbegovic said to me: ‘Jovan, I don’t know why the column has been stopped.  All has been agreed.  Please make sure the column can pass.’ 


At that moment I heard shooting some 200 to 300 metres further along, somewhere in the direction of Drvenija.  I screamed: ‘Don’t shoot!’


Zoran Cegar turned up at that moment, a policeman from the special unit led by Dragan Vikic.  He said: ‘Get down! Who are you? This is my president.  What business do you have with him?’  I got down.  He talked to the president, I could not hear what they were saying.  I saw him getting down and opening the door of the transporter.  This is the first time I saw Kukanjac cringe in fear, becoming very small.  Cegar told him: ‘Your Chetnik mother!  If something were to happen to Alija Izetbegovuc, your whole Chetnik family will be a head shorter.’  All this took place in Dobrovoljacka Street, along from the Theatre Café towards Drvenija.  At that moment the column was allowed to proceed, I don’t know by whose order.


Was there more shooting?


I heard shooting only once more from the direction of Drvenija.  The column moved on, fifteen vehicles followed the transporter with Alija Izetbegovic, while our side took fifteen others as war booty.  They jumped on and turned them towards Cobanija, and took them from there through the nearby streets.  These trucks contained on average one or two soldiers.  It was later said that many documents were found in these trucks, including a plan for capturing Sarajevo within seven and Bosnia-Herzegovina within thirty days.  I did not see them myself.  Two hundred and fifteen soldiers were captured on this occasion and taken to the FIS [sports] building.   They were kept there for two days.  Stjepan Šiber was instructed to talk to them, to invite them to stay with us in the Territorial Defence, or if not to tell them that they could return to their units, that they could be exchanged.   This is what I personally saw.  It would be wrong of me to comment on things I did not witness.  



Eight people died on Dobrovoljacka Street


How many people died?


As far as I know, eight people were killed.


Do you know who started shooting?


That I don’t know.


Why did people shoot?


I don’t know that either.  I think that no one gave the order, that it was done by individuals acting on their own.  I heard later a soldier who was there say: ‘Some madman took a gun and fired at the window of a bus carrying army officers.’  I didn’t witness that, it’s what a man who was there said.  He also said: ‘An old man took a gun and fired.’ 


Who on Dobrovoljacka Street took part in the shooting?  Which units were there?


I couldn’t tell who was with which unit.  The fact is that the streets of the Old Town were pretty full of policemen and Green Beret members. The Territorial Defence also operated in groups.  They were not full units.  Each would have about a dozen Territorials, and two dozen policemen and Green Berets.  They were all mixed,  you couldn’t tell who belonged to which unit.  Only around ten per cent of the men wore a uniform.  It was mainly civilians who were in the street on that day.


Were they deployed on both sides of  Dobrovoljacka Street?  Were they expecting the passing of the column?


They were indeed, because they had followed the column as it set off  from 6 April Square.  I didn’t see many people at the place where I was, they were largely Alija Izetnegovic’s security guards.



There was no torture


Do you know if the wounded received medical care in the Sarajevo hospitals?


Sure they did.  Colonel Enes Taso, who was badly wounded, was taken to a hospital where he received medical treatment.  He was later transferred to Belgrade where he gained the rank of general.  He was an ethnic Bosniak.


There are stories about people being tortured at FIS.


That should be said by witnesses.  I know from talking to my friend Šiber that there was no torture.


Would it have been possible for someone from the Presidency to have planned all this in advance, to have deployed members of the Territorial Defence, Patriotic League and Green Berets along Dobrovoljacka Street and given them an order to attack?


That’s impossible, because each group operated on its own.  They were all mixed up, so that it’s impossible that someone could have directly influenced their deployment along the stretch between the 2nd Army district and Drvenija.  That’s not possible, it couldn’t be done.


You believe that there was no order to attack, that it happened spontaneously?


Absolutely spontaneously.


Could it have been avoided?


Of course.  Why did the JNA attack Sarajevo on 2 May?  What was the JNA doing in Sarajevo on 2 May?  It was a general test to see how the Territorial Defence, police and others would react.  They did not have to arrest Alija Izetbegovic.  None of this would have happened if Izetbegovic not been taken prisoner.  Were it not for this, I am certain that after a while and through negotiations the siege of all the barracks would have been lifted without a shot being fired.


So, according to you, it was not organised?


I was there and saw that it was not organised.  I repeat, some people did try to attack the JNA.  They were saying: ‘Let’s go, let’s move, let’s proceed bit by bit.’  It was not a command.  The commanding officers’ command was: ‘Don’t go, wait, don’t attack, don’t shoot.’  The commanders of the basic units tried to prevent shooting.  If someone wished for a massacre to occur, it would have happened at 6 April Square. 


Who in your view is responsible for Dobrovoljacka?


Those who gave themselves the right to decide who would die.


Do you think that what happened on Dobrovoljacka Street was a crime?


At the individual level, it was.  But at the general level it was not committed by the regular units of the Territorial Defence, police or Green Berets.  



Translated from Radio Free Europe/Radio Slobodna Evropa, 2 October 2009, republished 2 March 2010  


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