Fishing in a Minefield -The Trigger_ Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War
The walk from Glamoč to Bugojno, where Gavrilo Princip caught the train to Sarajevo, took five more days through a landscape that was sometimes wild, often beautiful and always charged. Crossing a high pass in the mountains one morning, we glimpsed the tufted, pale-eyed mask of a wolf watching us intently from the edge of a clearing. Long enough for us both to see it, not long enough for me to take a photograph before it ghosted away to the cover of wooded darkness. On another day we hiked through country the like of which I have never experienced, a boundless, exposed dragon’s back of a plateau without a single tree, its pelt of long grass combed backwards and forwards by the shifting wind. ‘Middle Earth,’ declared Arnie, surveying a scene that could easily pass for Tolkien’s fantasy world. I looked at my mobile phone and registered a modern-day indicator of remoteness: no signal.
Formidable mountain ranges kept coming, occasional rainstorms washed through and we both had periods of footsore exhaustion. But the magic of the journey for me came from the rich overlay of history we touched on, the metronome click on the ground of our hazel sticks marking progress not just along Princip’s trail but through terrain where other key episodes had played out.
I relished the sense of sharing the same physical setting that framed Princip’s journey in 1907: skylines, forests, pastures, medieval ruins that he would have been familiar with. Baedeker’s 1905 travel guide recorded a daily stagecoach, or ‘diligence’, all the way to Bugojno from the valley where Princip was born, a one-way ticket costing ten crowns in the currency of the Habsburg Empire. The price appears to have been too much for him and his father, as they trudged all the way, as we did, on foot. Princip would have recognised the high-sided valleys concertinaing the land that we traversed, the summer heat and the rural simplicity that lay all around us. We skirted north of a town called Livno, where a poster advertised a highlight of the 2012 summer season: a scything competition for local farmers.
Under Austro-Hungarian rule, Livno was the administrative centre for thearea where Princip was born, and it was here that a police report was compiled by local officials after the assassination in 1914. The form comprises a list of boxes where standard details are recorded: name, occupation, parents’ particulars. Under the ‘reputation’ category, a colonial officer had written simply: ‘a weak boy’. Another of the boxes indicated the extent to which the colonisers from Vienna had failed to improve conditions for Bosnia’s peasantry at the start of the twentieth century. The typed rubric demanded to know ‘to whom does this serf belong?’. This time the official recorded that Princip was the feudal subject of two local lords, one named Jović, the other Sierćić.
It was during Princip’s overland trip that his rage against the foreign ruler took root. He saw how the poverty he had known in Obljaj was replicated right across the country, regardless of the ethnicity of the rural community. The Austro-Hungarian authorities used to boast of how, under their rule, Bosnia benefited from new schools, industry and infrastructure, and they even goaded Princip at the trial that followed the assassination into describing the quality of life for Bosnian peasants. His answer leaves no doubt about how he regarded their plight:
‘Of what do the sufferings of the people consist?’ he was asked by a lawyer.
‘That they are completely impoverished; that they are treated like cattle. The peasant is impoverished. They destroy him completely. I am a villager’s son and I know how it is in the villages,’ he answered.
The natural beauty I found impressive but what really moved me was that latent sense of charge in the landscape, the knowledge that we were crossing through an area powerful enough to have impacted modern history not just at the start of the twentieth century but at other, later turning points. Tension rose when for the first time we passed through a minefield. On the opening day, we were deep in a forest when we spotted red plastic warning signs nailed to tree trunks on both sides of the track, each bearing a skull and crossbones in white along with text printed in both Latin and Cyrillic script: ‘Warning – Mines’. A less tangible sense of unease would manifest itself whenever we passed through towns. The skylines indicated Bosnia’s three-way mix, with Catholic belltowers, Islamic minarets and Orthodox spires often clustered in the same view, but the nationalist war of the 1990s had had the polarising effect of leaving only one group dominant in any particular place. Just as like electrical charges repel each other, so these south-Slav communities, which shared so much history, are now driven away from each other.
Before we even set off, the atmosphere in Glamoč gave us a strong sense of how fierce ethnic loyalties remain in the twenty-first century. Even though the town lies some way inside Bosnia, the flags of the neighbouring country of Croatia hung from shop fronts around the town square, and the peal of bells from a huge and newly-rebuilt Catholic church swamped completely the call to prayer from a local mosque. The guesthouse where we spent the night was right in the town centre where three roads merge around a small, paved triangle shaded by plane trees and surrounded on all sides by houses, bars and corner shops clad in the pale, weathered masonry that is common in nearby Dalmatia. Rinsed by the previous night’s rain, the whole scene sparkled in the early light of a hushed summer Sunday. Insects flew holding patterns in air too still to even waft the flaccid flags with the vivid red-and-white chequerboard shield of the Croatian coat of arms. With the bells and muezzin falling silent, the peace was broken only now and then by the sound of a badly-tuned motorbike engine being gunned nearby by some teenage off-road riders. I watched as a nun parked her boxy Yugo car next to the triangle before bustling off purposefully in the direction of the town’s large Catholic church.
There is a mild schizophrenia about the Balkans, a sense of identity that swings between Oriental and Occidental, old world and new. On a gentle summer morning in a town such as Glamoč one could be forgiven for believing you are deep in western Europe. The town square, with its corner shops and pavement cafés, would not look out of place deep in the south of France or high on the Spanish sierra. The owner of the guesthouse, Zdravko Lučić, sat with me that morning on the terrace while I ate a breakfast of eggs sunnyside up or, to use the local wording, ‘on your eyes’. A Bosnian Croat, originally from the town ofBugojno, Zdravko had served as a soldier in bitter fighting there.
