Over Tent Mountain -The Trigger_ Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War
The crowing of Obljaj’s cockerels woke me at dawn and the next sound I heard was that of Mile snuffling in the half-light outside his house, heaving on stout walking boots and calf-length socks beneath long hiking shorts. His bustling roused Arnie and me out of our sleeping bags, but just to make sure we really were taking down our tents, Mile walked across to offer us Bosnian coffee served in handle less containers as small and fragile as eggcups. I suspected that a family member had been sent out overnight to beg beans from a neighbour.
‘It’s a long way to Mount Šator, so we want to get started as soon as possible,’ Mile urged. ‘It does not look like there is going to be much cloud in the sky, but if we are lucky we will get to the cover of the trees before the sun becomes too strong.’ I smiled in recognition. The Forest of Šator was significant enough to earn several mentions in the journalism of Evans from the 1870s when he toured rebel positions during the Bosnian uprising. With Mile’s permission, I stepped into the house to use the bathroom. The other family members had not yet stirred, but the downstairs had the same yeasty, warm aroma I recalled from farmhouses I stayed in almost twenty years ago. It spoke of cheap soap and honest elbow-grease.
‘We need to get going.’ Mile was beginning to sound a little cross. ‘Your journey only starts now.’ I thought of a line from Rebecca West’s travelogue from Yugoslavia. She spent time on the Adriatic coast, exploring various offshore islands, but she wrote that it was only when she reached this area, Herzegovina, that ‘the really adventurous part of our journey began’.
Cramming biscuits into our mouths as breakfast, Arnie and I loaded our rucksacks onto our backs and made to walk back down to the road that followed the valley floor. But Mile had chosen a more direct route, striding up the sloped garden and barging through the hedge on top of the dry-stone wall that bears Gavrilo Princip’s graffiti. ‘Come on, my friends. We’ve got work to do,’ he said, disappearing from view.
After wrestl ing through the bushes at the top of the garden I found myself looking up at a steep heath, a vast rug of coarse upland grass reaching far and away to the horizon, seemingly held down by grey rocks scattered everywhere. We were heading towards a rising sun still low enough in the sky to make glowing lanterns out of seed-heavy heads among the long grass stems. As we contoured steadily up and across the slope, the rouge from the tiled rooftops of Obljaj eased itself into our wake, soon followed by that from the hamlet where Princip’s mother had been courted by his father in the 1880s. As I got used to the weight on my back and settled on a comfortable rhythm for my stride, the only sound I could hear over my breathing was the distant bleating from a flock of sheep minded by a shepherd on the lower flanks down by the flat valley floor. Mile and Arnie were discussing the livestock when I caught up with them at the first break.
‘All of us Princip boys spent time up here minding the family flock,’ Mile explained as he leaned heavily on his shoulder-high walking stick, planted on the downward slope. His eyes followed the distant flock with interest and approval. ‘Gavro would have come up here to do the same thing, and this is where he would have learned to throw stones as straight as any bullet. He would have started at an early age. When I was just seven years old I remember being trusted with the village’s herd of a hundred shee m. And all I had for protection was a stick like this and a catapult for stones Once a wolf came down and grabbed a lam , but I held the lamb by its leg and we had a tug of war. I won! The wolf ran away and the lamb survived.’
Those hours we spent with Mile were a masterclass not just in route-finding, but in Herzegovina highland husbandry. He showed us how to choose safely from mushrooms the size of dinner plates that sprouted on the open hillside. After picking a few he would always break each specimen, scrutinising carefully the flesh inside before deciding whether to pop a piece into his mouth.
‘You only eat the ones that have trails from weevils inside.’ He spat out the words along with flecks of mushroom mush. ‘If they are good enough for the weevils, they are good enough for us and do not have any toxin.’ I had picked up a large, plump example, all white on the outside and pure pink within. Too pure, in Mile’s opinion, so he batted it out of my hand and instead gave me one that was darker and flatter. It squeaked faintly when he twisted off a fragment and tasted of smoke.
Arnie and he chatted as we continued steadily on our way, my dark socks yellow with pollen dusted from alpine flowers growing ankle-deep among the grasses. I gave up keeping notes and fell back on simply enjoying the view out over the plain of Pasić, trying to guess the route Princip might have taken in m1907 when he left home for the first time. After a short while I realised I would have done better keeping an eye on the ground in front of me, as I tripped spectacularly over a rock. Mile immediately sprang into action, leading us straight to a sheltered cleft on the hillside where a stand of stocky trees grew as thick as a hedge. Taking off his rucksack and unsheathing a knife from his belt, he plunged into the thicket to the sound of snapping, grunting and sawing. After a few moments he emerged holding triumphantly two pieces of hazel about the length of snooker cues. The straight one he handed to me, the one with a crook at one end to Arnie.
Chuffed to receive my own Bosnian walking stick, I immediately took out a pocket knife and began whittling away bark that was bronze and brailled with the tiniest of blisters. To give the stick a handle I ringed it about six inches from the top, taking care that my whittling strokes did not cross this top line. Within a few minutes I had what I regarded as an elegant cream-coloured hazel walking stick with a handle of original bark. Perfect, so I thought.
