The Wild West -The Trigger_ Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War
The journey began with me and Arnie kneeling in roadside grit as we struggled to pack away our last supplies. We had been dropped by car in remotest Herzegovina and, with the noise of the engine dwindling, I heaved my now brick-solid rucksack onto my shoulders and looked around. To the south oozed a great lozenge of pastureland, a magnificent plain veined by watercourses and picketed tightly on all sides by foothills of high mountains. Somewhere over the peaks lay the Mediterranean, cities, motorways, industry and the broadband rush of the twenty-first century. But where we were standing seemed to belong to a rawer, older world order, a place of hard-scrabble rural living.
The hamlet of Obljaj, where Gavrilo Princip was born, is so small it does not register on many maps, but research had led me to the Royal Geographical Society’s subterranean archive in London, where I made a breakthrough. There I found an old and very detailed military map that located Obljaj on the inland flank of the Dinaric Alps, the range that forms the spine at the top of the Balkan Peninsula. Originally printed in 1937, the map presented in rather elegant pastel colours all relevant local features: a clutch of houses built in the lee of a humpback hill offering protection from winter winds, the sweep of the plain of Pasić, the massing of Alps nearby, the meanderings of the Korana River. But this particular map sheet also hinted at something else. Originally printed with Yugoslav army markings, the map was also stamped with a Nazi swastika dated 1941, clumsily overlaid by British military hieroglyphs from the 1950s. This was a place much fought over.
It was a midsummer day, the European sun seldom more powerful, as we set off on foot, the straps of my rucksack, map case and camera bag making me feel like stringed pork-belly roasting in the oven. The village we were looking for turned out to be so small that it was no wonder many maps failed to record it. After ten minutes of walking we turned left up the only lane into Obljaj as the main road continued on its way, gently undulating along the valley floor. We ducked where trees hung low between dry-stone walls sagging with age and walked past hushed farmhouses, open doors suggesting the owners might be within, dodging the formidable heat. Bossy chickens gave the setting its only sense of movement, patrolling in complete safety a gravel track patched by weeds only occasionally disturbed by traffic.
It was the ornate fence that gave away the location of Princip’s birthplace – the mere fact that it had one. No other property in this tiny community was similarly flattered, although those who had erected the commemorative railings
fifty years ago might not recognise them any more. The metal was corroded, the foundation wall chipped and the entrance gate missing. The plot lay on the uphill side of the lane, so I wriggled out of my pack, dumped it on the ground to the pecking interest of some beaks, and enjoyed a relieving sense of lightness as I stepped up and into what had once been a busy family compound.
The grass had long since gone to seed, the tips crudely scythed for hay, the remainder meshed into a sprung mattress of tussock. The original farmhouse had never been much more than a hovel and now it was mostly vanished, the only
structural relic a roofless, stone-built chamber set into the hillside, where livestock had originally been stabled. The Princip family had lived above, in a plain dwelling of stone walls capped by one of the steeply pitched roofs that were once characteristic of the Western Balkans. Tiled with hand-sawn shingles reaching sharply down from a high peak to a low, raggedy edge, the design always made me think of a wizard’s old hat crammed onto a child’s head. I had seen pictures of the original homestead, but in the wars that have washed over this region during the past century it had been targeted by those hostile to Princip’s memory.
It did not take long to walk around the garden, which was little larger than a tennis court. Nettles and summer weeds grew tall inside the ruined basement, sprouting through rain-smoothed heaps of collapsed masonry and oddments of broken roof tile. At first sight there appeared to be nothing to indicate this place had any significance at all. But then I spotted the wreaths – three of them, long past their prime, with withered leaves and plastic wrappers moth-wing fragile from overexposure to the sun. Propped against the inside wall of the basement, only the tops reached out from the undergrowth, so I had to stamp away nettles and bend down to look. There were no cards, but for me they still bore a clear meaning – someone, somewhere wanted to remember.
The rear of the plot was marked by a retaining wall of rocks mostly felted with green moss. One of the larger stones was bare and on its flat, grey face my fingers were able to touch something missed by those who had sought to erase the memory of the young man born here. In three-inch-high letters I could make out the initials ‘G.P.’, graffiti scratched into the rock face by a young Gavrilo Princip, and the date ‘1909’.
The discovery was electrifying, a direct link to my quarry, so I spent several moments picturing the young boy who had earnestly left his mark here more than a hundred years ago. Arnie had been busy introducing himself to a young
boy who had appeared in front of the property next door, a house that was clearly inhabited, albeit with walls unplastered and doorframes unpainted. Rural homes in Bosnia are often works-in-progress, constantly being developed with extensions and conversions so that members of the wider family have a place t stay. But the war of the 1990s had added greatly to this phenomenon, with so many communities destroyed that, approaching twenty years since the fighting finished, entire villages still have an air of jerry-built incompletion.
‘Come over here,’ Arnie called. ‘You will want to meet this family.’ People were now emerging from all corners of the house, rubbing day-rest from their eyes. Two elderly men, one leaning heavily on a stick, came out of the front door; a nervous-looking grandmother in a black headscarf approached no further than the doorjamb; a large man in his fifties bustled half-dressed down an external staircase, pulling on a sleeveless shirt; and the young boy to whom Arnie had first spoken had been joined by another, who seemed to pop up from some sort of cellar. I got a strong sense that visitors were a rarity.
‘May I introduce the last Princips living in Obljaj,’ Arnie said, his voice a blend of pride and surprise.
