Rocking Bosnia -The Trigger_ Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War
With the bus heading along the Vrbas valley, I sat back in my seat to rest, the window a screen on which a blissful summer scene scrolled past: river pools shaded by willows, recently mown pastures coned by hayricks, tanned
children playing carefree in the dust. As Arnie gabbled away about never having had a hike to match the one we had just shared, I felt quietly relieved that we had made it safely on foot through some of Bosnia’s more mine-contaminated backwoods. The walk had given me a sense of how far Gavrilo Princip had come when the ‘weak boy’ left home for the first time, not in terms of mileage, but more in terms of breaking with the only life he had ever known. He had left behind the closed rural society of Serbian serfdom and would encounter for the first time other Bosnians – Muslims and Croats – with their identifiers: religious buildings, clothes, food, traditions. It must have been bewildering for him as a thirteen-year-old to shift horizons so radically, to break away from the confines of a social system static for so long – one that had, in common with much of Europe, for centuries been framed by the strictures of hierarchy, feudalism and empire. To find out how Princip responded I would need to head on to Sarajevo, where he went to school.
Sadly I would have to do that without Arnie whose time away from his newspaper job in London was soon up. ‘I am so sorry I cannot finish what we started,’ he said. ‘I have so many great memories to take from this trip. For a start, I had no idea this country was so stunning, so varied, so naturally rich, so incredibly beautiful and so bloody big. At times that walk could have killed me. But the best thing was the way the people we met could not have been more open, more friendly: the Princip family, the hotelier in Glamoč, the fishingmullahs. None of them gave a damn about my ethnicity. And yet we saw with our own eyes what the war has left behind: the oversized churches, the huge minarets, the land cut up by minefields, those ugly, ugly houses still burnt and not repaired.’
All societies have fault lines – rivalries, jealousies, suspicions – driven by the commonest of human frailties: self-pity and self-interest. The challenge is subsuming these fault lines and working towards a greater, collective good, one that draws a community of strangers to a shared project. To do that takes trust in a concept that is as modern as it is radical: the nation. So prevalent today is the idea of nation that one forgets how new it is. Much longer-established was order driven by obedience to a local superpower, whether it called itself baron or beg, king or emperor. The passage from coercion to cooperation, of people coming together because they choose to and not because they are forced to, is one of the greatest of human journeys. My encounters in Bosnia brought home how different countries are in different places on that journey.
A newspaper left on the bus carried an advert with a totally unexpected Princip link that caught my eye: Franz Ferdinand, a British band named after Princip’s famous victim, was to perform in the north-Bosnian town of Banja Luka. To thank Arnie for all his efforts I suggested a short detour, a trip north so that I could treat him to some live music. A man who taught himself English from British music was not going to miss this chance, so instead of heading directly for Sarajevo we changed buses. First stop was the town of Jajce – somewhere I had always wanted to visit if only because, after being dropped by parachute, Fitzroy Maclean had met Tito there for the first time. With its relic of a medieval fort high on a hilltop overlooking the cascading confluence of two rivers, Jajce also had the reputation of being one of Bosnia’s most beautiful towns. Rebecca West wrote that the town’s name meant ‘testicle’, reflecting the round shape of the hill. During the war Jajce had been unreachable, so I had to make do with descriptions of its charms from other sources, such as this from Baedeker. ‘A pavilion above the waterfall affords the best view; wraps arenecessary.’
When the bus delivered us to Jajce, the town did not disappoint. Elegant houses spilled down a slope capped by the old fortress that had briefly housed Tito’s guerrilla headquarters. The hill led all the way to an old town wall that skirted the left bank of a river called the Pliva. I could see skittish trout and knots of weed being worked by the current where the Pliva spread evenly across a shallow, ornamental pool leading to a weir. There a dramatic transformation took place. Once over the weir, the water tumbled seventy noisy, churning, globular feet straight down into the Vrbas below. In the summer heat I could not resist, stripping to my shorts and jumping into the upper pool, fish star-bursting away as I thrashed through the water towards the weir and dared myself to peek over the lip. It took just seconds to dry in the July sun, and Arnie then led me to the shade of an old hall on the river bank that he remembered well from his childhood. ‘We were brought here all the time as a sort of school pilgrimage,’ he reminisced. ‘Back then it was an important national monument because it was in here in 1943 that the conference that founded communist Yugoslavia was held.’
Inside we found an elderly curator, dressed down in a replica shirt of the Dutch football team Ajax, who seemed delighted to have some visitors. He turned on the lights in the hall and shouted the old partisan wartime rallying cry: smrt fašizmu, ‘death to fascism’. I was pleasantly surprised to find the museum so well looked after with its collection of Titoist memorabilia and propaganda. In the communist era, when Arnie was marched through here as a dutiful schoolboy in the 1980s, the museum had been a place of almost religious devotion. Tito’s star then still dominated the national Yugoslav firmament. Events of the 1990s had totally changed that, however, as militant nationalism let each of Bosnia’s rival groups dwell on how ill-used by communism they believed they had been. The atmosphere in the museum when we visited was no longer spiritual. It was more nostalgic, even comic, like a teenager picking up a pair of granny’s bloomers and wondering how anyone ever wore such things.