Mile watched my efforts and then, without fanfare, set about a more authentic, functional barking of Arnie’s new walking stick. He ringed the branch, much as I had, to preserve the bark on the handle, but instead of scraping the rest off like a carrot being prepared for the pot, he carefully dug the tip of his knife into the bark on the line where it had been ringed and then turned the branch so as to etch a single, deep cut that spiralled down its entire length. He then used the knife point to lever up the bark’s top lip and proceeded to strip it in one continuous pig’s-tail coil. I was impressed, but even more impressed by what he did next.
Rolling the strip of bark tightly into a cornet, he used a small twig to peg the wide end in place and then bent down to select a particularly succulent blade of grass. This he threaded as a reed into the narrow end, which he then put to hislips and blew. The shrill trumpet sound that emerged from his hazel-bark horn would not have shamed a huntsman summoning a pack of foxhounds in the English shires.
‘We used them sometimes in an emergency to bring help,’ Mile said, swinging his pack up onto his back. ‘You would be amazed how far the sound can travel. I learned to make these as a child, and I bet you Gavro would have learned exactly the same.’
With all three of us now using walking sticks, our pace picked up as we went over a final rise and began a slow descent in the direction of a distant farmhouse at the foot of hills massing beneath Mount Šator’s distant peak. The last hint of early-morning cloud had now been burned off by the June sun and the heat was ganging up. Mile told us the farmhouse had the last spring at which we could replenish our water bottles.
‘At this time of year the streams on the mountain are dry until you reach a large lake just below the peak,’ he explained. ‘Water has always been a problem in this part of the valley in the summer, although as children we were always told about the magic spring of Strbci – a tiny village about an hour’s walk north of here. There are sinkholes there, and we were told that once in a lifetime you would see them flood with water, creating a deep stream of pure, cool water that flowed across the valley here. I don’t think I can remember it ever actually happening in my entire childhood, and people used to talk about it like a sort of miracle.
‘Well, do you know what happened during the war in the 1990s?’ Arnie and I were now listening carefully. ‘The Strbci sinkholes began to flood every year, year after year. And the way to tell it was going to happen was when snakes –
thousands and thousands of them, by the truckful – would emerge sliding out of the holes as if they knew the water was coming.’
Mention of snakes had me gripping my new walking stick tighter as Mile began to speak for the first time about his involvement in the fighting.
For a significant chunk of the 1990s this entire region had been a no-go area for outsiders, a vipers’ nest of extreme Bosnian Serb nationalism. Between the spring of 1992 and the summer of 1995 this land had been held by Bosnian Serbs, although it would be wrong to say it was captured through regular combat. A more accurate explanation is that the local Bosnian Serb community, with the support of militant Serb nationalists within the Yugoslav government based in Belgrade, had unilaterally staked the territory as exclusively Serb. Non Serbs were no longer welcome, and were moved on with menaces.
The process did not involve fighting in terms of one army against another; it was more a process of one-sided bullying, underwritten by a very real sense of terror. Legend, myth and prejudice combined to create a matrix of cherry-picked historical truths used by the Bosnian Serb extremists to camouflage what amounted to that most base of human failings: racism. Non-Serb businesses were blown up, houses burned, women raped, men corralled in camps, innocent smurdered. Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croat families, whose roots are dug just as deeply in this land as those of Bosnian Serbs, were declared aliens and kicked out, a strategy that became a defining hallmark of the war in Bosnia, one that would earn itself a neologism in the lexicon of war crimes: ethnic cleansing.
Although the Bosnian Serbs were the first to use this tactic, by the time the war finished the Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims would also come to employ it.
In the summer of 1993 I had approached this area as closely as was possible, coming no nearer than a field about thirty miles to the south, at the bottom of the plain that we were skirting today. Under the auspices of local Red Cross
officials, an event was being organised that was grandly called a ‘prisoner n exchange’. I was still new to Bosnia, able to move freely enough on the Bosnian Croat side of the front line, and I remember arriving that hot July day with an expectation of what I was about to see. Perhaps these POW’s would be combatants who had been lost to the other side in fighting, or walking wounded with blood-smudged bandages and threadbare uniforms. It turned out to be somewhat different.
For several hours I waited in a field under the burning sun as buses crammed with women, children and the elderly, pale-faced in terror and uncertainty, lined up on the main road running along the valley floor. The Bosnian Serbs might have started the process of ethnic cleansing, but the Bosnian Croats had picked it up and run with it. After a final round of negotiations the buses carrying Bosnian Serb victims of ethnic cleansing by Bosnian Croat forces disappeared from view northwards and came back an hour later carrying near identical-looking passengers, this time Bosnian Croat victims of Bosnian Serb ethnic cleansing. They had been driven out of towns and villages in the area that I was now standing in – the only difference separating one group of terrified civilians from the other being their ethnicity. When I called my editors that day to offer a story, they said it was too routine to justify coverage.
‘Yes, I served with the Bosnian Serb army,’ Mile said. ‘Those years were difficult and, for a Serb man in his thirties like me, there was no choice. I had to join up. But all I really wanted was to be a farmer back home. Twice I quit the army, and twice they caught me and took me back. It was a period of madness, and look how it ended.’
