A Troublesome Teenager -The Trigger_ Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War
The Balkans might today carry a reputation for remoteness, but research has revealed this to be a relatively modern attitude. In antiquity, this mountainous region on the south-eastern edge of Europe – in effect a peninsula bounded on three sides by sea – formed part of the core of the Roman Empire; indeed, one of the later Roman emperors, Diocletian, was born there. Fragments of his palace can still be seen in the Adriatic port of Split, incorporated in the tumbledown muddle of the old city on the waterfront. The region was then known as Illyria, a place name that William Shakespeare would fancy as the setting for Twelfth Night.
‘Balkans’ is a much more modern term, a Turkish word for ‘a forested mountain range’, which only entered common usage in the nineteenth century when the area encompassed the Ottoman Empire’s territory in Europe. The Balkan Peninsula today includes Greece and Albania to the south, and Bulgaria to the east, but it was the western sector of the Balkans that came to be dominated in the Middle Ages by those who would be known as south Slavs. Before the arrival of foreign occupiers, these people ruled through a series of recognisable states with borders that fluctuated over the ages. At varying times in the Middle Ages there existed recognisable nations of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, states that were never powerful enough to rule the entire Western Balkan region, but which left a heritage of national identity strong enough to survive through to the present day.
Gavrilo Princip, history’s ultimate teenage troublemaker, was only nineteen when he fired the pistol that killed the Archduke in 1914, and he was to die four years later in an Austro-Hungarian jail, his bones eaten away by skeletal tuberculosis. But even during so short a life, he had crossed rich contours of European geography. In the late summer of 1907, aged thirteen, he walked across roughly one third of Bosnia after his parents had decided there was no life for him in Obljaj, the impoverished village of his birth. It lies way out on the western fringe of Bosnia in the area known as Herzegovina, so it was eastwards that he and his father headed, their belongings strapped to the family’s horse. A journey that would change not only Princip’s life, but the course of global history, began when, as a boy, he left the famously rocky highlands of Herzegovina and climbed over the mountain passes into the tighter, greener nvalleys of central Bosnia.*
The overland trail eventually led Princip and his father to a railhead locatedn in the town of Bugojno. From there they travelled by train through the fertile valleys of the Vrbas, Lašva and Bosna Rivers, the last of which rises at the foot of mountains close to Sarajevo and is the origin of the country’s name. Eventually the train delivered them to the capital, then a city of roughly 50,000
people, with schools big enough to promise the young boy far greater opportunities than anything available back home. His father returned to Obljaj, leaving the young Princip in Sarajevo to embark alone on his secondary
At this point in its history Bosnia was an outpost of Austria–Hungary, the last creaking iteration of the great Habsburg Empire that had grown to rule parts of central Europe since the thirteenth century. With its imperial capital in Vienna, the empire at the start of the twentieth century was a sprawl of peoples and languages, reaching from Bosnia in the south to Poland in the north, from the
Swiss Alps in the west to the Ukrainian steppe in the east. Cherished by the novelist Joseph Roth as a ‘large house with many doors and many rooms for many different kinds of people’, Austria–Hungary had grown dangerously unwieldy. The 1905 edition of Baedeker’s travel guide for the area noted that in some parts of the empire vehicles drove on the left, while elsewhere they drove on the right. It did not say what happened when the two driving styles collided.
As the twentieth century began, the stiff tunics worn by Habsburg imperial officials were a veneer concealing an empire in decline, home at roughly the same time and for varying periods to several figures who are key to modern history: Leon Trotsky, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Tito.
James Joyce lived there for almost ten years, teaching English to Austrian naval cadets in and around Trieste, learning to despise what he would call ‘the most physically corrupt royal house in Europe’. Yet it was in schools across the empire’s Balkan holdings that the green shoots of revolution were perhaps most visible. Youth politics was banned by the Austro-Hungarian authorities, so underground movements sprang up at colleges, amateurishly concealed behind a self-taught web of codenames, oaths and passwords thought up by pupils dreaming of change.
Princip may have sparked a century of turmoil, but he started out as a quiet and exemplary student from the provinces. It was while at school in Sarajevo that he first became caught up in this swirl of anti-Establishment, nationalistic idealism, reading voraciously and learning to hero-worship Balkan assassins who had dared to confront foreign occupiers. There were many of those tochoose from, in an era when assassination was a quite standard driver forpolitical change. After completing almost three years at the Merchants’ School of Sarajevo, Princip moved on, switching to the classical grammar-school system, briefly attending one in the northern Bosnian city of Tuzla before enrolling at a second, back in Sarajevo. All the time his growing radicalism made him increasingly unsettled, culminating in early 1912 when he withdrew from the Bosnian school system after taking part in student protests against
Austro-Hungarian rule. It meant that to continue his education he would have to look elsewhere.