When the Bosnian War began in 1992, the conflict had initially been a twoway struggle between Bosnian Serbs and all other Bosnians – that is to say, Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats. Surprised by the speed of the Bosnian Serb land-grab, the two other communities were forced into a working alliance, one that went as far as the two sides fighting alongside each other. But tensions worsened steadily between the Bosnian Croat and Muslim allies, and eventually became all-out war. Just as Serbs reminisce about the glories of medieval Serbia,so Croats venerate their own long history, one that records with pride the existence of an independent kingdom of Croatia. No matter that the nation effectively lost its freedom 900 years ago, becoming first a vassal state of Hungary and later a component of the Habsburg Empire, legends of self-rule were kept alive over the centuries by Catholic Croats just as keenly as stories of early Serbian nationhood were preserved by Orthodox Christian believers.
Epic tales of past glories would be told in Croat hovels, as they were in simple Serb dwellings like the ones in Obljaj. Peasants from both communities then relied on the same zadruga system, gathering families into parish groups where issues could be worked through and burdens shared. They were also the platform where resentments against feudal overlords could be vented and selfpity could fester, occasionally erupting into rebellion. Just as the Ottoman occupiers of Bosnia faced occasional uprisings from disaffected locals throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, so the various elites imposed on Croatia by Hungary and Austria often faced revolts. In both cases the response was very similar: peasants executed, villages burned, communities destroyed, anger fuelled.
In its fundamental details Zdravko’s family story was identical to that of the Princip clan, two days’ walk away on the other side of Mount Šator. The only difference was that one was a narrative of Croat victimhood, the other of Serb. Much as the local communities here in recent times have sought to emphasise their differences, this shared experience shows how the south-Slav peoples of the Balkans have a common historical narrative of suffering, one that is transitivebetween the different communities.
It was largely a sense of righting past historical wrongs that led to the founding of an independent Croatia when Yugoslavia fell apart in the 1990s. In 1991, a year before the Bosnian War began, the Croatian War had started, as the Croatian republic that used to be part of Yugoslavia broke away in a struggle that would eventually lead to the creation of today’s independent country. In the flush of this success, a small but influential contingent of extreme Croat nationalists saw the subsequent war in neighbouring Bosnia as an opportunity to grab land that might restore what they held to be their birthright, a Croatian state reaching far into Bosnia, as history shows was the case at its territorial zenith roughly 1,000 years ago. When these ultra-nationalists made their move in late 1992, following months of plotting and preparing, there was only one possible outcome: the Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslimsturned their guns against each other.
Throughout 1993 the Bosnian Serbs largely sat back and watched their two once-united opponents rip each other apart. Some of the most hateful atrocities and episodes of ethnic cleansing took place that year between these two former allies – incidents that I covered as a reporter. On one occasion I had to drive away wild dogs from eating a corpse in the village of Stupni Do, where Bosnian Croat extremists had slaughtered Bosnian Muslim farmers on an autumn day. An already complex war had become a lot more complicated, something that made reporting it a challenge. For example, in the central Bosnian town of Vitez a small pocket of Bosnian Muslims in the old town centre found itself surrounded by a hostile enemy made up of Bosnian Croats, who were then themselves surrounded by more Bosnian Muslims, who were in turn confronting a wider Bosnian Serb enemy. Newspaper stories became more and more convoluted and, inevitably, mistakes were made.
In October 1993 I was one of the last foreign correspondents to see up close the famously graceful bridge in Mostar. This southern city was then torn apart by some of the worst fighting between Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims. One morning I cowered inside a Spanish armoured personnel carrier from the UN peacekeeping force being driven into the Bosnian Muslim half of town, where I was to spend one of the most terrifying nights of my life. My diary recorded that the city’s airfield was a no-man’s-land separating the two sides, so we roared across the tarmac at high speed from the Bosnian Croat frontline positions to find:
. . . the first Bosnian Muslim trenches, First World War-style with tin helmets bobbing up and down every 15 ft and mounds of earth, barbed wire and timber. One nice touch was several feet of trench that were crowned with grapevines sending their tresses down and round the men.
Mortar shells were raining down so heavily that the personnel carrier did not move for the entire duration of its twenty-four-hour-long deployment, parked for safety under the protection provided by an overhanging building. Pumped with adrenalin, I ventured out on foot to an improvised hospital set up in the basement. An old Mercedes taxi roared to a halt outside just as I arrived, its passenger door already flung open as a Bosnian Muslim civilian desperately dragged out a woman who had been hit by mortar shrapnel. As she was bundled out of the car I can remember my reflex of embarrassment at seeing her left breast exposed in the bloody confusion. She made no move to cover herself. She would not move again.
The beautiful single-span bridge was then barely recognisable, crudely covered with a roped web of old tyres, a forlorn attempt to protect the 400-yearold masonry. To cross it was to risk your life, so you had to sprint, doubled over, all the time knowing that you might be in the cross-hairs of Bosnian Croat snipers hidden in houses just a few yards away on the west bank.
A few days later the bridge came tumbling down, a catastrophically symbolic moment when a dream died – the dream of all southern Slavs living as one. Thetyres could offer no protection against a salvo of shells deliberately aimed by a Bosnian Croat tank. So deep ran the hatred between the two former allies that Bosnian Croat commanders ordered to be destroyed anything that hinted at a Bosnian Muslim cultural connection to this land. The bridge had been built by Ottoman occupiers in the late sixteenth century and, in the poisonous atmosphere of the 1990s, that was enough to condemn it through historical linkage – no matter how disingenuous – to the Bosnian Muslim side. Bosnia’s Muslims are just as much southern Slavs as Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs, the key difference being their faith. They were not foreigners and certainly not descendants of Turkish Ottoman occupiers.
The bridge’s destruction was big news, but Newsweek, the reputable American magazine, would famously blunder in a prominent picture-led account of the incident. The magazine wrongly blamed Serbian forces for shelling the bridge. This muddle seemed to capture, for me, the sense of the war becoming too complex for outsiders to decode. Some Western policymakers at that time gave the impression of giving up on Bosnia, as if the violence were too historically rooted ever to be resolved.