In the late summer of 1995, after three years under Bosnian Serb control, this area was overrun by soldiers from Croatia, a nation reborn out of the collapse of Yugoslavia on the other side of the old Habsburg–Ottoman frontier, the Catholic side. The assault that came to be known as Operation Storm was the largest military coup of the entire war. This time it was Bosnian Serb civilians who were bullied, forced to flee en masse, their homes torched, the country lanes choked with terrified women and children. After three years in which the Bosnian Serbs had acted with such cruelty, there was little international compassion for them as victims.
Operation Storm began the endgame of the Bosnian War, finally breaking the resolve of local Serb nationalism and forcing to the negotiating table the sorcerer’s apprentice politician who had unleashed it, Slobodan Milošević. An avowed communist during Yugoslavia’s red period under the dictator Tito, Milošević had switched sides as global communism waned in the late 1980s, wrapping himself instead in the flag of historic Serbia and picking at the seams of ethnic rivalry within the Yugoslav nation. It was a strategy that delivered Milošević short-term gains, but in the long term he released forces too strong for one man to control.
With Serb forces battered by Operation Storm, Milošević was forced in November 1995 to sign the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the war. Street protests in Belgrade would eventually drive Milošević from office, and he died from a heart attack in 2006 facing trial for war crimes – in many eyes, the single politician most responsible for releasing the nationalist extremism that pulled Yugoslavia apart. The tragedy was that tens of thousands of lives were to be lost in his opportunistic and, ultimately, failed attempt to retain power.
‘It has been seventeen years now since the Croat army came here, and the Bosnian Croats still have power as the local authorities. To be honest, under these circumstances only a few Bosnian Serb families like ours have dared to
come back,’ Mile said. ‘The ones who return are mostly the old, and for years now it has only felt safe enough for me to visit here from time to time, coming to see my old dad, Miljkan. I live over in an area that is still controlled by the Bosnian Serb government as recognised by the Dayton treaty, but all I want to do is come back here permanently and farm. A flock of sheep is all I need, and we could try to go back to life as it was.’
As we walked, my mind turned back to when I had reported on Operation Storm. It had been an intensely turbulent time, when frontlines set for so many years had shifted dramatically; when Bosnian Serb military dominance was blown away, the international community being willing to use NATO firepower for the first time on a large scale. The moment when frontlines change is the most dangerous time for a war reporter, and I recall hearing the news when a colleague from the BBC was killed by Croat soldiers a short distance to the north. Now I was walking across one of the mountain valleys stormed by Croat forces, with a reluctant Bosnian Serb soldier from those times who liked to be called Gavrilo Mile Princip, and who put greater value on sheep-farming than on nationalism.
The farmhouse with the freshwater spring was still some way in the distance when we passed a ruined building down in the valley. The second floor was missing and the plastered walls at ground level still bore graffiti left by Croatian soldiers back in the summer of 1995. Mile saw that I had spotted it and gave the slightest of shoulder shrugs, as if to say, ‘See what I mean.’ His next words were about a more immediate threat.
‘Don’t move,’ he said, raising his walking stick as if he were preparing a bayonet charge, his eyes fixed on something moving fast in the middle distance. Mile had spotted an animal running towards us and he looked worried. ‘Do not run, do not run.’ He was now shouting, his anxiety cross-pollinating instantly to both Arnie and me. We all stood our ground, raising our walking sticks like pikemen, as the largest, most aggressive-looking dog I have ever seen rushed at us. I was secretly glad Arnie and Mile were both slightly in front of me. In the distance I could see the farmer’s squat-looking wife running as fast as her shortlegs could carry her in our direction, screaming at us not to move.
I did what I was told – just.
‘Get away, get away,’ shouted Mile. I tried to sound fierce by making a growling sound and thrusting out my hazel stick, struggling with that most ancient of human inner conflicts: flight or fight. Just at the point when the dog was upon us, it stopped running and changed direction, circling us instead at walking pace, its mask menacing, eyes furious.
‘Mile, Mile. What do you think you are doing?’ panted the woman as she finally reached us. ‘You know how aggressive Alba is. She is the best guard dog, but you know you should tell us when you come and visit.’ Mile smiled unconvincingly and did not take his eyes off the animal, a magnificent female specimen of the tornjak breed, a local type of mountain sheepdog, which now shepherded our little group with throaty growls that I swear should have registered on the Richter scale. Alba followed us noisily all the way to the farmhouse before taking up a vigilant position under a nearby plum tree.
Arnie and I shook hands with Sonja Aćamović, who turned out to be related by marriage to the Princip clan, as she welcomed us to her home, dragging some plastic chairs onto the shaded front lawn. She then disappeared inside the house, coming out moments later with a tray of cups brimming with coffee and a bottle of cordial made from a local berry called drenjak. After serving us she sat herself down on a thick, heavy disc of tree trunk, carried nonchalantly in her meaty arms from a pile of firewood nearby, and caught up with Mile’s news. Her children watched silently from overhead, peering at us through the metal grille of a firstfloor balcony. It was not just in Obljaj that visitors were a rarity.
