Sarajevo Assassin’s Gunshot Echoes Across His Birthplace


Around Gavrilo Princip’s home village in
Bosnia, disputes over whether he was a
hero or a terrorist have raised tensions
ahead of the centenary of the outbreak of
World War I.
Alex Kuli BIRN Obljaj
The gunshot that ignited World War I continues
to echo through this mountain-bound village,
stirring up fresh nationalist tensions in a
region still stinging from the ethnic warfare of
the past century.
Obljaj, an ethnic Serb hamlet near Bosnia’s
border with Croatia, is gearing up to celebrate
the 100th anniversary of the day its most
famous son, Gavrilo Princip, assassinated
Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his
wife in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, setting in
motion the events that led to World War I.
In Princip’s birthplace, the peace is now
disturbed only by the clucking hens that run
freely through the unpaved roads.
The house where he was born, which used to
be a museum, was burned down, leaving only a
stone basement where the family kept their
Old utensils from the museum lie rusting in
the yard. The only sign that this was the home
of one of the 20th century’s most significant
figures is a rock into which Princip supposedly
carved his initials in 1909.
But it is nevertheless becoming a locus of
controversy as the centenary of the
assassination approaches.
Nationalists from Bosnia’s Croat community,
which dominates the regional government,
condemn Princip as a terrorist and oppose his
commemoration. Croats are predominantly
Roman Catholic, like the Austrians who
occupied Bosnia before WWI. But local
Orthodox Serbs are determined to celebrate
Princip as a national hero and resent what they
see as Croat efforts to suppress his memory.
“Everyone is trying to transfer events from 100
years ago into the context of today,” said
Kresimir Saric, a municipal councillor in
Bosansko Grahovo, of which Obljaj is part.
“If we continue withthis manner of speaking,
tensions could arise,” he said.
Saric, an ethnic Croat, said that he was not
invited to a ceremony at Grahovo’s Serb
Orthodox Church on April 28 marking the 96th
anniversary of Princip’s death in prison. Guests
included Bishop Atanasije of Bihac-Petrovac,
who invoked the memory of Prince Lazar, the
Serb hero who died fighting Turkish invaders in
A day earlier in Montenegro, leading cleric
Metropolitan Amfilohije hailed Princip as a
“great knight of the Orthodox and Serbian
nation” and drew parallels between his struggle
against Austrian oppression and the
Serbs’recent conflicts with the West.
Meanwhile, Tadija Ljubicic, an ethnic Croat city
councillor in nearby Tomislavgrad, said the
regional authorities’ tolerance of the Princip
commemorations in Grahovo was tantamount
to “spitting on the graves of Croat war
“It is an irrefutable fact that Gavrilo Princip
assassinated the legitimate ruler,” Ljubicic said.
“How else can we describe this kind of person
except as a murderer?” he asked.
Princip’s memory is dividing Bosnians across
the country. Muslim-majority Sarajevo will
mark the centenary with a gala performance
by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Bosnian
Serbs will not take part in any official capacity,
choosing instead to hold their own
The assassin himself might find this ethno-
religious fervour ironic. At his trial in 1914,
Princip declared himself a “Yugoslav
nationalist” whose goal was to unify all South
Slavs. His Young Bosnia revolutionary
movement included Croat and Muslim
He was also an atheist.
The June 28 commemorations will take place in
a landscape that still resembles a war zone
nearly 20 years after the fighting stopped.
Croatian troops laid waste to Grahovo and the
surrounding area in 1995, mayor Uros Makic
The majesty of the Dinaric Alps is littered with
the shells of ransacked houses. The cultural
centre on Grahovo’s main square, named after
Princip, lies in ruins. Across the street stands a
cross honouring the town’s “Croat defenders”,
which has Serb residents fuming.
Regional leaders’ priorities have not included
rebuilding Princip’s house or exploiting the
potential tourist revenue, Makic explained.
Only a tiny sign, barely visible on the side of
the highway, points visitors toward the spot.
“You have to understand the state of Grahovo
after the war. Ninety-eight percent of
residential buildings were destroyed,” he said.
“We couldn’t put up a sign on a ruined house.”
With no local funds available, Grahovo’s Serbs
turned to their ethnic kinfolk in other
countries to finance the reconstruction of
Princip’s house. They managed to raise 52,000
Bosnian marks (26,000 euro), almost all of
which came from donors in Novi Sad in Serbia
and Milwaukee in the US state of Wisconsin,
Makic said.
These funds will cover the cost of rebuilding
the wooden living quarters, but will not be
enough to hire a curator or replace the period
furnishings that used to be in the museum,
said Dara Kesic, who is overseeing the
reconstruction, which is set to wrap up by
“Unfortunately, it could be burned down again.
Some people don’t like the fact that it’s here…
you never know,” Kesic said.
The economic desperation that drove Princip
to revolt against his perceived oppressors
continues to inflict hardship on Grahovo more
than a century later, says Obljaj resident Uros
Djuric, a 60-year-old pensioner known as
Virtually all the young Serbs have left Grahovo
in search of employment, and any available
jobs seem to go to ethnic Croats, he claimed.
He also believes that the regional authorities
have deliberately neglected economic
development in Princip’s birthplace.
“They see Gavrilo as a traitor,” Grof said,
thumbing a dog-eared biography of Princip
over a glass of moonshine liquor at his home.
“They just want Grahovo to die off.”
“Families feel so miserable… they describe this
a place where you just wait for death,” he
As a private tribute, Grof has purchased a
piece of granite upon which he plans to
inscribe a poem that Princip etched in the wall
of his prison cell in Terezin, in the present-day
Czech Republic, where he died of tuberculosis
in 1918. The verse begins:
Time limps along, and there is nothing new
Today is just like yesterday; tomorrow holds
the same in store…
“Those were desperate times 100 years ago, just like today,” Grof said.
“Princip is responsible for killing, that’s for sure. But he was just a kid. He was fighting for

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