As Zdravko, owner of the guesthouse in Glamoč, told me his own story it became clear that during this period our paths had passed perilously close to each other. His home town, Bugojno, was then being fought over fiercely by his own side, the Bosnian Croats, and that year’s enemy, the Bosnian Muslims. In July of 1993 things were going badly for the Bosnian Croats, with their forces preparing for a retreat. ‘They were coming at us from all sides and I was
deployed to man a checkpoint to block the road that leads into Bugojno from the south,’ Zdravko said. ‘It was in a place called the Pajić field.’
‘But I remember your checkpoint on that road well,’ I explained. ‘There was a British UN position nearby, and I joined a column of their Warrior armoured troop carriers heading up to Bugojno from the south during the fighting. The first day we tried, it was too dangerous to pass your checkpoint. There were no people on the road, but it was covered in rubble and blocked with a jackknifed truck loaded with wood. The next day, really early in the morning, I drove my armoured Land Rover straight past you, sandwiched between two Warriors that managed to push past the lorry and the rubble.’
With the faintest of smiles Zdravko then said: ‘Well, if I had seen you that day I would have shot you.’ I am still not sure if he was joking. ‘Those UN bastards,’ he continued, his voice sharpening with anger. ‘All they did was help mour bloody enemies. They did not give a damn about us Croats.’ His rage against the foreign forces from Britain, France, Canada, Holland, Spain and elsewhere – peacekeepers who found themselves in Bosnia without any peace to keep – was replicated across all combatants in the war. If there was one common feature between the otherwise bitterly divided forces with whom I had contact, it was their hostility towards the outsider, the phenomenon that Ivo Andrić, writing in the 1940s, observed so acutely in his historical novels. In the 1990s the different communities each blamed the UN for working against them: helping their enemies unfairly. I had seen how untrue this was, but self pity is a powerful force, blinding in its reinforcement of victimhood.
I was intrigued that Zdravko and I could remember the same situation so differently. He was convinced the UN forces had given up on the Bosnian Croat civilians forced out of Bugojno by the fighting. But I remember clearly the risks taken by these foreigners as they did whatever they could to help those same civilians. A British officer would be killed patrolling nearby when his vehicle hit a mine. At the height of the fighting for Bugojno, I watched the local British commander negotiating at length with Bosnian Muslim forces so that he could provide whatever help he could to civilian Bosnian Croats huddling for safety in a small village just outside the town.
Fighting between Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats lasted for more than a year before the leaders of the two groups, under diplomatic pressure from the international community, agreed a peace deal. So from spring 1994 the two sides reunited once more in a common front against the Bosnian Serbs, one that would culminate in joint operations during Operation Storm, which was so decisive the following summer. The Croat–Muslim fighting had achieved nothing except claiming thousands of lives and picking scabs off old rivalries. For Zdravko, it meant that he no longer felt at home in his birthplace, preferring to live in Glamoč, a town set firmly under the control of the Bosnian Croats following the Dayton peace deal that ended the war.
After hearing the Bosnian Serb perspective from Mile’s family back in Obljaj, and that of the Bosnian Croats from Zdravko, our first major encounter with Bosnian Muslims came unexpectedly on the third day of walking from Glamoč. We had just climbed the mountain pass known locally as the Gates of Kupres, which takes its name from a nearby highland town, famous for its ski resort. The pass is well-known for marking the frontier between the rocky open wastes of Herzegovina and the tighter, greener valleys of central Bosnia, and no sooner had we crested the rise than we heard something we had not encountered so far on the journey: running water. Herzegovina is famously dry in the summer months but having crossed through the Gates of Kupres we already had proof of change – a perennial mountain stream within the watershed of the Vrbas River. An hour or so later we came across an old climbers’ refuge deep in the forest where we met two Bosnian Muslim imams dressed in clothing I do not normally associate with mullahs: rubber waders, battered green hats and waistcoats covered in small pockets from which bundles of fishingline nosed. They were mad-keen fishermen about to go trout-fishing. In 1957 Lawrence Durrell published a thriller about the Balkans, White Eagles Over Serbia, following his service as a diplomat in post-Second World War Belgrade. The book’s swashbuckling hero, Methuen, manages to outwit the state security services hunting him by surviving on trout caught in mountain streams. I love fly-fishing, but when I read this book twenty years ago the idea of going fishing up a Bosnian mountain stream was simply unfeasible. Today it was a different story.
‘Can I join you?’ I asked, after introducing myself to Kemal Tokmić and Muzafer Latić. Of course, they said; and so, leaving Arnie to rest outside the climbers’ hut, I then embarked on an extraordinary fishing safari. Clambering down the bank, we came to a stream no wider than a table-tennis table, a chain of tiny pools, cascades and eddies that gurgled down through a muddle of forest obstacles: fallen tree trunks, overhanging ferns, exposed roots and patches of boggy silt. Right there, next to where the mullahs planned to set up, was a red mine-warning sign nailed to a tree. Now I am no expert, but twenty or so years after mines were planted in this area, gravity, rain, landslides and the attention of passing wild animals could only have had one effect, if those devices were dislodged: they would surely have worked their way down the gully towards the stream where we were now standing. I pointed at the mine sign and asked Kemal if he thought it was safe to fish.
With a shrug of his shoulders that marked him out as a truly committed fisherman, he turned away from me and began to concentrate on the next little pool, reading the current for where a fish might lie. ‘God will provide,’ hewhispered.