One by one, he went through the names, as chairs were arranged for us on a shaded section of the verandah and space cleared from a clutter of hay rakes, scythes and other equipment used for subsistence farming. They were all
members of the Princip clan. Miljkan was the one with the walking stick, a tall man, hard of hearing, moustachioed grey. Aged eighty-two, he sat next to his brother, Nikola, five years his junior, much slighter and shorter, with the habit of looking at you from the corner of his eye. The shy woman was Miljkan’s wife, Mika, also in her late seventies, and the younger man his son, a fleshy, shavenheaded fifty-one-year-old called Mile. It was Mile who emerged as the most talkative, engaging with us enthusiastically, after Arnie’s explanation of our plan to follow the journey of his ancestor.
‘I am the one who likes to keep the family tradition alive,’ Mile said. ‘So although I was baptised Mile, I like to use a better-known name. Have a look at this.’ He showed me a book of poetry he had written in tribute to his famous
forebear, the back-cover biography spelling out the author’s preferred name. I have only an elementary grasp of Cyrillic, so it took a bit of lip-synching and finger-tracking to work out that he wrote under the nom de plume of Gavrilo Mile Princip. The text went on to say, rather portentously, that living in Obljaj was both ‘a curse and a duty’ for the writer.
My repeated mentions of their famous ancestor seemed to animate the whole group and it was Miljkan who spoke next, his voice husky from age, but his recollection convincingly sharp of the young man he referred to affectionately as Gavro.
‘I was born here in 1930 and although Gavro was already dead by that time, I remember both his parents well and the house over there where they lived.’ The old man was now looking in the direction of the stable-like ruin set into the hillside next door. ‘His parents would sit and take coffee outside the front on sunny days and talk of Gavro. I remember listening to the stories from when I was about the same age as this chap.’ He waved his cane at the youngest of the boys, his four-year-old grandson, Vuk, who was earnestly trying to follow the discussion.
I was delighted to meet them, greeting everyone formally and shaking hands. Princip had died childless and, during my months of research, I had committed a lot of time to seeking in vain any surviving relatives. From my computer
terminal in South Africa I got rather excited when I found fifty-three Gavrilo Princips registered on Facebook, so I wrote to them all. All I got was a nasty note from site administrators saying that my account could be suspended for
sending out unsolicited messages. The closest I had come to contacting a member of this family was tracking a distant relative, an elderly man living over the hills to the north-east in the Bosnian city of Banja Luka. I mentioned him and, as one, my new acquaintances dropped their gaze. Arnie translated their collective mumblings.
‘That man lost his son in the fighting of the 1990s,’ Arnie said quietly, his head tracking between the contributions emerging from all sides. ‘The young man is buried in the family plot here in the village. Apparently the father never
recovered from his grief. He is still in mourning. He cannot move on. A sad business. A tragedy. His anger has no end.’
I veered the conversation away from the recent war and towards safer, older territory, explaining that Arnie and I hoped to walk all the way to Bugojno, just as Princip had done with his father in 1907 when they trekked to the railhead before taking the train to Sarajevo. This prompted an immediate and busy discussion. Mile said that the closest station to Obljaj was not in Bugojno, which lies roughly a hundred miles by road to the east, but in the opposite direction at a place called Strmica, twenty miles to the west. People then all spoke at once, but it was old Miljkan putting his hand on his son’s knee who settled the matter. ‘The railway line to Strmica only went down to the coast of Dalmatia,’ he said. ‘To go inland, to go to Sarajevo, you needed the railway that started at Bugojno. It was the first line in the country, built by the Austro-Hungarians.’
‘In which case,’ Mile said, ‘you will have a tough old time. It’s a long, mountain walk to Bugojno and the most direct route takes you right over Šator.’ He pointed his arm out straight and flat in the direction of the mountains to the
south-east and then tipped it upwards at a steep angle.
‘Šator means “tent”,’ Arnie explained. ‘Basically we are going to have to climb Tent Mountain.’ From the village, the edges of the open pastureland on the valley floor appeared trimmed all around by dark-green slopes but, over in the
direction Mile was pointing, it was possible to see a rockier peak much further away, pale and haughty above the valley sides.
The family history was kept like a rosary by the last Princips in Obljaj, polished in the retelling, a chain strung with fact, memory and myth, reassuring for later generations in its completeness and circularity. It did not presume to tell the whole history of the south Slavs, but it did give clues about key themes that shaped the development of the Western Balkans. I spent the rest of that summer day with the Princips, only moving to keep up with the shade tracking across the verandah, listening closely to the full story – the Director’s Cut, if you like. It took hours as everyone, even young Novak, Nikola’s eight-year-old grandson, took turns to offer up links in the chain of memories.
The Princips were not from Obljaj originally, but instead trace their roots to the rugged mountain badlands of Montenegro far to the south. Their arrival here in the middle of the eighteenth century formed part of the gradual ethnic division of the region’s south-Slav population. It was a split predominantly defined not by language, culture, costume or physical appearance, all of which remained very similar across the local population, but by faith.
The modern history of the Western Balkans began roughly halfway through the first millennium, with the collapse of ancient Rome and the arrival in the area of a dominant population of Slavs, one of the many mass migrations from
further east that populated much of Europe. Long before the tight modern concept of today’s nation state, national identity was then defined most strongly through religion, and in the Western Balkans the south-Slav arrivals found
themselves atop some of the great faith fault lines of medieval Europe. Those who were converted to Orthodox Christianity by missionaries sent from Byzantium, the eastern relic of the collapsed Roman Empire, came to identify
themselves as Serb. Those further north who converted to Catholicism, as professed by Western Christian followers of the papacy in Rome, would come to regard themselves as Croat. Other early versions of Christianity – such as
Bogomilism, a medieval church that emphasised ritual over hierarchy – thrived here after the start of the second millennium, later to be denounced and persecuted as heresies by the more established streams.
