Sarajevo Assassin’s Gunshot Echoes Across His Birthplace

Author : Mircea Birca | Friday, May 9, 2014
Posted in category Balkans, Bosnia Hertegovina
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Around Gavrilo Princip’s home village in Bosnia, disputes over whether he was a hero or a terrorist have raised tensions ahead of the centenary of the outbreak of World War I.

The gunshot that ignited World War I continues to echo through this mountain-bound village, stirring up fresh nationalist tensions in a region still stinging from the ethnic warfare of the past century.

Obljaj, an ethnic Serb hamlet near Bosnia’s border with Croatia, is gearing up to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the day its most famous son, Gavrilo Princip, assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, setting in motion the events that led to World War I.

In Princip’s birthplace, the peace is now disturbed only by the clucking hens that run freely through the unpaved roads.

The house where he was born, which used to be a museum, was burned down, leaving only a stone basement where the family kept their livestock.

Old utensils from the museum lie rusting in the yard. The only sign that this was the home of one of the 20th century’s most significant figures is a rock into which Princip supposedly carved his initials in 1909.

But it is nevertheless becoming a locus of controversy as the centenary of the assassination approaches.

Nationalists from Bosnia’s Croat community, which dominates the regional government, condemn Princip as a terrorist and oppose his commemoration. Croats are predominantly Roman Catholic, like the Austrians who occupied Bosnia before WWI. But local Orthodox Serbs are determined to celebrate Princip as a national hero and resent what they see as Croat efforts to suppress his memory.

‘Everyone is trying to transfer events from 100 years ago into the context of today,’ said Kresimir Saric, a municipal councillor in Bosansko Grahovo, of which Obljaj is part.

‘If we continue withthis manner of speaking, tensions could arise,’ he said.

Saric, an ethnic Croat, said that he was not invited to a ceremony at Grahovo’s Serb Orthodox Church on April 28 marking the 96th anniversary of Princip’s death in prison. Guests included Bishop Atanasije of Bihac-Petrovac, who invoked the memory of Prince Lazar, the Serb hero who died fighting Turkish invaders in 1389.

A day earlier in Montenegro, leading cleric Metropolitan Amfilohije hailed Princip as a ‘great knight of the Orthodox and Serbian nation’ and drew parallels between his struggle against Austrian oppression and the Serbs’recent conflicts with the West.

Meanwhile, Tadija Ljubicic, an ethnic Croat city councillor in nearby Tomislavgrad, said the regional authorities’ tolerance of the Princip commemorations in Grahovo was tantamount to ‘spitting on the graves of Croat war veterans’.

‘It is an irrefutable fact that Gavrilo Princip assassinated the legitimate ruler,’ Ljubicic said.

‘How else can we describe this kind of person except as a murderer?’ he asked.

Princip’s memory is dividing Bosnians across the country. Muslim-majority Sarajevo will mark the centenary with a gala performance by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Bosnian Serbs will not take part in any official capacity, choosing instead to hold their own remembrances.

The assassin himself might find this ethno-religious fervour ironic. At his trial in 1914, Princip declared himself a ‘Yugoslav nationalist’ whose goal was to unify all South Slavs. His Young Bosnia revolutionary movement included Croat and Muslim members.

He was also an atheist.

The June 28 commemorations will take place in a landscape that still resembles a war zone nearly 20 years after the fighting stopped. Croatian troops laid waste to Grahovo and the surrounding area in 1995, mayor Uros Makic said.

The majesty of the Dinaric Alps is littered with the shells of ransacked houses. The cultural centre on Grahovo’s main square, named after Princip, lies in ruins. Across the street stands a cross honouring the town’s ‘Croat defenders’, which has Serb residents fuming.

Regional leaders’ priorities have not included rebuilding Princip’s house or exploiting the potential tourist revenue, Makic explained. Only a tiny sign, barely visible on the side of the highway, points visitors toward the spot.

‘You have to understand the state of Grahovo after the war. Ninety-eight percent of residential buildings were destroyed,’ he said. ‘We couldn’t put up a sign on a ruined house.’

With no local funds available, Grahovo’s Serbs turned to their ethnic kinfolk in other countries to finance the reconstruction of Princip’s house. They managed to raise 52,000 Bosnian marks (26,000 euro), almost all of which came from donors in Novi Sad in Serbia and Milwaukee in the US state of Wisconsin, Makic said.

These funds will cover the cost of rebuilding the wooden living quarters, but will not be enough to hire a curator or replace the period furnishings that used to be in the museum, said Dara Kesic, who is overseeing the reconstruction, which is set to wrap up by mid-June.

‘Unfortunately, it could be burned down again. Some people don’t like the fact that it’s here… you never know,’ Kesic said.

The economic desperation that drove Princip to revolt against his perceived oppressors continues to inflict hardship on Grahovo more than a century later, says Obljaj resident Uros Djuric, a 60-year-old pensioner known as ‘Grof’.

Virtually all the young Serbs have left Grahovo in search of employment, and any available jobs seem to go to ethnic Croats, he claimed. He also believes that the regional authorities have deliberately neglected economic development in Princip’s birthplace.

‘They see Gavrilo as a traitor,’ Grof said, thumbing a dog-eared biography of Princip over a glass of moonshine liquor at his home. ‘They just want Grahovo to die off.’

‘Families feel so miserable… they describe this a place where you just wait for death,’ he added.

As a private tribute, Grof has purchased a piece of granite upon which he plans to inscribe a poem that Princip etched in the wall of his prison cell in Terezin, in the present-day Czech Republic, where he died of tuberculosis in 1918. The verse begins:

Time limps along, and there is nothing new

Today is just like yesterday; tomorrow holds the same in store…

‘Those were desperate times 100 years ago, just like today,’ Grof said.

‘Princip is responsible for killing, that’s for sure. But he was just a kid. He was fighting for freedom.’

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