We spent a few hours stalking mountain trout. They were tiny little things, no longer than the span of your hand, spectral-white on the underside and camouflaged dark-brown on top, the boundary between the two colour schemes marked by a plimsoll line of bright-red polka dots. These were not stocked fish bred in tanks, but wild, canny little blighters that it took skill to land. I have fished lakes in New Zealand and rivers in the Falkland Islands, but thispiscatorial mission was as challenging as any: approaching each tiny pool in silent stealth, threading the rod through an overhead web of leafy branches, keeping one’s footing on the uneven river bank and trying to land the bait where the water was moving just enough for its touchdown plop to be hidden, but not so much for the line to be swamped.
Kemal was the first to have a strike, but as he jerked the line upwards his weight shifted and the old log on which he was balancing collapsed. The fish escaped in a tangle of leafy, gritty cursing that would have brought blushes to his congregation.
My own attempts were even clumsier, so I was mostly happy to watch and learn from the local experts. Their concentration was intense, their skill level high, their passion tangible. As we crept up the stream bed I thought about the fishermen I had seen on the first evening we arrived in Princip’s village – Bosnian Serb teenagers. I thought of Bosnian Croat boys I had seen fishing near Glamoč. In Bosnia the love of fishing knows no boundaries.
When we got back to the hut I found that Arnie had made a plan. ‘It’s another four hours’ walk from here to Bugojno and, as it is already late, I have arranged for us to sleep here,’ he said. The refuge had been built in the early 1960s when Yugoslavia was ruled by the communist dictator, Tito. Inside was a large common room with a horseshoe of benches constructed around a woodburning stove, the walls decorated mostly with maps showing local trails.Among the maps were a few photographs of the lodge’s construction team from 1962, lean, bare-chested men, and women in flowery dresses, proudly sharing in the communal project.
I invited my two new angling friends to join us for a meal and we spent the evening chatting around the barbecue built out the front near where the mountain stream tumbles down a waterfall. The woodsmoke blended with the smell of spicy mince nuggets, ćevapčići, hissing fat onto the coals. As a final flourish, flat bread rolls known as lepinja were placed on the grill to toast. Leathery to the touch and dusty with flour, they soaked up the fragrant oil when stuffed with the meatballs and dressed with freshly chopped onion.
The two mullahs showed great interest in my project to follow Princip and were intrigued by the Bugojno connection. They both came from the area. Kemal’s mother had been killed by Bosnian Croat shelling during the fighting of
July 1993, but they had no idea that Princip had taken the train from here as a youngster to begin his schooling in Sarajevo. As with others on this trip, the mention of Princip could unlock people’s views about not only the 1914 assassination, but much that had followed in this country.
‘We live in an age where in the rest of the world Muslims are regarded as terrorists,’ Kemal said, after gnawing his way through one of the rolls. ‘But look at the assassination of 1914 in Sarajevo – there were no Muslims involved. The assassin was this young man Princip and he was a Bosnian Serb. He shot dead the Archduke and he shot dead his wife. That makes him a terrorist. But the world does not say all Bosnian Serbs are terrorists, does it? Of course not. It is just the Muslims that all become terrorists when one Muslim does something stupid.’
While I could agree that the Western world can today be clumsy in its portrayal of Islam, I had to point out that one of Princip’s fellow conspirators in Sarajevo on the day of the assassination was a Bosnian Muslim, a man called Mehmed Mehmedbašić. He was armed and committed to the same goal as Princip: to kill the Archduke as he passed through the streets of the city on his official visit. Kemal and Muzafer both said they had never heard of Mehmed Mehmedbašić or his role in the assassination. They were both highly educated men, but on this basic historical point they were ignorant, believing instead a narrative that suggested the assassination was exclusively a Bosnian Serb exercise designed only to serve the interests of that one ethnic group.
Our conversation brought home the polarising effect of Bosnia’s ethnic rivalries, a phenomenon re-energised so corrosively by the events of the 1990s. Kemal had lived through that conflict, and indeed had buried his own mother under cover of darkness in Bugojno because the intensity of the shelling had made it too dangerous to hold a funeral in daylight. If you have endured such an experience perhaps it is understandable that you might blindly emphasise the differences, and not the similarities, with rival ethnic groups within yourcommunity. As we sat drinking coffee, our discussion moved on to the period ofTito, the age when community projects such as the mountain lodge outside
which we were sitting were built. Again, the sense of victimhood felt by Muzafer and Kemal outshone everything else.
‘Tito was not interested in the Bosnian Muslim population,’ Kemal said. ‘He kept power to himself at the centre and did not care at all about our people here in Bosnia.’
Arnie could not let this pass. ‘Come on,’ he said politely. ‘What about the constitution of 1974, which guaranteed full republic status to Bosnia for the first time within Yugoslavia? The country had always been the poor cousin inside Yugoslavia, next to the federal republics of Serbia and Croatia, but in 1974 Tito went a long way to putting that right, to giving us greater status for ourselves.’
Kemal shook his head. ‘That was nothing. The Tito era was a bad time, and that is what you must remember. His regime was a dictatorship, a dictatorship that was brutal and undemocratic. I read on the Internet that Tito’s regime here in Yugoslavia was the eleventh worst in world history.’
I pressed him to explain. Was it eleventh in a league table of political assassinations or economic mismanagement or corrupt asset-stripping? All he kept repeating was that he ‘read it on the Internet’. Muzafer mentioned that his brother had been jailed under Tito for political reasons, but again he could not remember exactly what those reasons were. By now Arnie was fuming, but he managed to control his anger to say this: ‘Look at what we have seen since 1990 and the collapse of Yugoslavia. Surely that tells us Tito was special, by keeping the country together for forty years. Only now can we see what a miracle that was.’
