There are certain names made famous by war that everybody knows. Adolf Hitler. Napoleon. Ulysses S. Grant. The name Gavrilo Princip is not a household name, yet he is arguably one of the most important people in modern war history. Even people who know that he’s the guy who assassinated Franz Ferdinand, the Archduke and heir to the Austrian throne, may not know that the assassination went anything but according to plan.
The archduke and his wife, Sofia, were driving in an open top convertible down a riverside street in Sarajevo. Six assassins trained in Serbia were spread out down the street. Assassin #1 threw a grenade at the car but missed, injuring civilians and causing the convertible to speed the rest of the way to city hall.
But after his meeting at City Hall, Franz decided to cancel his planned lunch and visit those injured in the assassination attempt at the hospital, and to drive to the hospital in the same open top convertible… The driver wasn’t told about the change in plans, made a wrong turn, and the car ended up stopped in front of the cafe that Gavrilo Princip, one of the trained assassins, was having coffee. He walked outside and shot and killed Franz and Sofia. One month later Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and WWI began.
It’s hard not to think about how many different ways this monumental day in history could have gone. What would have happened had Franz just gone to his planned lunch? Or if Princip went home instead of getting coffee? Or if the driver had been informed of the change of plans and didn’t stop on that corner? Would something else have triggered the greatest war the world had ever seen? Would the Austro-Hungarian Empire still exist today?
Before my trip I did some digging into my ancestry and came to the realization that it is crazy how I came to be. I have a great great grandmother on my dad’s side who came from Eastern Europe to the United States by herself at age 16 to find a better life. I have a great grandfather on my mom’s side who fled the Russian Army via the Trans-Siberian railway through Japan to Seattle, eventually reuniting with his family in Omaha, Nebraska. It’s overwhelming to think of how many things had to go just right to result in me.
Bosnia is a place that makes you question things like fate, because it is anything but logical. As a result of Bosnia & Herzegovina declaring independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, every single day for 44 months from 1992 to 1995 Bosnian-Serb nationalists and the Yugoslav Army sat on top of hills surrounding Sarajevo and decided who would live and who would die. There was no logic or reason. Snipers essentially played Russian roulette with the people below trying to cross the city to collect food and water for their families. Over 500 children were killed, many of them shot straight through the head by snipers.
Before arriving in Sarajevo I read a fictional book called The Cellist of Sarajevo that gave insights into the lives of three people during the siege. It was amazing how much their stories came to life for me as I walked around Sarajevo. Every bridge made me think of all the people who sprinted across these bridges praying the snipers spared them. Every street within view of the hills made me think of how no one could walk on that street during the siege without being in danger. Every single building in the city that hasn’t been renovated or rebuilt since 1994 shows signs of shelling, making it hard to believe that anyone survived this. I can’t imagine how long it took to be able to walk around the city without fear once the war ended, or if that time will never come for some.
A war story that stood out from one of my tour guides was a friend of his telling him and some other guys in the army that his neighbor, an old man, had just died. Another guy responded “what do you mean he died? He just died? He wasn’t killed?” It was so odd during this time to hear of someone just dying of natural causes that they couldn’t believe it.
I attended the Childhood War Museum, which just opened in Sarajevo in January of this year. It’s a collection of artifacts and stories sent in by children who lived in Bosnia during the siege (many other cities besides Sarajevo were also attacked during this time). While any child of war story is heartbreaking, it was especially unreal as most of these kids were my age, and many of the artifacts were also items from my childhood. Barbies, chicklet candies, bazooka bubblegum, watching MTV, etc.
It was also interesting to be in Sarajevo when it was announced last Wednesday that General Ratko Mladic, also known as the “Butcher of Bosnia”, was sentenced to life in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity during the Bosnian War, most notably for the horrific genocide committed in Srebrenica. Locals I spoke with in Sarajevo and Mostar were happy with the verdict but described it as too little too late. While at the same time Serb nationalists still see him as a war hero.
Some additional facts on Bosnia:
- The city has many nicknames but one that I particularly liked was “where east meets west”. There is even a “line” for this in the middle of old town:
- This is because Bosnia was ruled by the Ottoman Empire from the 1450s to 1878, when Austria-Hungary took over. Although the Autro-Hungarians only ruled for 36 years, it was a time of great development for Sarajevo, and as a result much of the city has architecture reminiscent of Vienna.
- 400 years of Ottoman rule brought a lot of influence to Bosnia, most obviously religion and food. There are over 200 mosques in Sarajevo alone, and the streets are lined with cafes selling Bosnian coffee served with Turkish delights and bakeries full of baklava.