Arnie and I drank our coffee eagerly. Coffee in Bosnia is served piping hot, prepared in the old Turkish style, with the coffee grinds swirling thickly inside the mixture as it is brought to the boil in a pan, before being poured unfiltered into cups. The trick is to let the grinds settle before taking your first silent whistle of a sip, or else risk a gritty mouthful. Some drinkers use a single drop of cold water from a spoon to draw the grinds to the bottom, but I prefer simply to wait. Never stir.
And never, in post-war Bosnia, make the mistake of calling it Turkish coffee. Just as the name of the local language has become loaded, so it is with coffee. When sitting with Bosnian Serbs, you drink Serbian coffee; with Bosnian Croats, Croatian coffee; and with Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian coffee. Such linguistic gymnastics feel unnecessary, obscuring as they do the historical roots of coffee. It was Ottoman traders who spread its magic from where it was first enjoyed in distant Yemen, at the south-east extreme of the empire. Camel trains slowly cast the beans across the Arab world, through Anatolia and eventually into Ottoman holdings in Europe. Much of the spread was driven by pure commerce, but occasional accidents added happily to its dispersal. When one of the Ottoman sieges of Vienna was broken, the story goes that sacks of coffee beans were discovered in abandoned Turkish positions. They were taken as war booty into the city by an enterprising Austrian – the origin of Vienna’s famous coffee-house culture.
Already thirsty from the morning’s efforts, while our ‘Serbian’ coffee cooled I helped myself to extra servings of drenjak, a drink I had never tried before. It was sweet without being sickly, perfect to rehydrate with. ‘Home-made,’ Sonja said proudly, swinging her arm in the direction of Tent Mountain. ‘We gather the berries up there in the hills. We have our own orchard for plum brandy, our own hives for honey and a big vegetable garden. We have to look after ourselves because the winters are hard. Last winter we had three metres of snow and could not get out of the valley for weeks.’
The self-sufficiency of local families was intriguing, although I found it double-edged. It might chime with modern theories of back-to-basics rural living, but I could not help thinking how it contributes to the turbulent history of
this land. An atomistic society of individuals or small family groups provides aseedbed for ethnic rivalry – communities that see no virtue in coming together in the spirit of the modern nation state, defining themselves not by their similarity to the next community along the valley, but by their distinctiveness, their ability to survive alone.
Mile explained to Sonja that we were planning to walk to the top of Mount Šator, a venture she found a little strange, pointing out that there was a serviceable jeep track up to the lake that Mile had already mentioned. Mile said something about us wanting to travel on foot, as Princip had done, and Sonja beamed. Mention of the valley’s most famous son was something she clearly approved of. Their conversation drifted on, and after a polite interval I raised the question that weighed on my mind: could Sonja say if there were any landmines left over from the war on our route?
‘Oh yes, there are mines up there,’ she said. ‘But the trail through the forest is safe enough, if you see it has recently been walked on. Lower down in the meadows make sure you walk where the grass has been scythed. After the war we did not know for sure where the mines were, but every year we cut more and more ground for hay. Wherever you see the hay has been cut you will be safe.’ It is from the farming community of Bosnia that a dozen or so victims are killed each year.
The long walk ahead left us no time to dawdle, so after filling our water bottles in the kitchen – another room yeasty from energetic home-making – we said our goodbyes to Sonja and her family, her children nodding mutely at us from the balcony. We headed through the garden, past old car tyres that had been elegantly cut and tulipped inside-out to make flower pots. The footpath we were aiming for could be seen snaking up a hillside above an orchard of fruit trees. I was glad to see Sonja had a firm hold of Alba’s collar, but just to make sure, I kept half an eye looking back over my shoulder until we were safely through the orchard and off Aćamović land.
The gradient stiffened and we adopted the slow and steady method for hills: little steps, lots of them, without resting. In places the grassy hillside had been worn through to the gravel below, and the path grew so steep it scrunched into a concertina of hairpins. Soon we were too breathless to speak, climbing, climbing, climbing. After an hour Mile’s mobile phone rang and I was glad for the break as he took the call, turning round for what would be my last look at the plain of Pasić. It was the rural European idyll in snapshot, a fertile valley dogtooth-checked by fields, threaded by a single track used by farmers and fringed by mountains. It felt a peculiarly peaceful backwater for the epicentre of the First World War. With Mile’s mumbling in the background, I remembered a monumental map of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that I had seen on display at Artstetten Castle in Austria, the private estate of the assassinated Archduke, Franz Ferdinand. The map was enormous, a swaggering imperial inventory of the Habsburg project at its height, charting every feature then valued by the empire: cities, towns, churches, factories, bridges, rivers, mountains reaching right across land that we now know as Poland, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and beyond. But what it missed was the birthplace of the person who would bring it all crashing down. Obljaj was much too small to be marked.
As Mile continued speaking on the phone, I wondered if Princip had also turned and taken a last glance at the valley as he and his father had trudged through these hills – the bibliophile teenager with a highlander’s pedigree and a feeling for the underdog. Could he have had any idea of the changes that his horizons would undergo?
The man who today proudly keeps alive his name, Gavrilo Mile Princip, finished his call and announced a change of plan. ‘I am sorry, but I really have to leave you now,’ he said. ‘My son, Vuk, is only four, and Nikola tells me he won’t stop crying for me back in Obljaj. Good luck with the rest of the walk and, if you get to the top of Šator, say hello to Milan. He is a friend of mine and is looking after the old bear-hunting lodge up there. Tell him you know me and he might give you some help.’