The edginess of the exchange made it feel that it was time to say goodbye to our guests. Arnie was clearly cross at the way fellow Bosnian Muslims like Kemal and Muzafer could frame everything in terms of victimhood. I stood up and walked with our two guests to their car, Kemal’s mobile phone pinging to announce the arrival of a message with a photograph attached. It was from a fishing buddy who had spent the day a few miles downstream from us and had sent a cheerful bragging photo of a large rainbow trout landed on a particularly tricky part of the river. The sparkle came back to Kemal’s eyes. As any angler will tell you: better stick to fishing than politics.
Talk about the communist era brought to mind how the same land we were walking through had been the setting for Tito’s rise to power through the Second World War. Indeed, for a brief period at the end of 1943, the potato-rich plain of Glamoč had been where an important series of events took place that was connected to the Allied decision to back the communist partisans led by Tito, a man at that time unknown beyond his inner circle. It was a strategic move that helped push Yugoslavia into the communist orbit once the war ended in 1945.
Yugoslavia, the country created in the Western Balkans after the First World War, had fallen to the advancing Nazis in 1941. The Germans were quick to deploy a ‘divide and rule’ strategy, chopping the territory into parcels that were run by Nazi-sympathising proxies. Hitler’s occupation of the Western Balkans was as brutal as anywhere, with resistance sympathisers shot, Jewish communities destroyed and indigenous fascists given free rein. In one section of occupied Yugoslavia ultra-nationalist Croats were handed power, running adeath-camp at a town called Jasenovac, where not only Jews and Gypsies, butrivals from within the local community, mostly Serbs, were put to death in huge numbers.
Initially, the Western powers believed local resistance to Nazi rule came from troops loyal to a commander named Draža Mihailović, a Serbian officer who had served in the 1930s Yugoslav army. As a result he enjoyed what little support the Allies could then offer: small-scale air drops of military supplies to his Serbdominated resistance, fighters who proudly called themselves Chetniks. This low level of assistance was overseen by a series of middle-ranking British liaison officers smuggled into his underground headquarters. As these Allied operatives were constantly harassed by enemy patrols, their grasp of the complete military picture was sketchy.
Over time, suspicions emerged to change the way the Allies regarded the Chetniks. First, it became clear that another group of resistance fighters – communist partisans under a shadowy figure called Tito – might be inflicting more damage on occupying Axis forces. Second and even more important, in many places rivalry between partisans and Chetniks had erupted into full-blown combat, in effect civil war. Instead of fighting the occupiers, the two groups hadbegun to fight each other, cutting deals with German and Italian troops at the local level, and in some cases collaborating. The situation had got so bad in the early summer of 1943 that some Chetnik units fought alongside Italian troops in a joint operation that attempted to wipe out the partisans. The partisans, in turn, were accused elsewhere of making cosy arrangements with the occupiers.
To clarify this murky situation Winston Churchill demanded better intelligence, and this is where Glamoč enters the story. I had read extensively about the various Allied agents covertly deployed across the region. Some arrived by parachute, others by rubber dinghy launched at night from submarines operating off the Adriatic coast. It was exciting stuff. What intrigued me most was the way these accounts revealed the rivalries in the 1940s between local factions – partisans, Chetniks, fascists. The picture was a complex one, something that does not make for easy re creation by storytellers. While many people are familiar with The Guns of Navarone, a wartime novel set in Greece by the British author Alistair MacLean, which was later turned into a popular film, his sequel failed to capture the public imagination. It was called Force 10 from Navarone and even though it would also be made into a feature film, with a full roster of stars including a young Harrison Ford, its popularity was nothing in comparison to its predecessor. It was set amidst the opaque factionalism, plotting and double-crossing of wartime Yugoslavia.
But while film-goers might demand the one-dimensional moral clarity of good against evil, I came to relish what I learned about Yugoslavia in the Second World War. Sliding moral values, human fallibility and cynical opportunism seemed much more real than Hollywood heroics. Eagerly I sought to untangle local history from the 1940s, not least because it seemed to mirror so well thecomplex war I wrote about fifty years later.
The most renowned British agent deployed to Yugoslavia was a namesake of the Navarone author, although no relation. Fitzroy Maclean, a Scottish warrior– diplomat, had been a founding member of the Special Air Service (the SAS) in the deserts of North Africa, a quixotic figure, tall and lean, often photographed in the kilt of his Scottish highland regiment uniform. The British press dubbed him the ‘Kilted Pimpernel’ and after his wartime exploits were publicised he came to symbolise the courageous, debonair secret agent. Ian Fleming was never able to dissuade the many people who believed that Maclean was the man on whom James Bond was based.
In the late summer of 1943 Maclean was summoned to meet Churchill to discuss Yugoslavia. In his wartime memoir, Eastern Approaches, Maclean recounted how he received his briefing from the British Prime Minister in the early hours of the morning, but not until a Mickey Mouse cartoon film had been forced on the assembled group of top brass. Churchill was famous for relaxing by watching films. In spite of lobbying by advisers who still favoured the Chetniks, the British Prime Minister already sensed that the partisans were a serious fighting force, writing a personal minute in July 1943 in which he described them as ‘these hardy and hunted guerrillas’. When the potentially sensitive issue arose of which of the various Yugoslav factions were to receive British military support, Churchill gave simple and clear instructions. ‘My task was simply to find out who was killing the most Germans and suggest means by which we could help them kill more,’ Maclean wrote in his memoir.
After being dropped by parachute into central Bosnia, Maclean and his small team of Allied agents were led to the old fortress town of Jajce, briefly held by the communist resistance as its headquarters, and there he met their leader. He was named Josip Broz, but he would become known around the world by hispartisan nom de guerre, Tito. What I found fascinating was how much Tito had in common with Princip. Born within two years of each other – Tito was the older – they were both southern Slavs brought up under colonial rule, both committing their lives to winning freedom for their people. Whereas Princip was born in 1894 in the Serb community of Bosnia, only recently absorbed within Austria–Hungary, Tito came from Croat and Slovene stock, born further north in Croatian land that had been under Austro-Hungarian rule for centuries. Where they differed was in their political vision. Princip focused no further than the short-term, on revolutionary acts intended to remove through assassination titular symbols of occupation. Tito looked further into the future, being a committed communist who saw the socialist model as the way not just to win freedom for all south Slavs, but to form a united country once the latest occupiers left.