From Jajce a two-hour drive along a mountain gorge cut by the Vrbas delivered Arnie and me to Banja Luka where, sometime after midnight, we found ourselves within the grounds of the town’s old Ottoman fortress,struggling against a scrummage of young Bosnian Serbs and the abnormally high summer night’s temperature. For a moment all was darkness inside the compound. There was just enough light from the night sky to make out the high
curtain walls and the hulk of a watchtower, which had the same type of steeply pitched shingle roof as the old hovels back in Obljaj. Then, with a blast of sound to wake the dead, a shock of light came up on a stage, and all I could see was a thirty-foot-high picture of Princip. For its first-ever gig in Bosnia the band Franz Ferdinand was not going to miss the opportunity to flag up the local boy who gave their name such impetus.
As the crowd surged towards the four musicians, I stared at the massive backdrop of Princip’s face. It would be the only time on my entire trip through the Balkans that I would come across his likeness displayed so publicly. I
recognised it immediately as the portrait taken while he was in AustroHungarian custody following the assassination, the fire of his revolutionary zeal doused by months of solitary confinement. His eyes are flat, moustache meagre, hair mangy. When Princip scratched his initials on that rock in the garden back in Obljaj and boasted to his friend ‘one day people will know my name’, could he ever have dreamed that the time would come when thousands of fellow countrymen would rock a summer’s night away in front of a stage decorated with his portrait.
‘The name came to me while I was watching horseracing on television,’ Alex Kapranos, the band’s lead singer, had confided earlier, after I managed to get past the security guards at the venue. They had thought I was a journalist and
kept muttering ‘no media, no media’, but when I got a message through to the band that I was a British author researching Princip, the security cordon was lifted. ‘Talking history with you makes a change from talking about sex and drugs all the time,’ Alex said, shaking my hand.
‘We had been playing together for some time and, to be honest, we didn’t really have a name. It didn’t feel important back then.’ As Alex spoke he looked around for backing from the other band members, old friends mainly from college in Glasgow. Bob Hardy, the bassist, took up the story. ‘It was when a poster was being designed for a concert and the designer said, “You guys really need a name or the poster just won’t work”,’ he said.
‘We wanted a name that people could make a connection with, that people could remember, maybe because it had a significance or an alliteration or certain phonetic characteristics,’ Alex continued. ‘Duran Duran is a name that somehow sticks in your head. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly why but that’s what nwe were looking for.
‘So I was watching TV one afternoon, like a good student wasting my time with daytime television. And all of a sudden there was a horse running in a race and it was called The Archduke. It made me think of a name we all knew from school, and that’s how we got to Franz Ferdinand. To be honest, I have no idea if the horse won.’
Later during the performance, at one of the breaks between songs, Alex halfturned and swung his arm extravagantly as if to introduce Princip to the crowd, shouting into the microphone, ‘And this next one is for old friends.’ A cheer rose, but it was not a roar of recognition. It was more a rush of enthusiasm from the audience. Shouting to make myself heard, I asked all those standing near mein the crowd, but they had no idea who the man in the picture was.
Later as I struggled to sleep, my ears buzzing after the concert, my mind dwelt on why young Bosnian Serbs in Banja Luka did not know Princip. He is, without question, the Bosnian Serb with the greatest historical impact of all time and yet it was clear, from what I had heard, that a hundred years after the assassination he was not cherished, and was scarcely recognised, among his own people.
The issue of Bosnian Serb identity was horribly corrupted in the war years of 1992–5, no more so than in Banja Luka, the dark centre of it all. A once-mixed city was culturally flattened, made ethnically one-dimensional as extremist thugs from the Bosnian Serb community seized control and made it the de facto capital of territory under their control. Mosques were blown up and Catholic congregations attacked. It was a few miles north of Banja Luka that experimentation in extreme ethnic cleansing took place, when Bosnian Serb bullies probed the lassitude of the international community’s diplomatic response, working out that in the late twentieth century they could still get away with murder on an institutional scale. Just up the road from the concert venue they established death-camps where Bosnian Serb forces bullied, killed, tortured, starved and raped Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats.
Unjustifiable by any normal moral code, for Bosnian Serb apologists the cruelty had a perverse internal logic born of events here in the 1940s. While I had found exciting the wartime adventures of Fitzroy Maclean and his colleagues in the Balkans, the truth is that focusing on the experience of a few Allied agents does not do full justice to the reality of the Second World War in Bosnia. It was in Banja Luka that the fascistic Croat nationalists unleashed bythe Nazis, the Ustaše, committed some of their worst atrocities. Hundreds of Bosnian Serbs were murdered in nearby villages, their religious leaders tortured, their places of worship destroyed, a brutality that gave dangerous new energy to Bosnia’s cycle of victimhood and vengeance, contributing significantly to eventsfifty years later.
But what influence did Princip have over the racial cruelty of the 1940s andthe 1990s? Very little, it was clear to me, which explained why young BosnianSerbs today, brought up with the rhetoric and iconography of the recent war,
have such limited knowledge of him. His rationale for shooting the Archduke must have been for a very different cause from that so viciously championed by Bosnian Serb extremists in the 1990s.
The next day Arnie and I continued on towards Sarajevo by road. Up to this point my mind had dwelled on the way Bosnia had influenced the world in the past, but as the road wound its way into the Lašva valley past the town of Travnik, I began to think of its much more contemporary impact, through the actions of young jihadists who were active in this area in the 1990s.
When the Bosnian War began in 1992 it attracted the interest of militant Islam, drawing in foreign fighters, mainly from Afghanistan and North Africa, who were willing to fight in defence of the Bosnian Muslim population. At that
time the locals knew very little about these forces, referring to them simply as ‘the Muj’, a group that never numbered more than a few hundred, but soon gathered a rather sinister, bogeyman status, amorphous, ill-defined and threatening. I was one of many journalists working at the time in the area where ‘the Muj’ were active although they were highly secretive and hostile to approaches from reporters.