Halfway through the second millennium, as the Middle Ages drew to a close, Islam would bring its influence to the Balkan Peninsula when it fell to Turkish forces from Asia Minor. These were outriders of the Ottoman Empire that
replaced Byzantium, renaming as Istanbul the old Byzantine capital of Constantinople. A significant proportion of local Slavs in Bosnia would convert to Islam, progenitors of the Bosnian Muslim population of today. Jostling for pre-eminence among different streams of Christianity would come to influence the history of the Balkan Peninsula, but in Bosnia the evolution of a large Slav Muslim population added another dimension to the rivalry.
Miljkan touched on this tussle when he described how members of his family from Montenegro had ended up so much further north here in Bosnia. They were Serbs, south Slavs who had adopted Orthodox Christianity; a people who had flourished so richly in the Middle Ages that they staked some of the Western Balkans as their own nation, Serbia. It was ruled by a succession of kings, tsars and despots, with a Church so powerful that it seeded the area with some of the most venerable monasteries and reliquaries of Christendom. Independence for Serbia lasted until the occupation by invading Ottoman Turks in the fifteenth century. By the time Miljkan’s ancestors moved to Bosnia in around 1750, Serbia as an independent state was almost 300 years dead, a distant source of legend and myth kept alive by stories told around the hearth.
After Ottoman forces had battled through Serbia they advanced into Bosnia, occupying the entire country in the year 1463. Their progress was swift, only easing when they reached the northern arrowhead of the Dinaric Alps. As the
Ottomans consolidated their hold on Bosnia – they would stay for another 400 years – the mountain range evolved into a topographical watershed between two great rival blocs, the Muslim Turks and the Catholics from Hungary, Venice and Austria. That is not to say it was a stable or even well-marked international border. For hundreds of years it was more of a wild frontier, violated routinely by raiding parties from either side, garrisoned by troops deployed from far-off corners of empire and sluiced over by civilians fleeing a cycle of friction between the Islamic and Catholic worlds.
At different times over the centuries it suited both sides to allow a third party – Serb adherents to Orthodox Christianity – to settle in large numbers around this border zone. The Princip family then bore the name of Jovićević, a longestablished Serb clan from Montenegro, and their migration northwards was part of this deliberate policy of seeding an Orthodox buffer between the Muslim Ottoman and Catholic Habsburg empires. These new arrivals on the Ottoman side were rewarded with land that they could farm as feudal serfs and, in time, with positions of responsibility in local defence forces raised on behalf of the Turkish occupiers. The new arrivals from the Jovicevic family changed their name shortly after reaching the Obljaj area to Čeka, a word meaning ‘to lie in wait’, because they proved to be particularly adept at patiently preparing ambushes for smugglers, brigands and other raiders.
As Mile told this part of the story he struggled with a detail, gesturing with his hand as if tugging an unripe apple on a tree. ‘What was the name of those really violent raiders from the coastline of Dalmatia?’ ‘They were known as Uskoks,’ Nikola said coldly. ‘Our people sorted out plenty of them.’
Through Arnie I tried to ask how they viewed today the historical reality of their forebears working as militia for the Ottomans. Could their ancestors be regarded as collaborators? But this was not one of the beads on the family rosary,
so my question was passed over. Instead Miljkan wanted to explain the early nineteenth-century origins of the family’s current surname.
‘Our name did not become Princip until the time of Gavro’s greatgrandfather, a man called Todor,’ Miljkan said. ‘He was a big man, a strong man, and he rode a huge white horse. He was so untouchable he could cross the frontier whenever he wanted, and one day the Venetians over towards the coast of Dalmatia said his clothes were so smart and his manners so royal that they called him The Prince. We have been called Princip ever since.’ The name might sound regal, but the reality of life for the Princip clan throughout the late nineteenth century was very much at the other end of the social scale. They were serfs struggling under dire conditions of feudal exploitation.
When the Ottomans first added Bosnia to their European land holdings they valued it highly for its importance as a strategic bridgehead in their long-running battle against the Habsburgs. Turkish raids in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries would several times reach all the way to the walls of Vienna, although the city never fell. Bosnia’s value to the empire at the time earned it a glowing Ottoman epithet, ‘the Lion that guards the gates of Istanbul’. And the talents of Bosnians were in great demand in the Ottoman imperial capital, at a time when it was routine for the young men of occupied lands to be forcibly removed to Istanbul for what might today be called ‘reprogramming’. Far from their homes, they underwent an intense programme of education, technical training and,
where necessary, conversion to Islam, creating a cadre that owed and gave everything to the empire. Although ruled by a Sultan descended from the original Turkish Osmanli dynasty, the Ottoman Empire was run by supreme
administrators known as Grand Viziers and there was no dogma that these must be Turks. Through the long history of the Ottoman Empire children snatched from the Slav communities of the Balkans earned a reputation for intelligence, diplomacy and resourcefulness, so much so that they regularly succeeded in navigating the tortuous route to the very top of the Ottoman governmental machine. Several of the Grand Viziers were originally Slavs from Bosnia.
Perhaps the most famous of these was a Serb born in the village of Sokolović, close to Sarajevo, who served as Grand Vizier after converting and adopting the name of Mehmed-paša Sokolović. He held power for fourteen years during the late sixteenth century and is credited with seeking to advance his homeland through the building of bridges, mosques and other infrastructure. His most famous structure, an elegant arched bridge which spans to this day the Drina River at the town of Višegrad, has long been regarded as a symbol of Bosnia’s intertwined ethnic matrix. Bosnia’s greatest twentieth-century novelist, Ivo Andrić, who was just two years ahead of Princip at the same Sarajevo grammar school and would win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961, used the structure as a symbol for communal linkages in his historical fiction The Bridge on the Drina. During the war of the 1990s the old bridge was notoriously used by Bosnian Serb paramilitaries to dispose of civilians they had murdered, with bodies tipped over the edge in such large numbers that they clogged the turbines of a hydroelectric power plant downstream.