Maclean spent several autumn weeks in 1943 with the partisans in Bosnia, dodging German patrols and seeking to build up as accurate an intelligence picture as possible of the resistance effort of the rival Chetnik and partisan formations. I tracked down his wartime diary with its colourful snapshots of life on the run deep in enemy territory: long treks, washing in rivers, being sniped at by Chetniks, daily language lessons, coming down with a ‘gippy tummy’. The diary could have been written by many of the British soldiers who served here as UN peacekeepers fifty years after Maclean.
He was soon convinced that Tito’s movement was the worthier recipient of British military support, writing a report that urged Churchill to switch from the Chetniks. It was a decision that still angers members of the Serb community, who grumble that the Chetniks were the victims of a dark plot by left-wing, communist sympathisers within British intelligence. In the 1990s I was once harangued by a Serbian petrol-pump attendant when I told him I was from Britain. ‘Fucking Winston Churchill, Fitzroy Maclean and all their commie friends,’ the man shouted.
While it is true that there were communist supporters within British intelligence – this was the period before Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean et al. were exposed as Moscow’s agents – I don’t believe their involvement settled the issue of where British support in Yugoslavia should go. Within the last few years it has been revealed that British code-breakers at Bletchley Park were able to decrypt German military communications emerging from the Balkans during the Second World War. These messages showed that the Wehrmacht took the threat from the partisans more seriously than that from any others.
What Maclean recommended, however, was a policy shift that would have a huge impact on the Balkans, a consequence that the warrior-diplomat was aware of at the time. By backing the partisans, Yugoslavia would be pushed firmly into the communist sphere then dominated by the Soviet Union. Maclean raised these concerns with Churchill who, as recorded in Eastern Approaches, had a typically direct response:
The Prime Minister’s reply resolved my doubts.
‘Do you intend,’ he asked, ‘to make Yugoslavia your home after the war?’
‘No, Sir,’ I replied.
‘Neither do I.’
Within a few weeks of Maclean’s report being prepared, in December 1943 Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin put their initials to a memorandum spelling out the ‘Military Conclusions’ of the Tehran Conference. This was the first of the great meetings of the ‘Big Three’ Allied leaders, one at which the future of the post-war world was addressed. The first clause of the document, preceding the commitment to the D-Day landings in France, was the result of Maclean’s work:
The Conference agreed that the Partisans in Yugoslavia should be supported by supplies and equipment to the greatest possible extent, and also by commando operations.
The question then became how to deliver support at a time when Tito’s troops were in control of only tiny parcels of territory. This is where Glamoč starts to be mentioned, as its wide valley floor offered the best site for the construction of a covert airstrip where Allied planes might be able to land. Maclean passed the task to a member of his mission, Major Linn Farish, an American combat engineer with pre-war experience of building aerodromes. Farish, an Anglophile Californian who won an Olympic gold medal for rugby union and preferred to go by the disarming first name of Slim, soon got to work, as described in Eastern Approaches:
Farish, the expert airfield designer, found himself back at his peace-time occupation sooner than he had expected, helped in his work by the men, women and children of Glamoč who, under his direction, toiled away with pick and shovel, making the way smooth for the Dakotas which we fondly imagined would land there when all was ready . . . We signalled endless measurements and details to RAF Headquarters in the hope of overcoming the scepticism and distrust which in those early days they still displayed towards amateur-run improvised landing-strips. When not actually at work, Farish and his party carefully replaced the bushes that they had uprooted, so as to cover up their traces and thus avoid exciting the curiosity of passing enemy aircraft.
Eventually the order came to use the improvised strip to fly out a party of senior partisans so they could meet Churchill’s military planners. The delegates gathered on the valley floor close to Glamoč in the chill of a November morning as the aircraft that was to fly them to Italy warmed up its engines, but disaster was to strike. Maclean described what happened:
It was at this moment that, looking up, the little group round the aircraft saw, coming over the crest of the nearest hill, a small German observation plane. Before they could move, it was over them, only a few dozen feet above their heads, and, as they watched, fascinated, two small bombs came tumbling out.
The bombs exploded with devastating effect. They destroyed what was at the time the only aircraft in the partisan airforce. More importantly, they killed two of Maclean’s agents as well as Ivo-Lola Ribar, one of the partisan delegates, and wounded several others. For the partisans it was a huge blow. Ribar, a Croat and committed communist who enjoyed the full confidence of Tito, was young enough to be regarded as a potential successor as leader of the movement. He would later be venerated by the communist party of Yugoslavia as a national hero. A few days later Maclean made sure he was on board the RAF Dakota that touched down at the improvised strip near Glamoč, to pick up the wounded and a reassembled partisan delegation – the first successful Allied landing operation in occupied Yugoslavia. It was all very touch-and-go. Within a few weeks the Germans had overrun the area and the Allied air bridge was broken.
During the 1990s I had only been able to read about Glamoč, trying to picture the terrain where partisans, peasants and a rugby-playing American had worked so secretly. At that time the Bosnian Serbs held the area, making it unreachable for a foreign journalist like me. But now the situation was different and I wanted to visit the spot where Britain’s Second World War flirtation with the Balkans had momentarily been blown off-course. And when I reread Maclean’s account I noticed a name that had a strong connection to Princip. Maclean recorded that among the wounded men collected by the Dakota was Vladimir Dedijer, a man Maclean reported as being in need of emergency
surgery for a serious head wound. Dedijer, a former journalist who later became a renowned author, would survive the hardest years of wartime service with the communist resistance movement, fighting in some of the group’s most important battles. With his own hands he had to bury his wife, Olga, killed on a remote hillside when the partisans came under attack by German forces. After the war Dedijer was to write the authoritative history of Princip’s shooting of the Archduke, The Road to Sarajevo, which had been a foundation stone for researching my journey.