It was only after the attacks in America on 11 September 2001 that the role of the Bosnian War in radicalising Muslim militancy became clearer. The American government’s official inquiry into the 9/11 attacks reported that Osama bin Laden’s organisation funded pro-Muslim charities in Bosnia during the war of the 1990s. The report also said that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the man it identified as ‘the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks’, had spent time inBosnia during the war. And it went on to say that two of the nineteen terrorists responsible for hijacking the planes on 9/11 had also been deployed to Bosnia in the 1990s – Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al Hazmi.
The ‘Muj’ from Bosnia were highly secretive during the war, but while I was researching this book I made a breakthrough by tracking down one of the foreign Muslim fighters. It turned out that he grew up a few miles from my home town. Shahid Butt was just two years older than me, born in Birmingham to parents originally from Pakistan. Working as a reporter, I had first seen him in a Yemeni court in 1999 after he had been arrested and charged with terrorist activities committed in Aden, his Brummie accent being memorably out of place at the far edge of Arabia. It would be more than a decade before I was eventually able to sit and talk to him about Bosnia at a cake-shop serving Arabic tea and pastries ina Birmingham suburb with a particularly strong Islamic community.
‘The thing you have to remember is that when I was growing up in Britain in the 1970s we had a difficult sense of our nationality,’ he said. ‘This was a time when the streets around my home would have walls painted with APL in huge letters. That stood for Anti-Paki League, and all through my teenage years people like me were being abused in the streets, getting beaten up, having dogs set on us, that sort of thing. Back then, just leaving your front door could get you into trouble.
‘When I left school all I wanted to do was to serve as a soldier – I wanted tobe a Royal Marine, right. It was the time of the Falklands War and the Royal Marines were the best of the best, all over the telly and in the papers. So I went into a recruitment office and asked to join the Royal Marines. You know what they said to me? They said, “We cannot have you because you’re a fat Paki.” So do you know what I did for the next year? I ran around the streets near my home in boots and with a rucksack full of bricks, and I went back to the recruitment office twelve months later and asked again to join the Royal Marines. This time do you know what they said? “Well, you’re not a fat Paki any more but you are still a Paki.”’
In the early 1990s he started to attend mosques where some of the first radical clerics were beginning to preach. It was around this time that the war in Bosnia began and he watched video cassettes showing Bosnian Muslim victims of the war. ‘It was very confusing to begin with, to see these Muslims with blue eyes and blond hair. It was not like anything I had seen before. But it was very traumatic – overwhelming, you know – to learn that people were suffering like this just because they were Muslims.’
He joined an aid convoy arranged through his local mosque that sent out two coaches from Britain full of supplies intended for Bosnia, with the plan of bringing back refugees. It ended in chaos as the vehicle got no further than Zagreb in Croatia and was unable to cross the border into the war zone. ‘There were all these guys who were meant to have organised this. I said to them, “You said you are going to do one thing but you end up doing another.” We fell out. It was useless, so after some prayer I joined up with a guy from London who had a van full of supplies and we managed to drive into Bosnia. I had never been out of Birmingham, and there I was, all of a sudden in a war zone.
‘We gave out the food. There were lines and lines of people and they took it all and that’s where it came into my head. The media like to say a Muslim like me only fights because we are some sort of crazed psychotic, but it was not like
that. I went to Bosnia to bring humanitarian help and, after the aid ran out, what other humanitarian help could I give apart from protecting them? These people could not protect themselves, so that is how I could help. I would fight.
‘My mate with the van went crazy. “It’s not like it is in the films,” he said. “Are you for real? How are you going to fight? You don’t know anyone here and you don’t have any weapons.” He went on and on trying to talk me out of it, but I had made up my mind. I wrote a letter to my wife, which he took with him, and then he was off in his van and I was sat there, six o’clock in the morning, the sunstill rising, next to the road in a town called Travnik.’
I knew Travnik well. It was a few miles up the road from the farmhouse in Vitez next to the British peacekeeping base, where I had been stationed as a reporter.
‘I prayed. What else could I do? And then a Nissan Patrol jeep turned up and a man stepped out, not a Bosnian, but a big foreign guy with a long beard wearing combats. He greeted me in Arabic, which is about all the Arabic I know, and we got talking in English. When I said I wanted to fight, he told me to get in the jeep, and that is how I got involved.’
He described several months of basic training alongside other foreign fighters: Arabs mostly, with only a sprinkling of European Muslims like himself. As a base they took over an old school a short distance outside Travnik and kept themselves separate from the regular Bosnian Muslim forces, an army that Shahid did not find impressive. ‘These guys were fighting for their homeland, but mostly they just sat around drinking coffee and smoking. We were different, much more willing to take the offensive. We all had to have fighting names, so they called me Abu Hamza Britaniya, as I was one of the few guys from Britain,’ he said. ‘Sometimes I used to bump into British troops from the UN. The looks on their faces were classic when I spoke to them in a Birmingham accent. “All right mate, how ya doing?”
‘Mostly it was training and training, but on a few occasions there was real fighting. I don’t want to say I was a hero or anything, but at times I took part in attacks which were really heavy. Guys on either side of me getting hit, that sort of thing.’
By the time I met Shahid he was in his late forties, his hair greying, his waistline expanding. Now living back in Britain, he was anxious to emphasise the difference between the type of fighter he had hoped to be in Bosnia and the
extremist jihadists responsible for suicide terror attacks.