It was a disappointment to be losing Mile, but at least he had started us safely on our way. We shook hands warmly and I urged him to thank his family for their hospitality, before he turned and skittered down the hill at a speed that belied his age. The last I saw of our Princip guide was Mile waving his walking stick and shouting, ‘Remember the mines – stick to the path.’ Arnie and I turned back up the slope.
After six more exhausting hours of climbing along a track that wormed through thick forest, we reached the lodge Mile had told us about. An A-framed structure from the late communist era, it commanded the view across the lake below the peak of Mount Šator. We had not seen a soul on the path and, as we dumped our gear on benches in front of the building, there was no sign of Mile’s friend, Milan. I left Arnie recovering from the day’s exertions and walked by myself down to the water’s edge, delighted to be free at last of my rucksack. There was no wind to disturb the surface of the lake, set in a dell beneath the rocky summit of the mountain. Scree slopes protecting the peak reflected in its green water as I approached and, with nobody around, I took off my filthy hiking gear and waded
in. The lake was bath-warm, the dark motionless water heated by the long summer day’s sun. I kicked out, happily plunging my face into the murk, unable to see the bottom.
The aches of the day’s hike were flushed away by the time the first tickles from underwater weeds indicated that I had reached the far side. I turned over and floated slowly back towards my clothes, all sound muffled by the water in my ears, my skyward view framed by rock fields frozen overhead in midcascade. By the time I had dried and returned to the lodge, the hike’s exertions had been forgotten.
‘Milan has turned up,’ Arnie said when I got back. A compact, capablelooking man in his early forties stepped forward to shake my hand. He wore military camouflage trousers and a khaki vest. ‘Milan’s an ex-soldier from the
war. He looks after this place in the summer and there is nobody else here but his son, Stefan.’ A teenager emerged from within, as Arnie went on. ‘When I told him we had met Mile, he said we are welcome to stay. We can camp outside or sleep indoors on the floor.’
I went inside and found the lodge to be little more than the shell of a building. Outside stood Milan’s van, a rusty wreck from the 1980s parked facing down the slope of the gravel track. The ignition did not work properly and
gravity was needed to roll it to a bump-start. Inside the building was a long wooden counter that would once have served as a fancy bar, but all the cupboards and surfaces had no stock now, apart from a few waxy jam jars
carrying stubs of candles and a generous sprinkling of mice droppings. A loaded shotgun was leaning up against the fireplace, proof that we were definitely in bear country. On the wall there were patches where pictures had once hung. ‘There’s no power here, but Milan uses one room out the back to sleep in and keeps a fire lit in a stove in another room. He says we can cook there if we want to.’
Arnie had followed me inside, sharing what he had found out. ‘It used to be a smart lodge for hunting parties coming after bears. But now it is used only from time to time. The last big group to come here was a bunch of bikers from the
Czech Republic. They rode huge motorbikes laden with crates and crates of booze and had a wild time. But Milan says nobody has come this season, so he just keeps it ticking over.’
With the sun now low in the sky, the altitude was such that the temperature began to dip quickly. From my pack I retrieved warm clothes, food and cooking gear, leaving Arnie to debrief Milan further. My nose led me to the ‘kitchen’ where a cast-iron, enamel wood-burning stove belted out heat inside a cell of a room with a dingy window and no running water. A roasting tray of chicken pieces was already sizzling temptingly for Milan, so I set about mixing up our own meal, a broth of soup and pasta. Arnie had forgotten to bring a bowl, but I
retrieved an old yoghurt tub from a dusty cupboard, rinsed it clean and served my companion. There were some grumbles about it being too salty, but I could tell from his smirks that he was teasing. After such a tough opening day it was a relief simply to recharge our energy levels.
‘Milan was telling me that the path over the mountain goes across that big patch of rocks.’ The last sunlight of the day rouged the rocky flanks of the upper mountain, its lower reaches already in darkness, and I could just make out the scree field that Arnie was pointing to on the far side of the lake. ‘He says the path is easy enough to follow, but that most people have a car to pick them up on the other side. If we are going to make it all the way to the next town, it will take all day.’
Milan’s advice tallied with what my map suggested. After crossing the mountain we would be dropping down onto the plain of Glamoč, the next of Herzegovina’s wide valley floors, and to reach the small town of Glamoč itself
the map indicated a hike of close to twenty-five miles. The lodge was now in total darkness, disturbed only by traces from our head-torches as I made a round of tea for everyone and we chatted. I asked Stefan if he had ever heard of Princip.
‘Sure,’ the young boy said. ‘He was the man who killed the Archduke. We learned that at school. The teachers called him a terrorist.’
Milan piped up. ‘When I was at school, things were different,’ he said. ‘That was back in the time of communism, and we were taught Princip was a national hero.’ I found the malleability of history intriguing, as I scribbled away in my notebook.