Still only seventeen years of age, Princip left Sarajevo and headed further east, crossing the Drina River frontier separating the Austro-Hungarian territory of Bosnia from its neighbour, Serbia. After the bunched mountainous terrain of his homeland, this offered a very new and different environment, a flatland of eastern European plain swept over by monumental rivers and ruled from a capital city, Belgrade, built where high ground overlooks the confluence of the mighty Danube and one of its largest tributaries, the Sava. Princip arrived at a time of intense nationalistic turmoil, with Serbia caught up in what history knows as the First and Second Balkan Wars – short, bloody and successful
confrontations in 1912 and 1913. Through a series of clashes with Ottoman occupiers throughout the nineteenth century, the south-Slav people of Serbia had won freedom for themselves, re-creating part of the medieval nation of Serbia. But they coveted parcels of territory to the south that were still under the control of Istanbul and so, in the two brief Balkan Wars, Serbia moved to win back land lost centuries earlier to the Ottomans.
As a result, when Princip first reached Serbia it was awash with weapons, militia, soldiers and plotters, the perfect place for a militant-minded student to complete his radicalisation. From 1912 the teenage Princip was based for long periods in Belgrade, drifting in and out of school, living on the breadline among a community of disaffected Bosnians who were dreaming of a time when their own homeland, like the new state of Serbia, might be freed from foreign control Eventually, in the spring of 1914, Princip emerged as the leading figure in conspiracy of young Bosnians who wanted to assassinate the heir of the AustroHungarian Empire that occupied their homeland.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand was due to visit Sarajevo to oversee manoeuvres by imperial troops at the end of June 1914, so in the spring of that year Princip headed home from Belgrade to Bosnia with two other would-be assassins. The route they took involved dodging border guards and wading back across the Drina under the cover of darkness. It was not just the Austro-Hungarian guards on the far side of the river of whom they were afraid. On the Serbian side, there were many elements in the Belgrade government that would have stopped them, if they could. The support that the assassins received in Serbia had come from only a small number of extremists within the military-intelligence community, and the wider Serbian establishment would have viewed any assassination plot with horror.
Weakened by the bloody demands of the two recent Balkan Wars, mthe last thing the Serbian government wanted was to risk provoking an attack by a powerful neighbour such as Austria–Hungary.
Tension rose as Princip’s gang prepared to cross back over the Drina. Now established as the group’s leader, nineteen-year-old Princip ran out of patience with the bragging of one of the others, who was forced to find his own way. This left just two young men to smuggle themselves and their assassins’ gear – four pistols and six grenades – all the way to Sarajevo in time for 28 June 1914 when, after the completion of army exercises, the Archduke was due to enter the city on an official visit. The plotters judged that the Archduke’s city visit would give them their best opportunity to strike.
I became steadily more intrigued as I worked out the route of Princip’s journey. It crossed not only rich territory, but also contours of history that cluster tightly in this turbulent corner of Europe. The Bosnian valleys through which he trekked were where, three decades later, one of the subplots of the Second World War would play out: the controversial decision by Churchill to back partisans under Tito, a communist leader fighting against Nazi occupation. It was a decision that had great impact on the later Cold War, as it shifted Yugoslavia decisively into the orbit of the communist world. For many, the stand-off between the capitalist West and the communist East symbolically began with Churchill’s famous Iron Curtain speech at Fulton, Missouri, in 1946 when he cited Trieste – the port city claimed by Tito’s Yugoslavia – as the divide between the two sides:
From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the A descended across the Continent. Behind th a t line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe . . . and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in some cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.
Following Princip’s journey would enable me to explore this crucial leftward lurch in Balkan history.
The route also passed places where some of the most sensitive but unreachable moments of the Bosnian War of the 1990s had played out. When Princip crossed back into Bosnia on his final journey to Sarajevo, he passed through mountains north of the town of Srebrenica. This was where Europe’s worst atrocity since the Holocaust took place in July 1995, when Bosnian Serbs overran a Bosnian Muslim enclave and set about systematically eradicating thousands of its men. Almost twenty years after the atrocity, the bodies of victims are still being identified from mass graves hidden in the range of hills tramped through by Princip in 1914.