‘I saw myself as a traditional mujahideen. I was a fighter, sure, but I was fighting to help the oppressed, to protect them against an aggressor. It was anoble act, and one that I would do again. But these guys who take part in suicide
attacks, they are not true mujahideen. They are killing innocent people, and for me it makes so sense at all, from any point of view. It makes no sense from a religious point of view, as it is not part of my religion. And it makes no sense from a military point of view, a strategic perspective. How are you going to win the hearts and minds of people if you kill people who are not involved?’
Bosnia’s role in the evolution of modern jihad has largely been overlooked, but in Shahid I had found an example of what can happen when the anger of young people is ignored. Western politicians who stood by when the worst atrocities of the Bosnian War took place – ethnic cleansing, death-camps, genocide – inadvertently provided Islamic militants with a rallying cry used to justify later acts of terrorism.
With Arnie and me continuing along the road for Sarajevo, the terrain became steadily more familiar as we reached part of the Lašva valley where I spent many months in the 1990s. The view was of lush green countryside set against a blue summer sky, but in my memory the same scenery ran black and white: burnt buildings, a dead donkey rotting on the road, houses with planks leaning against the front as sniper shields, piles of dark earth where bodies had been hurriedly buried. The road took us through rolling farmland I recognised from the 1990s, hills nosing gently down to the wandering Lašva River, the fields peppered with the red-roofed houses of peasant farmers. Most were subsistence micro-systems largely unchanged from Princip’s day: ricks of hay in the garden, stacks of wood to be burned against the winter cold and pens of livestock – a pig here, some sheep there.
The bus trundled past Ahmići, a tiny village, but a place name that became well known among prosecutors at the war-crimes tribunal in The Hague. It was here one spring morning in 1993 that Bosnian Croat thugs slaughtered Bosnian Muslim civilians, their henchmen going from door to door under cover of darkness to mark the homes of Bosnian Croat villagers with a Catholic cross. At first light those who emerged from unmarked doors, no matter their age or gender, were shot down like vermin. The village was so close to Arnie’s house that his family stood on their balcony and watched in disbelief the smoke rising from the ruins of the shared community they had once believed in.A few miles later my bus passed a void left where a building had once stood. It felt appropriate that nobody had reoccupied the space. In late 1993 an A-framed villa stood here, one that I and my journalist colleagues had driven past unknowingly many times. What we were then not aware of was that it was being used by Bosnian Croat brutes as a rape-camp where Bosnian Muslim women were kept as sex slaves.
I was anxious to see what had happened to the farming family I had stayed with nearby, and from whom I bought the kilim that has followed my wanderings ever since. The feudalism that the Princip family knew at the start of the twentieth century might have ended, but the rural poverty my hosts endured at the end of the century would have been familiar to Princip. Between 1993 and 1995 my work as a reporter meant that I lived in this farmhouse more than in my flat in London, learning much about the relentless and repetitive rhythm of rural life in Bosnia.
I had found lodgings here because the house stood a few hundred yards from a school that was chosen as the main upcountry base for British troops deployed to Bosnia under the UN peacekeeping force. The school was on the outskirts of the town of Vitez, a name that translates as ‘knight’, a mixed community with large numbers of Bosnian Croat and Bosnian Muslim inhabitants. Just as the British troops arrived over the winter of 1992–3 fighting erupted between these two former allies, quite literally right outside the base. The presence of such a large British contingent drew journalists by the dozen to this tiny, turbulent community. War meant there was no mains power or water, no fuel in local petrol stations, no shops with any stock, so we rented rooms in local houses and survived on our wits and our Deutschmarks – back then the black marketeers’ currency of choice.
Before the bus from Banja Luka delivered Arnie and me to Vitez, I pictured in my mind the sweep of the main road past the school, the house where the army press officers would brief us, the nearby bridge and the turning to the
farmhouse where I lived. I thought I would recognise it all again instantly, but when we finally got there I struggled. Post-war reconstruction had been prodigious. ‘It’s all Croatian money round here,’ Arnie explained. ‘Ever since
Dayton, this area is Bosnian Croat – hardcore Bosnian Croat – and since the war ended businesses from Croatia have flooded in.’
On the outskirts of Vitez I found what may be the largest supermarket I have ever seen. This area had not just been empty fields during the war, but had been an active frontline, no-man’s-land surrounded by torched houses and overlooked by a particularly persistent sniper. Today, the leviathan supermarket has parking for thousands of cars, and a restaurant and coffee shop where Bosnians who used to try to kill each other in the 1990s now talk into their mobile phones and blow the foam off cappuccinos. In the car park registration plates revealed cars from all over Europe: Germany, Belgium, Sweden, Switzerland, Holland and beyond. This did not mean Vitez had suddenly become a tourist destination. It simply reflected the reach of the Bosnian diaspora, dispersed by war just as Arnie had been, coming back from time to time to reconnect with their roots.
The layout along the main road might be new, but I found the changes ran only one building deep. All was familiar once I led Arnie on foot down the lane leading to the farmhouse. Here the buildings had not been renovated; it was the same collection of modest two-storey homes, many half-built like those back in Obljaj. There was the slight kink and dip in the lane that I walked many times when heading to the British base for briefings. A bullet once cracked straight over my head here, sending me jumping over a wall for cover. And then came the small orchard of plum trees. My old landlord had been a fan of plum brandy, a great fan. In the autumn of 1993 I had been staying at the farmhouse when the local distiller came round, a tradition keenly kept across this part of the Balkans.