By the nineteenth century the age of Ottoman expansionism had passed, reducing considerably Bosnia’s value to Istanbul. Along with other areas on the periphery of the empire, Bosnia became a remote and increasingly troublesome backwater. As part of my research I visited the imperial archive in Istanbul, seeking a flavour of the late Ottoman rule that the Princips would have known. There were no references in the entire collection to the family under any of its three names, unsurprising given their lowly peasant status. But there were several written reports that referred to the area surrounding Obljaj, painting a picture of imperial decline: the desertion of Arab troops deployed to Bosnia from the empire’s Middle East holdings in Arabistan, the escape of a rebel leader, the routine execution of ‘a Jew and a Christian’.
The ebbing influence of imperial authorities in Istanbul was counterbalanced in Bosnia by a rise in the power of local proxies, the south-Slav converts to Islam. To hold on to power the Ottomans had long employed ‘divide and rule’,
the stalwart strategy of imperial regimes; and to deal with the large Christian population, local Muslim leaders had been favoured with higher social status as feudal lords known as begs. Furthermore, to keep the local Serb followers of Orthodox Christianity in check, Istanbul had given permission to Franciscan missionaries to work in Bosnia, maintaining monasteries and ministering to the local Catholic Croat congregation.
Down near the bottom of the pecking order were serf families such as the Princips, exploited by punitive demands for tax that rose each year, along with ever more onerous periods of military service demanded from their men. The
local begs increasingly answered to nobody, ignoring occasional half-hearted attempts from Istanbul to legislate an improvement in the rights of Christians and setting their own arbitrary local taxes, which would routinely leave serfs
destitute at the end of a working year. Peasant resentment erupted in a series of rebellions throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, led mostly by local Serbs overtaxed into penury and inspired by successful rebellions to the south- east, where the new, independent country of Serbia was being created, a modern recasting of the medieval nation.
When four centuries of Ottoman rule in Bosnia came to an end, it was through one of these uprisings – a rebellion that began in 1875 not far from where the Princip family lived. It would drag on for three years, tapping into the
anger felt by those at the bottom of a regime of feudal exploitation. Several of the men from the Princip clan, including Gavrilo’s father, Petar, joined the rebel groups and took to the mountains around Obljaj with their long-barrelled and intimate knowledge of the terrain. From there they defied not just the Ottoman troops, but also the Bosnian Muslim elite who were fighting to protect their pre-eminent social position. Violence flared across the community’s fault lines that had been so artfully maintained by the Ottomans. Bosnian Muslim forces, supported from fortress towns, would launch reprisal raids deep into the countryside, burning Christian villages and slaughtering peasants suspected of giving succour to the rebels. The violence was so sweeping, Miljkan explained, that all the remaining Princip non-combatants were forced to flee from Obljaj, along with tens of thousands of other Serbs, mostly women, children and the elderly, heading west across the frontier, seeking sanctuary in Habsburgoccupied territory.
‘The begs were so ruthless it was not safe for our family here,’ Nikola said in support of his older brother. ‘And when our people came back, once the Turks had finally left, they found all the houses here had been burned. So for the first time, but not the last, they had to rebuild everything.’
The mountainous region around Obljaj, including the forests cloaking the lower reaches of the tent-like Mount Šator, were rebel hot zones, close enough to the frontier to attract the attention of outsiders. They included Adeline Irby, a
redoubtable Englishwoman from Norfolk whose Victorian sense of Christian charity drove her to come to the assistance of Serb refugees in this remote corner of south-eastern Europe during the rebellion of 1875. Miss Irby, as she is still referred to affectionately in Bosnia, was a pioneer aid worker, a nineteenthcentury prototype for the legions spread across the world’s combat zones today. Her doggedness in battling through winter snowstorms, sleeping in vermininfested hovels and defying Ottoman attempts to hinder aid deliveries won her a huge following among Bosnian Serbs. It also generated wide publicity in Britain, especially when her cause was publicly endorsed by her good friend, Florence Nightingale. Miss Irby would dedicate the rest of her life to the advancement of
Bosnian Serbs, running a school for Orthodox Christian girls in Sarajevo, where she would make her home for more than thirty years. She died there in 1911 at the age of seventy-nine and is buried today just a few yards from Princip’s tomb. Her gravestone bears a carving in profile of her doughty – some might say battleaxe – face, with an inscription describing her as ‘a great benefactress of the Serbian people in Bosnia-Herzegovina’.
The uprising that began in 1875 brought an end to Ottoman rule in Bosnia but, as became clear from the Princip family’s reminiscences, this did not herald freedom for its south-Slav population. The Great Powers, gathering in 1878 for the Congress of Berlin, which was convened to decide the fate of territory lost by the weakening Ottoman Empire, still viewed Europe as a chequerboard of land parcels to be occupied, exploited and occasionally bartered. The interests of local populations were not nearly as important as higher, strategic concerns balancing the interests of the established powers: the Russians, the AustroHungarians, the Germans, the British, the Ottomans, the Italians and the French.
The imperial Habsburg rulers were deeply hostile to the establishment of a new, stand-alone country in Bosnia where south Slavs might enjoy self-rule. The Habsburg Empire already had a significant south-Slav population in territory it had long ruled across the Northern Balkans. Independence for Bosnia, Vienna believed, threatened to destabilise the empire by fomenting similar calls for selfrule from Slavs within the empire. Instability was a threat that all the Great Powers shared an aversion for, so Vienna’s representatives were able to convince the other statesmen gathered at the Berlin conference that she should be allowed to occupy Bosnia. Within weeks Austro-Hungarian troops had crossed the old frontier and marched on Sarajevo.
