June 26, 2014 / 10:34 AM / 5 years ago

On centenary of WWI assassination, the past still haunts Sarajevo

VISEGRAD/SARAJEVO Bosnia (Reuters) - Two concerts in two Bosnian cities will mark the 100th anniversary on Saturday of the Sarajevo assassination that lit the fuse for World War One, in a divided country where the past still haunts the present.

A worker smokes a cigarette in front of a mosaic with image of Gavrilo Princip, in Andricgrad village near Visegrad June 19, 2014. REUTERS/Djordje Kojadinovic

The separate events speak volumes to Bosnia a century on, where perceptions of the Bosnian Serb who gunned down Archduke Franz Ferdinand have been warped by time and politics, and wounds are still raw from the bloody demise of Yugoslavia.

In the capital, where the heir to the Habsburg throne was shot with a Browning gun on a summer’s morning in 1914, the Vienna Philharmonic will play Haydn, Schubert, Brahms and Ravel in remembrance of the murder that triggered the march to war and turned out the lights on an age of European peace and progress.

To the east, in the Drina river town of Visegrad, Serbia’s premiere orchestra will perform Vivaldi’s summer concerto in tribute to Gavrilo Princip, to Serbs a hero whose act brought down the curtain on centuries of occupation over the Balkans.

Leaders of Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs have refused to join the Sarajevo events, saying Bosnia’s Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats want to paint Princip as a nationalist terrorist and the Orthodox Serbs as guilty for the wars that opened and closed the 20th century.

Instead, they will unveil a mosaic of Princip and his collaborators in Visegrad, where actors will re-enact Ferdinand’s murder and the trial of his 19-year-old assassin, who died in jail of tuberculosis months before World War One ended.

The assassination “began the liberation from serfdom and slavery”, filmmaker Emir Kusturica, organizer of the Visegrad events, told Reuters. “I don’t know why everyone would mark the day in the same place when they look on it so differently.”

The row threatens to drown out those hoping to send a message of unity; Saturday’s events in Sarajevo will close with an open-air musical bringing together 280 performers from across Europe, including Serbs, under the title “A Century of Peace after the Century of Wars”.

“We would like to symbolically start a new century with an artistic act about peace and love,” said director Haris Pasovic.

“We represent a younger generation,” said Serbian drama student Uros Mladenovic. “These people are carried along by the same basic idea – the victory of peace and life over all the bad things that have happened.”

Austrian President Heinz Fischer is expected to head a list of dignitaries mainly from around the region. Much of the commemoration is sponsored by France.

With the unity and prosperity of Europe tested by economic and social strife, leaders of the 28-member European Union meet on Thursday in Ypres, a city synonymous with the death and suffering of World War One.


On Saturday, the Vienna Philharmonic will perform in Sarajevo’s City Hall, where Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, attended a reception shortly before their murder.

The Austro-Hungarians attacked Serbia a month later and the Great Powers - already spoiling for a fight - piled in. More than 10 million soldiers died as empires crumbled and the map of Europe was redrawn.

Converted into the National Library in 1949, the neo-Moorish City Hall, known as Vijecnica, went up in flames in 1992 during a 43-month siege by Bosnian Serbs in the hills. Almost two million books were destroyed. A plaque denounces the “Serb criminals” responsible.

Painstakingly restored, the building was reopened in May and will host its first event on Saturday. But Serbs are sensitive to any perceived link between the wars of 1914-18 and 1992-95.

“I thought about going to Sarajevo,” Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic told reporters. But, he said, “I was supposed to stand beside a plaque that speaks of the ‘Serbian fascist aggressors’. Sorry, with all due respect, I cannot do that.”

Many Bosniaks and Croats see the Austro-Hungarian occupation as a period of progress and Princip as a Serb nationalist driven by the same territorial ambitions as those behind the ethnic cleansing of the 1990s. Occupation was replaced after the Great War by domination from Belgrade under the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

After World War Two, under socialist Yugoslavia, Princip was officially revered as a liberation fighter for all the nations and faiths brought together under Josip Broz Tito.

But Yugoslavia’s disintegration in the 1990s, spawning seven new states, shattered perceptions of the assassin.

Footprints in the pavement marking the spot from which he fired were dug up, with Sarajevans living under sniper fire and mortars fired by Bosnian Serbs trying to carve out an ethnically pure Serb statelet.

The war, fomented by Serbia and Croatia, killed 100,000 people, the large majority of them Bosniaks. Mass graves are still being unearthed.

Princip’s family home in northwest Bosnia was razed, but rebuilt this year by Serbs who plan to open it as a museum. Serb-held East Sarajevo will unveil a statue of the assassin.

The peace deal that ended the 1992-95 war split Bosnia into two highly autonomous regions, divvying up power along ethnic lines in a system that critics say has only cemented divisions.

Slideshow (3 Images)

Political leaders play up differences, despite a greater apparent readiness among Bosnians to move on.

Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, who frequently threatens Serb secession, told reporters: “In suffering and in celebration, we’ve always been on different sides. It speaks to Bosnia’s past, but also to its present.”

(Changes paragraph 3 to read “Browning gun”)

Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Janet Lawrence

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