A roving artisan would arrive in a small rural community during plum harvest with a mobile still on a trailer. He would then light a large fire and distil fermenting plums to produce a year’s supply of brandy. Before heading off to the next village he would receive payment: some of it in cash, some in bottles of hooch.
My host had been so keen on plum brandy that I had no expectation he would still be alive. Back in the early 1990s the farmer was a bewhiskered and rather befuddled old man, while his wife was already stooped and elderly. But when I turned the corner from the lane and shouted a greeting, there they both were, doing what I had left them doing all those years ago, swatting away horseflies and staring out over their barnyard. A stack of firewood stood in thesame place where they had once set up a bucket shower for me so that I would wash myself amid an aroma of pine resin.
The couple invited me in, but with the same blend of suspicion and friendliness I had encountered from the Princip family back in Obljaj. The farmer, Drago Taraba, was now eighty-six and had no idea who I was. All he knew was that the arrival of a foreign visitor was reason enough to pour a round of brandy. Out came the shot glasses and down it went, my throat scrunching with the same fruity acid burn that I had got to rather like when I shivered through Christmas here in 1993. Drago then poured another, and out came the drinker’s one-liners that I remembered hearing from him before. ‘You came on two legs, so now you must have two drinks,’ justified the second round. ‘Those who drink alcohol will die, those who do not will die sooner’ led to a third round. And so on.
The Taraba family is unmistakably Bosnian Croat, a crucifix on the wall marking clearly their Catholic faith, although I don’t remember them being particularly observant. Drago’s eyes were swimming, but when I asked him about the war they seemed to sharpen momentarily. ‘They killed three members of my family right here,’ he said, pointing to the wall of the barn outside. ‘They shot them there, two of my brothers and my father. I was only sixteen at the time.’ Drago was talking about the Second World War, not the war I had witnessed here. There is more than one way to park the trauma of war. Leaving for a new life overseas is one way, but plum brandy is another.
The recollection of his wife, Marija, eighty-four years of age, was altogether different. She was quieter and her eyesight was not perfect, but when I moved in close to show her photographs I had brought from the 1990s, she recognised meand her eyes filled with tears. ‘You were the one who brought all that food, all that sugar and that oil,’ she said. ‘Your name is Tim, isn’t it? There was even chocolate for the children that Christmas because of you. Thankthe Lord.’ The Bosnian war zone was then so low on supplies that I made a habit of filling my Land Rover with shopping from supermarkets in neighbouring Croatia before the long drive in. The booty would then be shared around friends trapped within the war zone. On the occasion in 1994 when I crashed on ice, I remember groggily coming round after the vehicle finally stopped rolling and beingmomentarily bewildered by the sight of torn sacks of sanitary towels being blown by the wind through the debris of my vehicle spread across a snowy field. For women trapped in central Bosnia such items were priceless.
‘Tell me about your family?’ Marija asked. ‘Did you marry Tamara? Such a nice girl that Tamara.’ She was referring to another wonderful translator I had worked with during the war, a language student from Croatia called Tamara Levak. Momentarily disappointed to learn we had only ever been friends, Marija then clucked over the photographs of my children that I keep in my wallet. ‘Just like you, just like Marinko,’ she said, pointing at the grinning face of my blond six-year-old son, Kit. Marinko was Marija’s youngest child, a fair-haired boy who in the 1990s had just been old enough to be pressed into service as a soldier by the Bosnian Croat forces. Back then Marija would weep whenever his name came up, mumbling tearfully that I reminded her of Marinko, who was off serving in the trenches.
‘He survived the war,’ she beamed, when I asked after him. ‘He works as a policeman now in Sarajevo. Special police. He guards the American Embassy.’
Before leaving I asked about her weaving, and reminded her of the beautiful kilim she sold me all those years ago. ‘That was a fine piece,’ she said. ‘All that wool was from our sheep. I combed it and spun it and dyed it. And then I did all the weaving. It must have taken me years.’ Bosnia’s knotted ethnic history meant there was nothing odd in a Catholic farmer’s wife meticulously creating a rug using designs and techniques from the Orient. ‘But the young ones today, they do not want to learn the old skills,’ she continued. ‘In the end I became too old, my fingers could not do the work. So I gave the loom to my sister-in-law. That’s her in the photo over there.’ As she pointed, her sleeve moved and I caught a glimpse of a blue blemish on the skin at the back of her hand. It was tattoo, something I remembered her showing to me one winter’s night in 1993, an inky echo of this land’s turbulent heritage. To deter Ottoman lords from stealing their young women, a tradition developed here among Bosnian Croats of tattooing the girls, deliberately giving them blemishes, in the hope this meant they would not be whisked away under droit de seigneur.
As Arnie and I stood up to leave, Drago became animated once more. ‘Now one more for the road,’ he said, slopping brandy around rather than into our shot glasses. I stood up and took in the house properly. It was utterly unchanged from the wartime years: the same furniture arranged around the same wood-burning stove; the same hob where Drago would kindly warm me a pan of water to wash with before dawn; the smell of the same unrefined detergent; thick blankets folded on the same sofas that doubled as beds in winter when everyone gathered around the stove.
My time with Arnie was coming to an end. I would continue on to Sarajevo while he would spend a day with his father, who still lives in Vitez, before heading back to London. Before reaching his old home he spoke to me with emotion that he had never previously expressed.
‘I could never come back and live here,’ he said. I was a little shocked; I hadn’t expected this. ‘I mean, it’s beautiful and everything. Beyond beautiful. Just think about all we saw on our hike. But I would worry about people like Zdravko, the hotelier back in Glamoč.’