I was tired, struggling to keep up with the conversation, and fell back on watching Arnie chatting by candlelight with our hosts – something that a few years ago would have been impossible. Arnie is a Bosnian Muslim, transformed by Milošević’s 1990s nationalism into the mortal enemy of a Bosnian Ser soldier like Milan. But instead of power politics they talked of trophy bears that were once hunted in the forest through which we had walked, of how Milan as a boy had climbed up to an eagle’s nest on Mount Dinara to kidnap a chick that he then reared as a pet, and a whole stream of other tall mountain tales. As the stories grew, I went inside and unrolled my sleeping bag. The sound of scurrying mice could not keep me from sleep.
It proved impossible to kick-start Arnie the following morning, so I decided to begin without him. I fancied climbing to the top of Tent Mountain, a challenge that Arnie was happy to miss. His new boots had blistered him cruelly during the climb to the lake, so I left him with a packet of anti-rub plasters and the agreement that he would follow me after exactly two hours. From Milan’s description, the path sounded clear enough and we settled on a rendezvous at its highest point, just where it crossed the shoulder below the peak before beginning its long descent towards Glamoč. Working with Arnie years before had taught me he was not a morning person, so this seemed a better plan than fretting about him emerging from his sleeping bag. After breakfasting on dried fruit, peanuts and tea, I left him to rest some more.
A cuckoo sounded from within the forest as I loaded up on the porch of the lodge, the mountain peak barely visible through the chill, early mist. Cloud had built up overnight, dark enough to threaten rain but thin enough to deliver, so far, only the flimsiest of showers. I put on my rain jacket, jiggled my stiff shoulders to settle my pack and swung my hazel stick for the first of that day’s many iterations.
The path cut up and across the scree field. Scree is never the easiest surface to hike on, small gravelly stones giving the impression that each step loosely slides back down as far as it has just reached up. Fortunately rain had washed
most of the looser stones away and my progress was quicker than I expected. Catching my breath for the first time, I turned round to take what I had hoped would be a fine photograph of the lodge reflecting in the lake, but the mist had closed in. I hiked on, wondering if splitting up from Arnie on a cloudy day was such a good idea, only for the visibility to improve all of a sudden at the shoulder. Breaking right from the main path, I followed a fainter trail up the ridge, which my map promised would lead me to the summit. With historical irony, painted markings left on rocks to guide hikers were red squares with a white strip across the middle, a rather good impression of the flag of Austria. The foreign country that had ruled Bosnia in the run-up to Princip’s assassination of Franz Ferdinand is today memorialised countless times along the country’s hiking trails.
Fun though it is to walk with companions, I still find there are times when it is satisfying to go by oneself, following one’s own pace, and nobody else’s. My legs felt strong as I climbed for that hour or so, the clouds playing games with me, coming and going on the wind, promising wonderful views one second, then shutting them away the next. Sadly, by the time I reached the trig point marking the summit at 6,100 feet, all around me was a mucky grey. I might as well have been stumbling around at sea-level in a foggy quarry.
A wind shelter had been built out of rocks around the trig point and, tucked amongst them, I found a notebook where climbers logged their achievement in reaching the top of Mount Šator. I took the book out and saw its earliest entry was dated 2004, and was curious that it might have taken so long for the first recreational climber to reach here after the war ended in 1995. I thumbed through to the most recent entry, already almost two years old, adding my own message: ‘British author in search of Princip’s ghost – safe travels.’
Comfortably out of the wind, I snacked and took a long drink from my water bottle, hoping the cloud would lift. No luck, so after a rest I picked up my gear and headed down again to begin my search for Arnie. Within twenty minutes the cloud rose once and for all, revealing a scene that reminded me of cherished holidays in Scotland as a teenager. The southern summit flank of Mount Šator was one huge great moor, a rolling, treeless expanse of tundra-like tussock, yellowed in places by flowering patches of small plants that could double perfectly for Scottish gorse. In contrast to the previous day’s low alpine terrain, this was a starker, treeless zone reaching in a south-easterly direction for many open miles, before coming up against another slab of thick Bosnian forest stretching to the horizon.
It proved easy enough to reconnect with Arnie on the main track, although he was full of apology for turning up a little later than planned. ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry,’ he grovelled when he came into view. ‘Milan got talking. And then he made coffee. Serbian coffee, of course. And then he offered me his own-brew plum brandy, in which he soaks fresh mint leaves. It would have been rude to say no. I don’t normally like plum brandy, but his was really special.’
No apology was needed. We had plenty of time, the sun was now shining and we were back together on Princip’s trail, hiking over terrain that felt more and more familiar. Larks exploded noisily upwards in alarm from either side of the winding track, and all around was the same barrenness I remembered from hiking in Argyll. It looked so much like the Highlands I would not have been surprised to come across a gaggle of British ramblers or a shooting party in tweed banging away at grouse. But as the track finally reached the trees once more, we found evidence of a very different type of shooting activity.
Soil had been piled up to make breastworks to protect artillery positions. Prefabricated concrete doorways were set into a series of defensive underground bunkers. All around lay wooden pallets, the sort of thing you see in factories and round the back of supermarkets where the delivery trucks go. They seemed so banal, so civilian, so out of context in a war zone. But then again, what better way was there to deliver heavy items, whether they are sacks of flour or highexplosive 120mm artillery shells?