The Foreign Minister of Austria–Hungary, Gyula Andrassy, boasted at the time that Bosnia would be taken ‘with a company of men and a brass band at their head’, but events proved him guilty of hubris. It would ultimately require
the deployment of 300,000 troops by Austria–Hungary to fulfil the occupation and, later, the full annexation of Bosnia. They took the towns quickly enough, but out in the rural areas they came across entrenched hostility, mostly from the Bosnian Muslim community. Official figures showed that in the first few months alone 5,198 men from the invading Austro-Hungarian force were killed or wounded. In keeping with its history of resistance, Herzegovina was one of the last regions to fall to the new occupiers.
The Austro-Hungarians claimed their occupation of Bosnia was a philanthropic act of civilisation, a ‘cultural mission’, as they put it rather prosaically. Like so much colonialism of the era – the Scramble for Africa was
taking place at the same time – outsiders routinely presented themselves as being committed to upliftment, promising to modernise, reform and advance the local population. But, just as in Africa, the philanthropy turned out to be largely a sham. Furthermore, the Ottoman legacy in Bosnia brought out many Western prejudices against Islam, the implicit message being that a Christian nation would necessarily make good the cruel, corrupt, conservative incompetence of Muslim rule.
The supposed altruism of the Habsburgs did not reach far in Bosnia. A few hundred miles of road were built by the new occupiers, but mostly out of the simple military necessity for swift mobilisation and the deployment of troops.
Railway lines were laid but, again, the primary motivator was hardly to help the local community. The railway was needed in order for Austro-Hungarian investors to profit from commercial exploitation. Timber from Bosnia’s rich
forests was a target of this new trade, so within a few years narrow-gauge railway tracks snaked across the country and up into the forests, where felled trunks could be loaded for export. The character of town centres and cityscapes
changed dramatically as European architects were encouraged to express themselves through new buildings of modern Western design. Within a few years the ancient hans, caravanserais, souks and turbes left by the Ottomans had been overshadowed, symbolically and literally, by an architectural avalanche of governors’ palaces, military barracks, university buildings, cathedrals, museums and the occasional brewery.
Aside from these cosmetic changes, the fundamentals of life did not alter forthe vast majority of Bosnians spread across the rural hinterland. Academics have carried out detailed studies of the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia after 1878, revealing how the new occupiers failed to modernise the country for which they were now responsible. They barely touched the old feudal system, meaning that serfdom continued here well into the twentieth century. They did not fundamentally tackle the social structure in the rural areas, where begs were still able to demand taxes set at arbitrary levels. And they set up yet further tiers of state fees that kept the peasants in penury. Their schools, built with great show in the larger urban areas like Sarajevo, made so meagre an impression on the population that by 1910, after more than three decades of Austro-Hungarian rule, 88 per cent of the Bosnian population could not read or write.
In Obljaj the arrival of the Austro-Hungarians was a long drawn-out disappointment for the Princips. Sitting in the village listening to their history brought home to me the disconnect that so often separates policy from reality. The statesmen leaving the Berlin Congress smugly convinced themselves that the people of Bosnia would benefit from the diplomatic finesse of having the Western Austro-Hungarians replace the Eastern Ottomans. What they had
actually done, however, was quite the opposite, sowing seeds of resentment that would eventually destroy the status quo of the entire Western world.
‘Our people came back home to the village after the uprising and they thought things would get much better,’ Nikola said, shaking his head. ‘They built their homes again here in Obljaj and thought that, as Christians now ruled by
Christians, they would be better off. But nothing changed. It was still a tough life of survival, struggling to live off this land and paying tax, tax and more tax.’
Just as under the Ottomans, various family members survived by working for the occupiers, retained as border guards or policemen for the foreign empire. I asked the family about the claim made by one historian that Princip’s uncle, Ilija, eldest brother of his father, had served for a time as an Austro-Hungarian gendarme – a question I felt was potentially important, as an influence on the young boy’s motivation for the assassination. Once more, the family memory was blank. Instead they emphasised the dire conditions of life for their forebears at the dawn of the twentieth century, and to do this convincingly all they had to do was relate what happened to six of Princip’s siblings.
‘First there was Bosiljka, who died as a child,’ Nikola said. ‘Then there was Koviljka who was next to die, and Djuradj after her, and Branko after him and two others who were never christened and died without a name.’ It was well over
a hundred years since six out of nine children from one family had died, but for the Princip clan that would be too soon to forget.
After two hours of intensive listening, note-taking and tallying what I had read about Princip against what his family remembered, we all needed a break. I could not help noticing that the Princips had not offered Arnie and me coffee – a cultural ritual for visitors that I knew to be almost sacred. They were not being unfriendly. They were simply too poor.
I arched my back extravagantly, and Mile picked up on the cue. ‘Let’s go,’ he said. ‘I need to walk a while and I want to show you something that might teach you a little about Gavro’s parents.’ Mile led Arnie and me back through the
village and out onto the approach road where we had been dropped earlier that day. The sun was low in the sky and two teenage boys were walking across the fields carrying fishing rods. ‘Trout,’ he said, catching my interest keenly. Troutfishing is a love of mine. ‘They are going after trout in the Korana. It’s a beautiful fishing river.’
There was an enthusiasm about Mile that I was beginning to enjoy, a curiosity about my interest in his ancestor. ‘So many people have said so many things about Gavro over the years,’ he said. ‘But they forget he was a country boy from this village. His world was a small world, basically the fields and forests and mountains you can see from where we are standing. He would have gone fishing, I am sure, just like those boys over there. He would have walked the hills I walked, shepherding the family’s flock of sheep like I did when I was a boy. But in those days, people from a place like this never left. They were born here, married here, worked here, died here.