Now I was confused. What had Zdravko done to threaten us? He could not have been friendlier. But that turned out to be precisely Arnie’s point.
‘You saw how kind he was to us, right? He could not have done more. He opened up the little hotel, he took us around town, he made sure we had food and drink. He did everything possible to help.’
I was still baffled. ‘So how do you get from that to saying you could never come back here to live?’
‘It’s because the good and the bad live so close by each other – the light and the dark, the love and the loathing,’ he replied. ‘The Zdravko we got to know is exactly the sort of man I was brought up next door to. My family are Bosnian Muslim, but back when I was growing up that did not mean anything, because we were all communists, right? We weren’t green, we were red. All one nation, all Yugoslavs. There were some from our community who went to the mosque, but for most of us it was more important to be Yugoslav. Being Muslim was part of our yesterdays, our history. We had no greater say over it than we do over the genes that give us blond hair or brown eyes. Being Muslim was no longer part of my today. We had more important things to worry about than religion – things like family, school and getting a job.
‘Where we lived in Vitez, if you were able to save money and build your own house, you did so up on the hill. The view was great, it was cool in the summer and you were above the freezing mists that come down in the winter. You could look out over the valley and down beneath you were the workers’ apartment blocks. If you moved up the hill, it meant you had made it.
‘Well, after many years’ saving and saving, we finally had enough to build a house up on the hill and move away from our tiny flat down with all the others. Everything we had went into this new house. For its day, it was seriously cool. I mean I had a bedroom all of my own, after living in a small flat, all of us on topof each other. Can you imagine what a big deal that was, for a teenager?
‘Our neighbours, mostly Bosnian Croats, were fine. I mean they were just neighbours: some friendly, some strange, some nosy – just normal. Basically they were fundamentally good people. People like Zdravko.
‘And then all this shit comes along in the 1990s. Suddenly it matters if you were a Muslim or a Croat. That stuff had been parked for years, for decades. Those people who said, “These people have always hated each other” were just being lazy. In my own life I saw people from different communities worktogether, live together, get married even. There was nothing inevitable about what happened in the 1990s. It was just that a few – the extremists, the elite, the greedy – saw nationalism as a way to grab what they wanted.
‘When it all erupted we were in the shit, as there were so many Bosnian Croats around us. We were stuck out there all alone, the only Muslims on the hill. I can remember the day the bad guys came to our door – it was April 1993. I mean these people were our neighbours, right? People my mother and father had known for years. My mum went to answer the door and I was standing behind her. I had my dad’s old army pistol in my hand, but I did not know what to do with it. We were scared shitless.
‘Suddenly they shot through the door. Right there, into our house – the house we had built, that one my family had saved for, had sacrificed so much for. I mean, you English and your houses, they are your castles, right? The bloody bullet-hole is still there in the doorframe after all these years. We cannot bring ourselves to fix it. We need to be reminded. Thank God nobody was hit, but the message was clear and we had to move out quick; our lives changed for ever.
‘And the point is this: I know the people who did it and they are no different from Zdravko. He is kind and he is generous and he is helpful. We saw that for ourselves. But I know in my heart that, when it comes down to it here, ethnicity can be toxic – it can count more than whether it is in your nature to be kind and generous.
‘What will you do when the shit really hits the fan? It’s the question that would always be on my mind if I came to live here again. That’s why I cannot come back.’
We had worked together for years during the war, but never had Arnie opened up to me like this. Our relationship had always had a degree of stratification to it. I was the foreign correspondent, the employer with the
Deutschmarks in my pocket, and he was the polyglot, the local gatekeeper, the employee, seeking to earn those Deutschmarks. When he turned up as a teenager at the UN base outside Vitez, I had known nothing about his background and he had volunteered nothing. I naively thought he had chosen to come and work with people like me. I had no idea that there was little sense of volition. He had come – at considerable personal risk – because he had to, because if he didn’t his family would go hungry, they would freeze in the winter, their lives would falter.
His words moved me. Learning not to love is so difficult. A brother who falls out with a brother has to learn something totally unnatural: he must learn not to love. I know this to be a difficult, heartbreaking pain. For Arnie, being forced to learn not to love his home had been just as traumatic – a lonely journey of cutting links that were part of his essence. It is a journey that countless Bosnians have been forced to take by the events of the 1990s, fleeing their country in search of a new home they can try to love. Andrić, the novelist, wrote a fictional letter from a person leaving Bosnia, trying to explain to a friend his decision to go. Although written in the 1940s and influenced by the ethnic violence encouraged by Nazi occupation, to my mind it captures the raw feelings of the many Bosnians, like Arnie, driven away by the trauma of the 1990s war:
Bosnia is a wonderful country, fascinating, with nothing ordinary in the habitat or people. And just as there are mineral riches under the earth in Bosnia, so undoubtedly are Bosnians rich in hidden moral values. But, you see, there’s one thing that the people of Bosnia, at least people of your kind, must realise and never lose sight of – Bosnia is a country of hatred and fear . . . The fatal characteristic of this hatred is that the Bosnian man is unaware of the hatred that lives in him, shrinks from analyzing it and hates everyone who tries to do so. And yet it’s a fact that in Bosnia there are more people ready in fits of this subconscious hatred to kill and be killed, for different reasons, and under different pretexts, than in other lands.