‘Don’t go in there,’ Arnie said with a firmness I had not previously heard in him. I had approached one of the bunker entrances, but his words stopped me. ‘These are positions dating from Operation Storm. Milan warned me to look out for them next to the path. They were built by the Croat army and there is no telling if there is unexploded ordnance still in there.’
I took his advice, viewing the scene instead from the security of the beaten track. Over the intervening years long grass had grown over the earthworks, and the timber of the pallets was bleached pale with age. In August 1995 Croat
forces would have valued the high ground around Mount Šator, commanding as it does the valley of Glamoč over to the east. This would have made a fine position in which to dig in artillery, supporting Croat forces working their way deeper into Bosnia. Those would have been summer days and the gunners would have enjoyed the same scene as us: the edge of a high mountain moor, under ablue sky, with a nearby beech forest offering restful shade.
For the next few hours Arnie and I prattled away happily as we made good progress under the cover of trees along a jeep trail that had clearly not been used for a long while. Branches overhung the track so thickly it was reduced in places to a footpath for a single person, and the gravel where tyres once ran was covered with a filigree of moss. My de-mining map showed a minefield on the right-hand side of the track, perhaps a defensive position to protect the approach to the gunnery position back up on the moor. This might once have been a recreational area for hikers, but it was clear that today it was rarely used. Perhaps the meagre record in the logbook at the top of Mount Šator indeed comprised the full picture of who had climbed in this area these past years. We were yet to meet anyone on the trail, even though the terrain was as beautiful as any I have ever enjoyed for hiking.
The thought of food and drink is a stalwart motivator for long hikes, so Arnie went off on a riff about what he would most like to have, if we made it to Glamoč that evening. The map suggested we still had about fifteen miles to go, and although it was now well after midday I was relaxed as the various landmarks we were passing suggested that we were making steady progress. At a break in the forest we passed a mountain meadow of such size it warranted a reference on the map: Medjugorje, a name that translates as ‘between the mountains’. With my children I had recently and repeatedly sat through one of their favourite stories, Heidi. Medjugorje could have doubled nicely for one of the high alpine pastures where the goatherd had lived with her grandfather.
The track continued on and on through the forest, all the time making an almost indiscernible descent. As the hours passed Arnie’s blisters started to trouble him and I heard him grumbling about his footwear. ‘Bloody boots! What was I thinking, buying shit like this? They are good for strutting around Shoreditch, nothing more. I’ve only used them for a day or two and the soles are already shredded to nothing.’
There comes a time on a trek when it’s best just to let it all out, so I eased off the commiseration and let Arnie get on with it. We rested every hour or so, and after a while the forested terrain began to feel very same-ish, the trees crowded so thickly that it was difficult to spot any landmarks as reference points. We were deep in the forest, on an old jeep track, and the compass alone was telling us that we were heading in the right direction for Glamoč. There were no indicators of progress except for the passing of the hours, no sign of any local people we could ask to check we really were on the right path. Arnie’s morale was beginning to dip, his footfall now painful to watch as he shifted his weight all the time to try and protect those worsening blisters. He started complaining about the tepid water in our bottles.
‘I could really do with a fresh, cold drink,’ he said at one point. ‘Anything but this shit!’
And then, from around the corner, without any forewarning, came a silver jeep. The forest had muffled the sound of its approach, and the driver was as surprised to see us as we him. The vehicle slewed to a halt in a modest cascade of gravel and he gave us a cheery greeting, nonchalantly handing over two large bottles of water, so newly taken from a fridge that they still had condensation on the outside.
‘You see, out in the remote areas of Bosnia there is magic at work,’ said Arnie. ‘The first guy we see on the trail in two days, and what does he have for us? Ice-cold water. Magic, I tell you.’ He was smiling now, his cheerfulness restored, and so carefree in his drinking that spilled water gushed down his chin. But then he looked at me out of the corner of his eye, with a flash of seriousness about the power of the supernatural in Bosnia.
As evening approached we finally reached the edge of the forest, with the Glamoč valley opening up beneath us as wide and green as the plain around Obljaj back over on the other side of the Šator massif. I was grateful for the gentle breeze that now reached us and we paused to breathe deep, enjoying what appeared on the surface to be another paradisical agricultural tableau. In peaceful times Glamoč, now visible just a few miles to the south, was known as ‘potato town’ for the large-scale cultivation and processing of that vegetable. But from our viewpoint, looking out over the plain, something jarred. Many of the houses dotting the landscape were in ruins – roofless, their walls blackened from fire, their gardens overgrown through abandonment.
The track descended sharply and, as we came around a hairpin bend, we found ourselves at a modest roadblock. It was manned by an elderly figure sitting outside one of those shipping containers that are used to move goods all round the world. On this Bosnian hillside it served as a hut. His name was Zaim and he too was enjoying the late-afternoon cool, his seat facing down the slope towards the approach road climbing up from the valley floor. The sound of our sticks striking the ground caught his attention and he looked round over his shoulder, surprised.
‘I don’t often get people walking from out of the forest like you,’ he said cheerfully. He raised his eyebrows when he heard we had walked all the way from Mount Šator and then offered to give us a ride into town at the end of his shift. There were still about four miles to go and, while Arnie was willing to accept his offer, I preferred to keep going.