‘Look at Gavro’s parents. His father, Petar – but everyone called him Pepo – was from this village. His mother was Marija – everyone called her Nana – and where did she come from? Well, if you look over there you will see where.’ He was now pointing along the valley to a collection of farm buildings less than a mile away. ‘Don’t laugh, but that is known as Little Obljaj because it is smaller than where we are now, Greater Obljaj. Nana came from there. You basically lived your whole life within walking distance of where you were brought up. And when you ended your life you still didn’t leave.’
He had led us into the local graveyard, weaving his bulky frame through grass and weeds that grew waist-high in places and past clutches of gravestones, many of which were penned behind railings inside family plots. ‘This is where Gavro’s parents lie today,’ Mile said, pointing over a black iron fence.
Some history books tell you that Princip’s father married late and was a lot older than his mother. Their shared headstone suggested otherwise. It recorded them being born in the same year, 1860, which would have made them teenagers when the rebellion of 1875 disrupted their rural lives. While Petar went up into the hills to fight, Marija headed west as a refugee to the area around Knin, a town just across the frontier inside Austro-Hungarian territory, where Miss Irby focused most of her aid effort. The headstone recorded both their baptised and familiar names, so I was able to read that Marija (Nana) died in 1945, five years after Petar (Pepo). That meant that Princip’s mother would have experienced at first hand one of the long-term after-effects of the assassination committed by her son: the Second World War. It brought another round of disruption to life in Obljaj.
‘The Germans and Italians occupied this area, and in the fighting Gavro’s house was totally destroyed,’ Mile said. ‘Poor Nana had to flee along with the others for a while. By the time she died she had suffered so much because of the actions of her son and was drinking a lot. They say it was the drink that killed her in the end.’
We were now out in a recently mown hayfield, with clear sight of the red tiled roofs of Obljaj that run along the hinge between the valley floor and the rocky hillock behind. Take away the power lines and replace the stone tiles with
shingles, and the view had not changed since Princip’s time. Mile stood still for a moment and started to speak. ‘The thing that still amazes me about Gavro is how a child from this small place and from that closed time could change the world.’ Down on the river bank I could see a boy sitting patiently and watching his fishing line drift in the slow-moving current.
As we walked back into Obljaj I thought about how static life had been over the centuries for a family such as the Princips. They had been chained to this upland valley, not in the sense of being anchored and given stability, but more in the sense of being trapped, hocked, unable to escape its demands. We, in the twenty-first century, so often romanticise the idyll of pre-urban, agricultural simplicity, but the existence led by the Princips, as for peasants across Europe down the centuries, was far from idyllic. Theirs was a living defined by a crushing yearly battle, trying to husband enough crops and livestock to survive the deprivations of winter and the demands of feudal obligation. As Serbs, theirs was an identity most strongly preserved by the annual cycle of devotions enshrined by their Orthodox Church and by stories told around the fire about the medieval heroes of a long-gone Serbian state. Little wonder those tales were worked up into legends of mythological dimension – the chivalrous deeds of Serbian nobles fighting for good against the evil of occupation.
Gavrilo Princip was born in the summer of 1894, a busy time for a peasant family living off the land in Herzegovina. Marija had spent the day in the fields bundling hay by hand and milking the family cow, when her labour pains came. She had only just made it back into the house when the baby arrived. Family lore has her mother-in-law biting through the umbilical cord. It was 13 July, a day sacred in the Orthodox calendar for the Archangel Gabriel, and although Marija wanted to name the newborn Špiro, in honour of her late brother, the parish priest insisted the child be named for the saint. Gavrilo is the name Gabriel in Serbian. The baptism was carried out swiftly. Nobody could be confident that the new baby would not suffer the same fate as many of his siblings.
‘He was born just up there,’ Nikola told me after we had returned to the house. Miljkan was too immobile to comfortably leave the verandah, but at seventy-seven years of age his younger brother was still sprightly enough to lead me to the next-door plot and was now standing in front of the roofless void where the old stable had been set into the slope of the hill. ‘Up there, just behind, was the main room where the family lived and the food was prepared.’ Nikola was now pointing to a flat section of grassy ground at the same level as the top of the stable. ‘They used to have a hearth in there for cooking, and the smoke went out of a hole in the roof. The floor was made of earth and used to be swept clean every day. The other room, where they slept, was towards us, above where the animals lived, with a wooden floor.’
Nikola’s description prompted me to rethink my understanding of what had once been a two-roomed home lived in by a family of five. This had been a European dwelling inhabited by an entire family at the start of the twentieth
century, but it brought to my mind hovels that I routinely come across in rural Africa. The principle was exactly the same: a beaten-earth floor in a dwelling constructed out of stone walls, under a roof made of wood, thatch or branches gathered locally. A rate of child mortality that could kill six out of nine childre from Princip’s family sounded more like Africa than Europe. The developed world might despair at modern Africa’s systemic problems, but standing in that garden in Obljaj taught me how recently much of Europe was in a similar position.
With the plot of land as his stage, Nikola began almost to act out this part of the family story. ‘Most of the time the family had a horse, a cow, a few chickens and sometimes some sheep. They were all kept down here.’ He was now peering inside the door of the underground chamber with the collapsed roof. ‘Gavro’s father used to earn money as a postman, delivering packages and letters around the area. His horse was important, so he would be well looked after in there, especially in the winter.’ Bosnian winters have a well-justified reputation for extreme conditions, so much so that in the novel Brideshead Revisited Evelyn Waugh has Charles Ryder’s mother dying ‘of exhaustion in the snow in Bosnia’ while serving there as a nurse in wartime. From personal experience I knew how hazardous winters can be in Herzegovina. In 1994 I had made a good attempt to kill myself by sliding off an icy road in that wintry country, rolling my armoured Land Rover and knocking myself out.