My understanding of Arnie was changed for ever by what he said. I came to see him as belonging to the quiet majority in Bosnia: those who did not give into the toxicity of ethnic nationalism, but who were nevertheless its victim. In him there was no sense of self-pity, more an honest commitment to go in search of what is good, sustainable and lasting. Often he repeated that he did not want ‘to make a fuss’, to complain about what his family had been through, because the suffering of those who had died had been so much greater. Yet he was a man in search of a home. The same fault lines Arnie described were there in the early twentieth century when Princip journeyed through this land away from his own, insular Bosnian Serb community, and yet I was still unclear how he responded to them. Did he belong to the few identified by Arnie who exploited nationalism for their own ends, or did he withstand the toxicity and work for something higher?
Leaving Arnie and carrying on alone to Sarajevo felt sad, but strangely appropriate. After passing by Vitez on the train in 1907, Princip was dropped in Sarajevo by his father and had to make his way by himself. So, after hugging my friend farewell at the bus station in Vitez, a short walk from his family home, the one with the bullet-hole from 1993 still in the doorframe, I continued on my journey. On the outskirts of town I saw a poster advertising a local sporting event, a Bosnian bullfight or korida. Unlike Spanish bullfighting, which involves man against beast, this Balkan version pits beast against beast in a sort of pushof-war. Two animals compete at a time, locking horns and then seeking to muscle each other out of the way. The winner is the one that dominates the other, although both animals inevitably end up drained of strength. I can think of no better symbol for the occasionally brutish, thick-headed, nobody-really-wins-weall-lose clashes between the people of this region.
With the bus now barrelling along the highway towards Sarajevo, the avalanche of memory threatened to bury me: road bridges that I remembered having been primed with explosives; the turning to the village where I found three girls with their throats cut; signboards with place names still so charged that my stomach tightened when I read them. I decided to get off the bus a few miles outside the city in the small town of Hadžići, where Princip’s older
brother, Jovo, had once lived and worked as a woodsman. It lies at the bottom of the massif of Mount Igman, one of the most fought-over pieces of territory in the war of the 1990s and a place where I had once felt more crazily alive than at any time in my entire life. Walking over the mountain into Sarajevo felt like the most appropriate way to reacquaint myself properly with the city.
It was a perfect summer morning. A nectarine bought from a roadside stall was so ripe it had me half-sucking, half chewing, the juice running off my chin, as I looked for the road that zigzagged its way up the mountain. I began the
climb, the tap of my hazel stick on tarmac lonely without the accompaniment of Arnie’s. A car stopped almost immediately and the driver offered me a lift, warning that the way ahead was steep. I declined, keen to explore this mountain at leisure, free of the tension that I had known back in the 1990s.
Mount Igman was the saviour of Sarajevo in the war, the reason the besieged city never fully fell. For years the mountain provided the city’s solitary lifeline to the outside world. The geography of Sarajevo back then was brutally
straightforward, with the city surrounded by hostile Bosnian Serb forces on all sides except for the airport, with its mile or so of tarmac runway, which was in the hands of UN peacekeepers. Mount Igman overlooks the airport, so if BosnianMuslim forces could hold the mountain, they could maybe reach the airport and perhaps connect to the city beyond. The UN force’s precarious neutrality meant that it could not allow combatants to transit the aerodrome, soinstead a tunnel was dug by hand right under the tarmac – a fact that was kept secret for years from outsiders, including the many journalists like me who occasionally drove over the mountain to get into Sarajevo. Hostility to foreign reporters meant thatwe were rarely allowed through the Bosnian Serb checkpoints ringing the city, so we either flew in on UN flights or drove over Mount Igman where, as noncombatant reporters, we were allowed safe passage across the runway by UNguards.
For the Bosnian citizens of Sarajevo the tunnel provided the city’s umbilical cord. Food, ammunition and fuel were all dragged through it into the city, along with troops deploying to and fro as fighting shifted between frontlines. As the seasons passed, plans for the tunnel became more ambitious, and by the end of the war electricity cables and phone lines ran through it, all of which had to bestrung across the open vastness of Mount Igman. It was an incredible story of survival through ingenuity and determination, but it came at a high price, with near-constant combat along active and bloody frontlines that ranged right around much of the mountain. For the Bosnian Muslim forces the loss of Mount Igmanwas simply not an option.
As I walked slowly up the road I passed a number of shrines to Bosnian Muslim soldiers who died in this struggle. The importance of this tiny mountain trail was officially recognised some years after the war when it was renamed
Freedom Road. The intensity of the combat was clear from the number of minewarning signs I walked past, nailed to trees on either side of the road. One shrine from the 1990s lay next to one from the 1940s commemorating partisans who died fighting for the same strategic spot during the Second World War.
I thought of Princip making this same climb as a sixteen-year-old schoolboy on a summer night in 1911. An adolescent, angst-filled essay attributed to him was found long after he died, written on a page of a mountain-lodge guestbook. It was dated 25 June 1911 and signed ‘Princip, Fifth Grade’:
We left Hadžići at sunset when the western sun was blazing in purplesplendour, when the numberless rays of the blood-red sun filled the whole sky and when the whole nature was preparing to sleep through the beautiful, dreamy summer evening in the magic peace – that beloved, ideal night of the poet . . . We could go no further. We ate our frugal supper. We built a fire – the best sight I ever saw. No poet has ever described it well enough. Oh, if you could have seen what beautiful and ever-changing scenes were made by the lively red and black, and hellish darkness, the whispering of the tall, black fir trees, and this hideous Night, the protector of hell and its sons; it seemed to me like the whisperings of bedevilled giants and nymphs, as if we were hearing the song of the four sirens and the sad Aeolian harp or divine Orpheus.