‘Why do you have the checkpoint anyway?’ I asked.
‘It’s to do with the logging. You need a licence to cut timber up in the mountains, but some people try to do it without paying for the licence. I am employed by the local council to check that the loggers have the proper paperwork.’
I smiled. During the war checkpoints were a monumental pain, manned by militia who took routine pleasure in blocking foreign reporters – an irksome feature of life, as you could easily fritter away whole days negotiating your way through. It felt like progress to come across a checkpoint set up for sound environmental reasons. As I prepared to set off I caught sight of a Union Jack stencilled on the side of the container, an unexpected sight in rural Bosnia.
‘The container belonged to British forces when they were based down in the valley after the war ended in 1995,’ Zaim said. ‘They left it when they eventually pulled out a few years back, and it was donated to Glamoč town council. Nice guys, mostly, the British soldiers. I had a job for years cooking for them in the officers’ mess. Nobody eats finer than the British soldier!’
His words stayed with me as I set off for those last few miles into Glamoč, a town big enough to promise a restaurant where we could enjoy a good meal. After a day of ferocious heat, louring clouds promised a summer storm and
accelerated the onset of dusk. I left Arnie to wait for his lift and had only my thoughts for company as the sky darkened and the gravel track morphed first into a tarmac lane, then into a main road with painted lines and a hard shoulder. It was Saturday evening, but traffic was scarce. The storm was yet to hit, the air growing steadily more charged. In a hillside pasture three men lay next to scythes on turf freshly shorn, smoking cigarettes and talking next to ricks newly constructed. I raised my hand in greeting, but they looked through me without response. Half a mile later four large tornjak dogs erupted from slumber, charging towards me, a barking blur of fangs and saliva. By reflex I tensed, but thankfully the farm compound had a fence.
Another mile later and I began to hear the intermittent thwack of wood being hewn. A pile of tree-trunk sections had been dumped in the front garden of a modest-looking home and four people were busy splitting them into pieces of firewood, which were then being carefully stacked under cover in readiness for the winter. Again I waved, again no answer. The person wielding the axe was a woman, in her sixties perhaps, her scrawny, tanned arms showing puffs of white skin as her dress rode up near the shoulder with each firm downward cleave. It brought to my mind a traumatic moment in 1993, when the driver of an aid convoy in central Bosnia had been attacked by local Croat farmers armed with agricultural tools, incensed at what they perceived to be help going to their enemies. The man was eventually finished off by a farmer’s wife wielding a pitchfork.
The reaction to me, a stranger arriving in town, was at the hostile end of indifference. I felt sure Princip and his father would have met the same response as they passed through towns like this on their trek. Outsiders were to be treated with suspicion, potential threats to the status quo – a characteristic captured memorably by the writer Ivo Andrić. In his novel The Days of the Consuls Andrić’s fictional description of Westerners passing through the central Bosnian town of Travnik has, for me, more than a whiff of authenticity to it:
Then as soon as they reached the first Turkish houses they began to hear curious sounds: people calling to one another, slamming their courtyard gates and the shutters of their windows. At the very first doorway, a small girl opened one of the double gates a crack and, muttering some incomprehensible words, began spitting rapidly into the street, as though she were laying a curse on them . . . No one ceased working or smoking or raised his eyes to honour the unusual figure and his splendid retinue with so much as a glance. Here and there a shopkeeper turned his head away, as though searching for goods on the shelves.
On the edge of Glamoč I walked into a garage to buy a cold drink and the man at the till asked me where I had walked from that day. When I told him, he broke into the florid vernacular of the British soldier. ‘No fucking way!’ he said in perfect squaddie English as he handed me my change. The British army’s impact on local Glamoč society clearly went beyond the donation of a few oldshipping containers.
The sound of a car driving along the hard shoulder had me glancing anxiously behind me. Did local unfriendliness extend to running over strangers? But it was only Zaim slowing down, with Arnie grinning from the passenger seat and saying he would go into the town centre and find us a place to eat. By now I was done in, past caring for a meal that was more appealing in anticipation than in reality. After wolfing down veal accompanied by a sample portion of Glamoč’s famous potatoes – starchy, wholesome and tasty – all I wanted was a bed.
My expectations were not particularly high, remembering the Baedeker guide’s description of the inadequacies of Bosnian accommodation in the early twentieth century. ‘Travellers who do not expect too much will, on the whole, find the inns very tolerable,’ it said. I was too tired to be fussy, grateful to hear from the waiter that, although normally closed, the old guesthouse in the towncentre could be opened up just for us.
I hoisted my bag onto my back one final time and set off, Arnie now hobbling at my side, just as the first drum roll of raindrops announced the storm’s arrival. The lights at the guesthouse were off, but a man emerged from the dark, sharp-eyed and shrewish, to open up just in time, fumbling his keys under a strobe of lightning flashes. As he opened the door we jostled in out of the deluge, gratefully taking keys for rooms up on the first floor. At the top of the stairs was a picture that made me feel nicely at home, a kitsch oil painting of a local landmark: Mount Šator.
Over Tent Mountain -The Trigger_ Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War