With help from Zdravko, the hotelier in Glamoč, I was able to find the Second World War-era airstrip where all thisdrama had played out. It was just a few miles outside town and as we approached in Zdravko’s jeep Arnie began to nod in recognition at a stand of fir trees on the flat of the valley floor.
‘I’ve been here before,’ he began. ‘Of course, I have. Of course, I have. How stupid not to remember. Back in my schooldays in the Eighties, when Yugoslavia was still communist, they brought us here for a day trip to see where the partisans had done secret things in the fight against the Germans. It was part of the glorification of all things red. I don’t remember much about them mentioning British or Americans being involved in the air operations. They preferred to keep it simple and claim all the credit for the partisans.’
Arnie continued to nod as the trees came closer and closer. ‘Yes, yes, yes. They had an old Dakota on show. Must have been like the one you read about in Fitzroy Maclean’s book. And I remember there was some sort of aerodrome tarmac, but that would have been built after the war had finished, I guess. I remember it as a modern airbase with the old memorial tucked on the side.’ Zdravko had now turned off the main road and was following a track that took us in the direction of the copse. The terrain here was flat, unnaturally so, and clearly this was what Arnie remembered as the landscaped, communist-era airbase.
I was disappointed at how little was preserved from the partisan era and the bombing raid of November 1943. Zdravko turned along a lane that went through the trees, but all we could see were a few concrete plinths that had been stripped of memorial plaques and text. ‘You are right, Arnie,’ Zdravko said. ‘There used to be a Dakota. It was parked somewhere around here.’ He was now turning from side to side to peer under the trees, but he could find nothing. ‘And the memorial to Ribar used to be well looked after. It was visited regularly during the communist period.’
‘So what happened to it all?’ I wanted to know.
‘In the 1990s being communist no longer mattered,’ Arnie piped up. ‘Being Croat or Serb or Muslim was more important than being communist. All that commie stuff from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s was seen as having been against the interests of the different groups. They did not just ignore the commie stuff, they deliberately destroyed it.’
Zdravko shrugged. ‘Sure, the Dakota was scrapped and the Tito-era material destroyed. But to be honest, I cannot tell you if it was the Bosnian Serbs who got rid of it all when they were here, or the Bosnian Croat forces who drove them out. The point was we learned to look back on the communist period as bad for all of us.’
But I was not convinced. My conversations with Zdravko up to that point had all been about the war of the 1990s, when honouring Bosnian Croat history had been so important. Ribar, the principal partisan victim of the 1943 raid, had been a proud Croat. I asked Zdravko for his feelings about the man. ‘He might have been a Croat, but he was a communist more than he was a Croat,’ Zdravko said, hauling on the steering wheel of the jeep so that we could turn back out onto the main road. ‘And if you forget where you are from, then it is right that you are forgotten.’
Zdravko’s indifference was a hollow epitaph for the men killed that wintry morning in 1943. Two Britons, named by Maclean as Robin Whetherly and Donald Knight, gave their lives here, but there is no memorial to their sacrifice.
As our walk progressed, we passed many houses destroyed in the war of the 1990s and still not rebuilt. But even these modern ruins sometimes had links back to the bitter fighting here in the 1940s. On some we saw the letter U daubed deep and capitalised on walls. It was the symbol of the Ustaše, the crypto-fascist, ultra-nationalist Croat group empowered by the Nazi occupiers during the Second World War. In this region the U symbol carries with it the same hateful charge as a swastika, yet in the 1990s it had been embraced enthusiastically by some of the Bosnian Croat forces.
Although small on the map, Bosnia felt at times as if it had a Tardis-like quality, a secret inner scale. Arnie and I slogged up hillsides, across plateaus and through woodland, our progress sometimes feeling as if it had stalled. Our conversation would inevitably turn to favourite foods that we would eat and drinks that we would enjoy when the hike was over. But my mind would also dwell on magic, on the power in this hilly land of myth clung to by communities huddling in unenlightened ignorance, unsure of what might be going on not just in far-off capitals like Vienna or Belgrade, but on the other side of the mountain, over the horizon. These days of walking showed me how much space there is in Bosnia for this type of projection, for the imagination to spin heroes and villains out of legends, for fear to ferment into prejudice. It felt not just understandable, but like the natural course for many nations. My own country – Britain – appears settled today, but as I grow older so I have learned how illusory this is. As Joseph Conrad’s narrator, Charlie Marlow, says of Britain in the opening of Heart of Darkness: ‘And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth.’
We rested for a day in Kupres, where yet more evidence emerged of Tito’s links to this land. Arnie remembered the small mountain town as the place where his family always made a regular pit-stop on the annual summer holiday drive down to the Adriatic coast in the 1980s. ‘We would be in T-shirts and shorts, but whenever we got to Kupres it was always bloody freezing,’ he told me. So it waswhen we hobbled into town, a preternatural chill in a town where a massive new Catholic church, still framed by scaffolding, made clear that this was a town under Bosnian Croat rule. We both winced from blisters as we walked to a restaurant where Arnie ordered us large wooden bowls of a local speciality, a polenta-style dish called pura, made from locally milled maize that is served gooey with home-made cream cheese.
We sat with an elderly man called Ljupko Kuna, who told us of bear-hunting in nearby mountains. Aged eighty-four, he walked with a cane, his joints worn thin by decades of service as a hunting guide, and his vision had faded a little so he wore spectacles. But with blade-sharp recall he told us about his most famous bear-hunting client: Tito.