I too had been young, aged twenty-seven, and anxious when I crossed Mount Igman after nightfall during the war, an episode so vivid it still comes to me in acute detail. It was June 1995 and the situation inside Sarajevo had worsened dramatically, with the Bosnian Serbs restarting their artillery assault on the city. The fighting had got so bad that for many weeks even the Mount Igman road was closed, adding to the sense of claustrophobia and desperation within the city. I had been ordered to pull out by my editor, but had not been able to leave, part of a growing group of journalists and foreign aid workers going increasingly stircrazy. At one point I went to investigate reports of a hospital being shelled, arriving in a ward to find the body of a headless male patient who had been lying there. The man had been decapitated by a Bosnian Serb shell smashing through the wall. By this stage my emotional frame was askew, and I remember responding with manic giggles when I saw the victim. He was headless, but completely covered in what looked like pink talcum powder. The explosion had atomized the brick wall, creating a rouge dust that coated absolutely everything in the room: beds, medical equipment, furniture, floor, corpse. My copingmechanism was to find this comic.
One Friday afternoon word went round that the Mount Igman road would be opened for a few hours that evening. Desperate not to miss the chance to get out, I skittered around gathering my gear, begging fuel and loading my Land Rover. Other journalists needed a ride, so just before twilight we set off, with me at the wheel next to two colleagues, a man and a woman, squished into a driving compartment designed for two, creeping across the runway of Sarajevo airport and along the potholed, cratered lanes that led to the mountain trail snaking to safety over Mount Igman. We knew that the Bosnian Serbs could shoot at vehicles on the road – we all remembered the British soldier killed there a year or so earlier at the wheel of a supply truck – but if we timed it right there would be enough light to make it safely across. We were out of luck.
By the time we got to the bottom of the trail, all up-traffic had been stopped. We were told the road was too narrow and too hazardous to allow two-way traffic, so a cyclical one-way system had been imposed: for an hour only upward vehicles were allowed, after which the flow was switched to downward. We had just missed the upward flow, so would have to wait an hour for our turn to go. This meant it would be completely dark by the time we set off – a worry, given that we were not allowed to use lights. To turn on a headlight was to give the Bosnian Serb gunners a target, so all lights had to be disconnected. I had eventaken off a panel from underneath the dashboard of the vehicle and removed the fuse, so that my brake lights would not show when my foot touched thebrakepedal.
When our turn eventually came, I remember being so wired with adrenalin that I was in a transcendental state. It was pitch-black, a moonless, cloudy night, but my senses were so alive that I managed to coach the vehicle through the darkness up what would become known as ‘The Most Dangerous Road in Europe’. This disturbing soubriquet was bestowed by Richard Holbrooke, the lead American diplomat responsible for eventually bringing an end to the war inBosnia. During his negotiations he got to know all about the dangers of the Mount Igman road. Some months after I drove it, Mr Holbrooke was in a convoy on the track when a vehicle carrying three of his close colleagues gottoo close to the edge. The hillside gave way and the vehicle tumbled down the forested slope, killing all three Americans.
As I drove that Land Rover up the trail, my two journalist friends responded in very different ways as we sat crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in the driving compartment. The man, an American, was utterly silent, while my British colleague talked non-stop. It made no difference. I did not care. I was too alive, too fixed on staying so. Night on Mount Igman was ‘hideous’ for Princip, but for me it was something quite different, a life-affirming thrill.
After crossing the mountain into safe territory we drove through the small hours to reach a hotel down on the Croatian coast, where I fell into a delicious sleep. When I woke I turned on the television to witness an event of great significance to the country I now call home: South Africa’s victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. It was a moment made magical by Nelson Mandela’s grand gesture of forgiveness. Rugby had long been associated with South Africa’s white community, the dominant minority that had so cruelly exploited the black majority, yet there was Mandela willing on the Springboks, even wearing a Springbok shirt. It was a rare but inspiring example of past hatreds being buried, people looking to tomorrow and letting go of yesterday, breaking the cycle of victimhood and vengeance.
The memory of that life-affirming drive kept me going as I explored the mountain on foot seventeen years later. As if guided by a vapour trail of 1995 adrenalin, I made the correct turnings in the forest and chose the right way from a maze of footpaths and trails that star-burst across the hilly plateau. Every so often I was passed by a carload of holidaymakers exploring the mountain and the old sporting facilities dating from the Sarajevo 1984 Winter Olympics, when Mount Igman hosted several of the main events. At one point mountain-bikers whooshed past me. I came to an old mountain lodge, where the housekeeper made me tea brewed with leaves picked from mountain bushes. He kept a loaded rifle near the door, but it was for bears, not combat. This is how a mountain should be used, I thought, for recreation, not as a desperate battleground forcontrol of Europe’s most perilous road. At one point a car of Bosnians stopped and the driver asked me the way to Hadžići. After two weeks’ hiking, improving my Bosnian language skills and getting to know the layout of the country at peace, I was rather proud to be able to direct him.
The track I was on finally began its descent, eventually making a sharp hairpin that I remembered well. I was near the bottom of the trail, once the most dangerous part of the most dangerous road. It was near here that the three diplomats fell to their deaths and the British soldier was killed by Bosnian Serbs. All of a sudden the trees parted and a view opened up in front of me. There in the near distance was the airport, and beyond that rose the bar-graph ofskyscrapers from the city’s modern suburbs. I had reached Sarajevo.