Nikola then led me up the slope to where the living quarters had been. ‘Nana used to have a beautiful voice,’ he reminisced. ‘She sang in a choir, and all the time as she worked around the house. And she always wore traditional Serbian folk dress, with a little bag of sugar tucked away down here.’ He was now gesturing to his waistband. ‘She used to give it to her favourites. Sometimes she gave me some when I was a little child. She always said that she used to give sugar to Gavro because he was such a special boy.’
Special indeed was a boy who made it through childhood in these living conditions. The tuberculosis that would eventually kill Princip in 1918 was most likely contracted while being brought up in these stark conditions, although as a youngster he had been strong enough to suppress the disease. His only surviving older brother, Jovo, was seven years old when Gavrilo was born and there would be one more surviving child, a younger brother, Nikola, born three years after Gavrilo. Gavrilo is remembered as having inherited his mother’s sharp chin, blue eyes and casual attitude towards religion, while from his more pious father, Petar, came his physique: short and wiry, as befits a farmer scratching out a hardscrabble living in the highlands of Herzegovina. The most religious member of the family, Petar was known for never drinking, a noteworthy rarity in a community where the making and consuming of plum brandy, or šljivovica, was – and remains – a ritual enthusiastically embraced to ease the hardships of rural life. Petar clearly had something that marked him out within the community. He served for several years as the elected head of the zadruga, the association of local households. For generations across the Western Balkans the zadruga system was the foundation of rural life, a way of sharing earnings, dividing tax obligations and dealing with problems so as to help the maximum number of people. In his journalism Arthur Evans praised it lavishly for being fair and democratic, even communistic. The fact that Petar Princip had the vision to earn extra income as the village postman also suggested that he was more than just another peasant farmer. On official forms such as his school reports Gavrilo Princip would take care to describe his father not simply as an agricultural labourer, but as ‘an entrepreneur’.
Looking at Nikola as he wandered around the plot declaiming the family history, I convinced myself that I recognised his chin. It seemed to have the same sharpness as the one I had seen in the handful of surviving photographs of
Princip. I felt I was looking at how the assassin would have appeared, had he reached old age.
Princip grew to take on the household tasks expected of a young boy in the village, tending the chickens, helping his mother around the homestead, working with his father in the fields and watching over the sheep. The rich local pastures of the Pasić plain, still named after an overlord from the feudal period, remained privately owned, but some of the barer hillsides higher up were common land and Princip would spend whole days up there minding the flock as it scrabbled among the rocks for nourishment. Mile said that wolves were an occasional hazard and a shepherd boy would be expected to use a stick or stones to protect his animals.
‘Nana used to say that Gavro might have been a quiet boy and a small boy, but he was tough,’ Nikola told me as we walked around the garden. ‘He learned up on the hills how to throw a stone like a bullet and, if anyone picked on him, all he had to do was throw one stone. It always hit the target. After that they would leave him alone.’ Nikola was chuckling now. ‘He kept himself to himself, but he always fought to defend those who could not defend themselves. There was a story that when a teacher at the primary school in the nearby town of Grahovo was punishing a boy in class by caning, Gavro hit the teacher over the head with a pencil case. He might have been small, but the village boys all knew he was ferocious if you tried to wrestle him.’ Nikola was now beaming with pride.
‘As he grew older he became more and more resentful of the foreign rulers here, the Austrians,’ he continued. ‘We were always told that he came back to the village for the winter before the assassination because he had got into a fight with an Austrian policeman. The gendarme had forced himself onto a girl, and Gavro beat him up. The cops were looking for him, so he came here. But that was his way. He took on the bullies.’
Primary school was as far as most children’s education reached in rural Bosnia under Austro-Hungarian rule at the start of the twentieth century. For Serbs it backstopped a significant, yet unofficial cultural education from within
their own community, one that proudly passed on ethnic identity through the sharing of folk stories and epic poetry about the heroes of ancient, pre-Ottoman Serbia. Mile sought to rekindle that same spirit when he offered to read some of his own verse written in honour of his famous ancestor. His relatives nodded approvingly, and both Arnie and I were keen to listen to him and so, in a deep baritone, Mile recited a work he had entitled ‘The Hand of Gavrilo’. Laden with references to blood, bones and death, his performance briefly transported me from the verandah of the Princip family home in the summer of 2012 to the zadruga age a hundred years earlier, when members of all Serb households would formally gather to polish myths from an era long gone.
As he grew up, Princip would attend such gatherings in his own home, where on occasion he was encouraged to use the skills acquired at primary school by reading to the assembled group from Serbian history books. With illiteracy
commonplace among the feudal peasantry, a recital by a young reader must have been quite an event. I could picture his parents standing tall with pride. In winter time, when temperatures in these high villages plummet so dramatically, the meetings would have been crowded, smoky and, no doubt, malodorous affairs. According to a passage attributed to the young Princip by a contemporary, Dobroslav Jevdjević, he found the gatherings disturbing, as if they served to encapsulate the inward-looking, forlorn reality of a people browbeaten by poverty:
The wet logs on the open fire gave the only light to the closely packed serfs and their wives, wrapped in thick smoke. If I tried to penetrate the curtain of smoke, the most I could see were the eyes of human beings, numerous, sad and glaring with some kind of fluid light coming from nowhere. Some kind of reproach, even threat, radiated from them, and many times since then they have awakened me from my dreams.
To escape peasant life under Austro-Hungarian rule would not have been easy. But the same spirit that drove Petar Princip to be an entrepreneurial postman had passed to all his sons.