‘I only shot with Tito for the last fifteen years of his life in the 1960s and 1970s, but for his age he was a good shot,’ Ljupko said, pouring two sachets of sugar into his coffee. ‘He was very precise as well, never shooting young animals and only going for them when they were trophy age, from twelve to fifteen years old. He never needed more than one shot for a kill. And that is not easy sometimes when the bear is in the wrong position or perhaps hidden by a branch.’ Ljupko said Tito was so keen that he hunted every year, entertaining official guests, and although Ljupko remembered various heads of state fondly,he did not have a good word to say about the Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. ‘That man shot at anything that moved,’ Ljupko said. ‘He was incapable of following any protocols when they stayed at the hunting lodge in Stinging Nettle Valley. It was built by the Austro-Hungarians.’
I had seen photographs of Tito hunting and was struck by how Austrian he looked. In one he stands over a slain bear, his hand holding the barrel of his rifle with its butt on the ground. His jacket is Tyrolean green, and the band around his brown felt hat is adorned with a feather, in the vogue of the European hunter. The photograph was almost identical to others I had seen of another keen hunter connected with this area, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. As the heir to the AustroHungarian Empire, he had rich opportunities to shoot at imperial hunting lodges, castles and estates spread across much of east and central Europe. The man who would be shot dead by Princip in Sarajevo logged every game animal, bird and trophy animal he shot during his lifetime, and had the numbers displayed on an ornate score chart that I had seen in Austria. The grand total came to 274,889.
‘Tito really felt at home in these mountains,’ Ljupko said. ‘He fought around here during the Second World War at a time when he and the partisans were being hunted by the Germans. They always managed to escape, so he felt a special bond to this part of the country.’ Ljupko was not the first to recognise Tito’s close link to these hills. Fitzroy Maclean described in his war memoir how Tito appeared most at ease when living as a fugitive, dodging German patrols, in caves spread across Bosnia’s mountains.
We emerged from the embrace of these same mountains on the last day of our walk to Bugojno, the gravel track firming into a suburban tarmac road, easing between comfortable family homes with jungle gyms in the gardens and
modest cars parked out front. Then it grew yet further and connected to the main highway running into town from the south, and for the first time since Obljaj we had a proper pavement to walk along. I had covered the fall of the town to Bosnian Muslim forces in the summer of 1993 and for the first time on the hike I had reached a place I recognised – terra that for me was cognita.
There was no doubting which Bosnian community was in power. Just as new Catholic churches were the hallmark of today’s Bosnian Croat authority over Glamoč and Kupres, so religious buildings in Bugojno told a story. In the towncentre I walked by the seventeenth-century Sultan Ahmed Han II mosque, a building I had last seen as a wreck. My 1993 diary recorded that it had been struck by scores of artillery shells, and I had taken photographs of the gaping hole in the roof. All that was left of the minaret back then was a fibrous stump, the top section blown clean away by shelling from Bosnian Croat positions. Today the mosque is pristine, the main building restored to its pre-war condition,
while the minaret has not just been rebuilt, but pumped up as if with steroids. The new column was roughly twice as tall as the original it replaced.
I found the supersized minaret unsightly. The traditional mosques of Bosnia, with their pincushion-domed roofs and needle-thin minarets, add so much to the landscape – a parcel of Europe where Muslims have worshipped for centuries. Rebecca West described them rapturously as ‘among the most pleasing architectural gestures ever made by urbanity’. The new versions felt excessive, unworthy of the fine bridges and buildings left in Bosnia by 400 years of Ottoman occupation.
After roughly a hundred miles of walking from Obljaj, Arnie and I searched out the old railway station where Princip and his father set off by train for Sarajevo in the summer of 1907. The Baedeker guide recorded the station here as the tip of a branch line on the outer fringe of the rail network built by the Austro-Hungarians. Primarily designed to haul timber felled in the region’s thick forests, the line also ran occasional passenger trains. According to the old timetable recorded by Baedeker, the train used to take about five hours to reach Sarajevo from here, with several fiddly connections to get on and off the special locomotives needed to climb a particularly high mountain pass.
Arnie and I were too late to catch a train – about forty years too late. The last one left Bugojno in the 1970s when the line became so uneconomic that it was scrapped. The tracks had long gone, but we found the original station building, doubling now as the main offices for a bus terminus built where the trains used to run. The old station’s paintwork was tatty, but at least someone bothered to tend the pot plants in their window boxes. With its tiled roof and three-storey symmetrical design, there was no mistaking its European origins. It would have looked perfectly at home next to a platform in the Tyrol.
Those early Austro-Hungarian railway surveyors had clearly known their business, for the road that today delivers you towards Sarajevo uses the exact same route as the original railway: down the valley of the Vrbas River, over the Komar pass into the Lašva River valley, finally joining the course of the Bosna River all the way to the capital. The slope at Komar was so steep that the train needed a special rack-and-pinion design to claw its way up the hillside. Ljupko, the bear-hunter from Kupres, had used the railway as a young man and told us that when it began to climb the pass most of the passengers would get off and walk, easily keeping up with the creaking locomotive.
Taking the bus would see us following the same route used by Princip, so I bought two tickets towards Sarajevo and sat down next to Arnie on a bench, happy at the thought that for the next part of the trip I would not have to lug my
heavy pack. The summer sun was punishing and I was grateful for the shade from the bus-station canopy. When Fitzroy Maclean arrived here on a wartime locomotive ‘belching flames, smoke and sparks’, he described conditions that could not have been more different. ‘Under a cold, penetrating drizzle Bugojno station was bleak and cheerless,’ he wrote. As I contemplated the way history in Bosnia so often runs over the same ground, another small coincidence was offered up by the arrival of our bus. On its grille the maker’s name was spelled out in silver letters: Gräf & Stift. It was the same company that built the limousine in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand was being driven when he was shot by Princip.