By following the route from his birthplace to Sarajevo, on to Belgrade and then back again to the capital of Bosnia, I saw not only an opportunity to understand the influences that shaped Princip, but also a chance to unravel outstanding mental knots within myself, from when I first went to war.
From my home in Cape Town I began work by digging out several of the old ‘set texts’ from my time covering the Balkan Wars of the 1990s as a journalist, books that we outsiders dutifully lugged across the war zone. With nostalgic delight I picked up Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a treasure chest of a travel book by Rebecca West, born of three brief trips through Yugoslavia on the eve of the Second World War. She famously left nothing out, taking five years to compose a tome of 350,000 words, a work that she herself described as ‘an inventory of a country down to its last vest-button’. It is not just loaded with observational riches, but is on occasions irreverent, scatological, bitchy and plain batty. Much of the history within the book is unreliable, but its pluck more than makes up for this. As I reread my old paperback copy I found marginalia dating back two decades. Her complaints about the terrible quality of Bosnia’s roads in the 1930s had come in for lots of underlining and ticks of approval. Some of the wartime roads I had battled along were beyond awful. One thing that stood out more clearly this time was West’s hostility towards Germany, the Germans and all things Teutonic, while praising the vitality, unpredictability and passion of local Slavs. The book is in essence an epic love-letter to the Slavs, written at a time when one of Europe’s great peoples, the Germans, had lost their way under Nazi rule.
As I refined my plans, it was a relief not to be confronting the risks associated with earlier trips that I had undertaken through African war zones. At peace for more than a decade, the region I would be travelling through was one no longer framed by war. Ask students today what they know of Serbia and they are more likely to mention its annual music festival, Exit, than the conflict of the 1990s. Launched in 2000 in the Serbian city of Novi Sad, Exit has grown raucously and exponentially each summer into one of Europe’s most popular music festivals – a sort of Glastonbury, but without the mud.
The Internet has always seemed like the world’s greatest library opening up through my laptop and, even though I was such a long way from the Balkans, useful leads soon began to surface. Online search engines made it easy enough to track down old friends whom I had known as translators, from Sarajevo to Belgrade, and without exception they all responded positively to my emails. As the research trail sprouted new branches, I uncovered a few words of SerboCroatian lodged unused for years in a remote part of my brain, although the language’s name now had to be handled with care. The nationalistic wars that pulled Yugoslavia apart in the 1990s have made using the old term, ‘Serbo Croatian’, potentially offensive. The different communities today speak of their own exclusive language, whether it is Serbian, Croatian or Bosnian. It required sensitivity when I introduced myself to local sources and set about explaining my plan.
One of the words that came back to me clearly enough was vukojebina, an earthy term whatever you call the language. It translates as ‘where the wolves fuck’, a synonym for the ‘back of beyond’. During the war of the 1990s it was a term I often heard to describe the more remote areas of Bosnia, many of which were impossible to reach because they lay behind hostile frontlines. I was delighted to see that Princip’s route cut straight across some of these, so I would be covering new territory on this trip – terra that had remained for me infuriatingly incognita when trapped inside besieged Sarajevo.
Among my favourite books had been the memoirs of a British journalistadventurer, Arthur John Evans, who had walked extensively throughout Bosnia in the 1870s when the Ottomans were on the point of being replaced as occupiers by the Austro-Hungarians. Evans would later become world-famous as the archaeologist who discovered the Minoan civilisation on Crete, but as a young man fresh from Oxford he tramped through Bosnia and would later write on theregion for the Manchester Guardian, the precursor of today’s Guardian. His methods were slightly different from those of the modern-day reporter – he often carried a pistol – yet there was still much to admire. Rereading his memoirs, Ifound that in a letter dated February 1877 Evans described passing within a mile or so of the Princip family home at Obljaj. As I was about to embark on my own long overland journey, his description of the charms and challenges of walking through Bosnia added to my sense of anticipation:
Those who may be inclined to ‘try Bosnia’ will meet with many hardships. They must be prepared to sleep out in the open air, in the forest, or on the mountain-side. They will have now and then to put up with indifferent food, or supply their own commissariat . . . those who delight in out-of-the-way revelations of antiquity, and who perceive the high historic interest which attaches to the southern Slavs; and lastly, those who take pleasure in picturesque costumes and stupendous forest scenery; will be amply rewarded by a visit to Bosnia.