- It’s hard to grasp the way ethnicities are described here, but basically I understand it as four general groups: Bosnian-Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, a term essentially developed for Slavic Muslims, and a fourth minority group who make up of the rest (who are generally called Bosnians, ironically).
- As a result of the Bosnian War, Bosnia was divided into two territories, 49% of Bosnian territory is Republika Srpska (The Serbian Republic), mainly occupied by Bosnian-Serbs, and 51% is the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, mainly occupied by Bosniaks and Croats. The two regions are essentially autonomous, with separate police, education, postal service, even their own constitutions. Sarajevo lies mostly within the Federation but is right on the border.
- The three main groups (Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks) are represented in government by one president each, making up a presidency, similar to how Yugoslavia was organized post-Tito. But it’s odd because you could be born Bosnian and an agnostic, or atheist, or Jewish, or anything else, and you can’t run for president here, nor are you represented in any way in government.
- Each side’s Constitution avoids naming a language, listing them as variations of “the language of the Serb People, the language of the Bosniak people, and the language of the Croat people”, because there isn’t consensus on whether this is the same language (it was explained to me as being as similar as American English and Canadian English).
- While the Siege of Sarajevo is the most well known from the Bosnian War, the Croat-Bosniak War was sort of a “war within the war”, mainly taking place in the Herzegovina region between Croats and Bosniaks. If it wasn’t already beyond confusing, this adds to it as Croats were historically, and even during the Bosnian War, aligned with Bosniaks. However, leaders of Croatia and Serbia had long wanted to divide Bosnia among themselves leading to additional tension and conflict. This is especially evident in Mostar which was the location of the front line of this Croat-Bosniak war. So beyond the legally identified division between the Federation of Bosnia & Herzegovina and Republika Srpska, there exists even further unofficial division in places like Mostar between Croats and Bosniaks.
- As education is separate between the Federation and Republic, kids are taught different things about the war (as in, the Republic teaches about a “civil war” while the Federation teaches about a “war of aggression”). Further, in places like Mostar (which fully falls within the Federation), Croats and Bosnians attend different schools and play for different football clubs.
- There is a real economic struggle in Sarajevo. About 65% of adults age 25-30 in Sarajevo are unemployed. This is a result of too much corruption in government, too much red tape to start a business (it can take months), and no investors in the area aside from those building hotels.
- The Main Street through Sarajevo and Mostar is still called Marshal Tito Street, and Tito monuments still stand. This is a big contrast to Croatia and Serbia where all things Tito related (aside from his mausoleum in Belgrade) have been renamed. While everyone will have a different answer, my general understanding is that people here in Bosnia were really happy during Tito’s Yugoslavia. Despite having multiple ethnicities and religions, Bosnia survived in peace and they were really proud of that. When it ended so violently (the Bosnian War was by far the most devastating of the Balkan Wars of this time), the period before the war was looked at even more longingly. That’s just my take on it.
Ok, are you confused? Me too. This place is beyond confusing. A country called Bosnia & Herzegovina, where Herzegovina is really a region in Bosnia, and where Bosnians are a minority group? What school do you go to if your mom is a Croat but your dad is a Bosniak? What religion do you practice? In Sarajevo Serbs fought against Bosnians and Croats, but in Mostar Croats fought against Bosnians? What?
It’s a lot to take in and I often felt overwhelmed during tours, or conversations with locals. But I also found the locals to be incredible friendly. They do everything they can to make you feel comfortable, they are constantly asking for feedback on how they can improve, whether it’s a tour, a museum, or a hostel. They are incredibly proud of their food, their rakija, their beautiful scenery, and their pets (mainly cats). I can only hope that over time they find a way to live more together than separate.
Here are some additional pictures from my time in Bosnia (I spent four days in Sarajevo and four in Mostar):
Abandoned bobsled tracks from the 1984 Winter Olympics:
Street art around Mostar:
Old town Mostar:
15th Century Bosnian Fortress:
Can’t escape burek in the Balkans:
There are pomegranate and kiwi trees all over Mostar:
Cevapi (minced meat, onion, and flatbread), very popular across the Balkans:
Breakfast at Hostel Majdas in Mostar:
I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving last week! While I was missing home, I had a great Thanksgiving in Sarajevo with some fellow Americans (left to right, TX, CA, AL, CA, CO). We cooked up a chicken stir fry, queso mac n’ cheese, instant mashed potatoes (we were working with 1.5 burners and no oven), and several slices of pie from a local bakery).
Tomorrow morning I’m off to Kings Landing!