Gavrilo’s older brother, Jovo, was the one who made the break first. Being not as bookish as Gavrilo, it was money that drove Jovo to leave Obljaj in search of a living. After drifting through various menial jobs he ended up near Sarajevo working in the timber industry, which was booming at the time, with demand for wood coming from all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He settled in Hadžići, a village outside the city at the foot of the thickly forested slopes of Mount Igman, where he earned enough to set himself up with a pair of horses to drag felled trunks down to his own modest sawmill. Jovo had been working there some years when he saw a notice in a local newspaper offering places at secondary schools in Sarajevo for suitable candidates. He sent word back to Obljaj.
‘Gavro loved his books,’ said Mile after we had joined the others once more on the verandah. ‘From the time he went to primary school just up the road in he read and read and read. He always had his head in a book. Nana used to get cross with him sometimes because he could forget about the sheep and the other chores. But then it was Nana who wanted the best for her special son, and she was the one who said he must leave and go to school in Sarajevo. His father was not so keen, but Nana was able to persuade him.’
Up to this point the orbit of Princip’s life had been tight. He had never left the immediate area of the valley, rarely strayed further than Grahovo, which is just two miles away, and scarcely had any contact with Bosnians who were not ethnic Serbs. The stories he heard would have centred on Serbian legends, and after the divide-and-rule of imperial control the other local communities of Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims were a relative unknown. Under occupation first by the Ottomans and more recently the Austro-Hungarians, the different rural communities kept themselves mostly to themselves, and while there were Bosnian Croats living in and around Grahovo, before Princip left to further his education he had never met a single Bosnian Muslim.
Listening to Mile, I too found it extraordinary that a boy with a childhood of such limited horizons could go on to precipitate events that would change the world. Where did his revolutionary zeal come from, his hatred of the AustroHungarians, his anger at the indignity heaped on his people throughout history? And were his interests purely Serb, as some observers have claimed, or was he acting on behalf of all south Slavs? If so, where did this wider interest come from, for a boy brought up within only one of the Slav ethnic groups? With Arnie’s help, I asked the family what they thought had happened to Princip once he left Obljaj, but from this point on the story dried up. Miljkan shook his head and looked at the ground. Nikola fell silent, glancing at me repeatedly from the corner of his eye. They told me they did not know. Instead they preferred to keep alive the image of the tough little farm boy who had a thing about reading and helping the weak, not the person described by some for his later actions as a ruthless assassin.
‘He left as a little boy in 1907 and something happened that changed him,’ Mile said. ‘During the long holidays from school he would sometimes come back here. It was on one of these visits in 1909 that he left his initials on the rock at the back of the garden. We were always told that while he was leaving his mark on the stone, a friend of his called Špiro Marić asked him why he was doing it. He said it was because “one day people will know my name”.’
For the first time since we arrived, Miljkan’s elderly wife, Mika, now ventured out onto the verandah, mumbling to her husband and handing him a piece of paper, before slipping back to the safety of the doorjamb. Her steps made no sound in her thick, knitted woollen socks, traditionally worn all year round in rural Bosnian homes as house-slippers. Nikola glanced at the sheet, a black-and-white photocopy of a page from a book. It showed a picture of
Princip’s coffin as it was prepared for burial in Sarajevo. Nikola’s eyes flared and he flicked the paper with his hand.
‘There you are.’ There was clear anger in his voice. ‘They say he was a terrorist, they say all these bad things about him. But look at this. He was buried a boy. He was only nineteen when they sent him to die in jail. All I know is that
he always stood up to fight for those not strong enough to fight for themselves, he stood up to fight against injustice.’
It was a noble thought for the descendants of Princip to cling to. The assassination of the Archduke had ill-served the family, bringing them no fortune and making their home a target over the years. Austro-Hungarian police rounded
up Princip’s parents days after the shooting on 28 June 1914 and jailed them without charge. Even though the First World War ended in defeat for the AustroHungarians and the founding of Yugoslavia – a country where south Slavs could run their own affairs – the new government was slow to recognise Princip’s family. Petar and Marija lived out the rest of their lives in the same poverty they had always known under foreign occupation. After being destroyed in the Second World War, the family house was rebuilt as a national monument under the communist rule of Tito and opened to the public in 1964. It lasted until 1995, when Croat troops destroyed it for being too closely associated with their Serb enemies. I began to understand why Mile described living in Obljaj as both ‘his curse and his duty’.
To understand better the change Princip underwent when he left Obljaj, I would cross the mountains as he did and head towards Sarajevo. It was through this overland journey that the young boy’s horizons shifted as he was fully
exposed for the first time to the other component parts of Bosnia’s ethnic mix. With my de-mining map showing the presence of many minefields on the slopes of our first major obstacle, Tent Mountain, I asked Mile what he thought about the scale of the threat. He told us there were definitely some mines on the mountain, but he would be willing to guide us up the foothills in the morning and start us off safely on our way. I was delighted. To persuade Arnie to come on the trip I had promised that we would only proceed with local guides, and I could think of no better guide in Obljaj than someone whose full name was Gavrilo Mile Princip.
Then Mile made me even happier by saying we could camp for the night in front of the ruins of Princip’s old house. Team morale soared as Arnie and I unpacked our gear and erected our tents side-by-side on the wiry grass. It was a clear summer night, the stars blurry through the gauze of my mosquito net, the village of Obljaj noiseless, dark and at ease. For some time I lay on my sleeping bag, thrilled at this unexpected start to my journey: discovering graffiti left by Princip himself, finding the last surviving Princip family members, exploring his birthplace with people of his bloodline. With dew forcing me under the covers, I fell asleep with the family history churning through my mind – the story of generations of Princips who had lived out centuries in this remote, rough rural place and of the teenage outlier who had left to change the world.
The Wild West -The Trigger_ Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War