Sleeping out in the open would not normally concern me, but my research showed that Princip’s route touched on territory that was vukojebina in both the literal and figurative sense. The mountain region I would have to cross supports a significant population of wolves. I checked with local environmental groups and they assured me there had only ever been one confirmed case of a human being attacked by a wolf in Bosnia and that was because the animal was infected with rabies. I could be confident that, if I bumped into a wolf, it would most likely view me as a hunter and run away. Bears, they told me, were another story.
Bears continue to live in the mountains that I was planning to pass through, and the forests surrounding the town of Bugojno, where Princip caught his first train, have long been famous for bear-hunting. The closest I got to a bear in the 1990s was in Bugojno, when I covered fierce fighting for the town between Bosnian Croat and Bosnian Muslim forces. As the Bosnian Croats prepared to pull back they set about torching an old mountain lodge used by Tito, himself a great fan of bear-hunting. Before they left, one of the militiamen ran inside and came back out with the trophy skin of a large bear pegged out on a huge wooden board, signed by the communist dictator himself. The gunman offered it as a gift to bemused British officers attached to the United Nations peacekeeping force, and the skin remains to this day in the proud possession of the officers’ mess of 1st Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment. Not to miss out, the squaddies were presented at the same time with a stuffed bear cub that is still to be found in the sergeants’ mess.
Again I made contact with local environmental specialists and they assured me there had been only a handful of instances in the region when people had been attacked by bears. I was told that all would be fine, as long as I made sure I never found myself between mother bear and cubs.
But there was one other risk that I did not want to underestimate, one that is particularly serious in Bosnia – landmines and unexploded munitions left over from the 1990s. Mines were laid by all sides then, making Bosnia one of the most mine-contaminated countries in the world. Attempts have been made to identify areas of high risk and efforts begun to clear some areas, but in spite of this around a dozen people are killed each year by wartime mines and munitions. I got in touch with the de-mining authorities in Sarajevo, who explained that it was only cost-effective to clear areas likely to be used by people. If mines were found in remoter, wilder spots, they were simply marked with warning signs and recorded on maps.
When I told the de-miners the details of my route, they sent me sheet after sheet from their map database, all as large digital files attached to an email. I clicked on the attachments and watched eagerly as the images slowly opened on the screen of my laptop, looking out for place names and features that I knew to be on Princip’s route. The challenge then became to find a safe passage through the squiggly Richthofen-red loops that the experts used to mark the minefields. On the very first sheet a series of minefields was marked in the valley where Princip was born. The map for Bugojno was the most worrying, with an almost unbroken braid of black and red reaching from top to bottom of the entire page, right across the route I hoped to follow.
I spoke to the experts and to several climbers and hikers from Bosnia. They all had the same advice: away from the old frontlines it would be safe to hike in open country, but when approaching old frontline positions I should be sure to stick to tracks or paths that showed the visible signs of being used by people or animals.
As I became engrossed in my research I realised that under my feet at my desk in Cape Town was a much-loved kilim, one that I had not really thought about in years – a large, hard-wearing piece with the repetitive fractal design common to Anatolia or the Levant. For as long as I can remember it has been on the floor of the various houses I have lived in as a foreign correspondent in Africa and the Middle East, and now as a writer in South Africa. As I went through my wartime diaries from the 1990s I was reminded of where I got it. It did not come from some shop in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar or a carpet dealer in Yemen, but was sold to me by a farmer’s wife in central Bosnia.
She had spun the wool herself, dyed and woven it, using skills passed on by her mother and grandmother. I had stayed with her family for several months when the war sluiced around her tiny farming community – so close in fact that the farmhouse walls were often thwacked by stray rounds. Without electricity, we would pass winter nights sitting by candlelight around the wood-burning stove, growing strangely blasé about firefights that broke out in the nearby hills.
I would read Evans or some other book that I hoped might unlock the complex local history, and she would quietly spin her wool. What was most remarkable was that she was a Bosnian Croat, a Catholic by faith orientated towards Rome and the West, and yet she maintained the proudly Eastern tradition of making Turkish-style kilims, a twist in Bosnia’s rich ethnic weave.
Having worked out the route, my last concern was with the language. Happy though I was at having remembered vukojebina, I would need something more than a few rude words to get by on an overland trip across all of Bosnia and some of Serbia. I approached one of my most trusted Bosnian friends, Arnie Hećimović, a man who came of age during the war of the 1990s. Arnie had been just nineteen when fighting broke out in the small town in central Bosnia where he had been brought up, his family being forced to flee as neighbour turned on neighbour. He became the family’s breadwinner overnight, finessing his grasp of English (largely self-taught from the lyrics of bands like The Clash) into a marketable skill; he became a translator for journalists covering the nearby deployment of British peacekeeping troops. I was one of many foreign reporters who benefited not just from Arnie’s skills as a translator, but also from his role as a gatekeeper, and from his ability to help my understanding of the conflict through his local knowledge and his diplomacy at being able to persuade militiamen of different sides to let us through frontlines at awkward times.
The work allowed his family to survive those dark years, but, with the war robbing him of a university education and rerouting his life, he had joined the many thousands of Bosnians driven out of their homeland. He left in 1995 for Britain, where he has lived ever since. It had been some years since we were last in touch, but we arranged to meet to discuss my plan for working together once again. We agreed on a rendezvous in bustling South Kensington. And so it was that along a pavement crowded with museum-minded tourists I spotted the loping hulk of a man I scarcely recognised. I had known Arnie as a geeky adolescent, his eyes magnified in childlike awe by the thick lenses of the spectacles he used to wear, but here was a teenager no longer. He had filled out to fit in full the muscular Balkan stereotype.
We hugged and gossiped, teasing each other about our thinning hair and stouter frames. Then I got down to business. Would he consider coming back to Bosnia, to walk with me from Princip’s village? When I first posed the question there was a pause. For Arnie, Bosnia was not a writer’s project, a place to be analysed with the dispassion of an outsider. For him, it was a home that had rent itself apart and spat him out. I could tell he was not initially keen, but he was nevertheless curious, wanting to know more about my wider interest in Princip, asking questions and listening closely to the route that my research had already identified. After an hour or so I began to fret about being late to interview a research source, but it was Arnie who told me to relax, as he could get me across London in time. The years had reversed our roles completely. Arnie (the onetime Bosnian yokel) showed me (the onetime London resident) how to do something I had never done before: access a bicycle from London’s rent-a-bike-on-the-street system. And so I found myself being guided deftly once more by Arnie, not along a mountain track in central Bosnia as before, but this time along a rat-run leading smartly to Victoria Station.
We parted with Arnie promising to discuss the plan with his girlfriend and see if he could find a way of taking time off from his job as a picture editor on the Guardian, the same paper that Evans wrote for in the 1870s. It took several weeks for him to mull over my proposal, and it soon became clear from his emails that he was most concerned about the landmine threat. In the past fifteen years Arnie had gone back home to see his family enough times to know full well the risk. Some of the woods where he used to play as a child were strictly out of bounds to modern generations of children because of the mines. It was troubling him so much that he had started dreaming about them.
I did everything I could to reassure him, sharing the maps I had been given by the de-miners and explaining to what lengths I had gone to tap into the best current advice. Eventually, with the encouragement of his girlfriend, he agreed to come at least for the first weeks of my journey, emailing me his decision:
I’m sure it’ll be just fine, but mustn’t convince myself that it’s going to be a walk in the park. The only thing we have to worry about are: landmines, poisonous snakes and quick changing weather but not the rest :-)))
We agreed a start date of mid-June 2012, and all that remained was for me to pack a rucksack, remember the lucky hat that had accompanied me on my previous adventures in Africa and say goodbye to my family. Jane – the same name, my diary informed me, as the girl I fell for all those years ago on that Yugoslavian package holiday – was as supportive as ever, but we never enjoy the impact that long periods of separation can have on our children. At the time Kit was six and Tess a year younger, so I sat them down on the eve of my departure to go through it all, emphasising that Mum alone would be around for the next couple of months. I explained that I was going to a place called Bosnia, which I used to know quite well, but now I was to explore the history of a man long dead – Princip – a man responsible for killing the Archduke of something called the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They both appeared to take it in and, as children do so wonderfully, moved on instantaneously to the next thing to grab their attention: an ice lolly from the fridge, a grubby game in the garden . . . whatever. As Tess ran out of the room I heard her shouting to Jane: ‘Dad’s going away to look for a hungry ostrich.’ Baldrick would have been proud.
* Over the centuries the official name of the country has referred to both Bosnia and Herzegovina, the latter being a relatively small segment of territory on the southern and western periphery, famous for its stark, stony relief and its seasonal extremes of temperature. It owes its name to a period in history when it was ruled by a herceg or duke, and the naming tradition continues today with the modern nation officially known as ‘Bosnia and Herzegovina’. For the purposes of this book I will use the accepted abbreviation of ‘Bosnia’ for the whole country, unless explicitly referring to the parcel of land that makes up Herzegovina.
A Troublesome Teenager -The Trigger_ Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War