Sarajevo's Siege Remembered

Tour Takes in Bosnia’s Post-War Complexity

By: R. Scott Macintosh

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina My guide, Zijad Jusufovic, stands on the spot where Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his pregnant wife, Archduchess Sophie Chotek, were assassinated in 1914.

He shrugs and spreads his gaunt arms in disbelief, as if the site emanates a mysterious power.

“Maybe here is the center of it all,” he says from the middle of the street.

There is more significance to Ferdinand’s assassination than simply the irony that he was killed on Franz Joseph Street, named after the Austro-Hungarian em-peror. Or the fact that 14 years earlier to the day he was forced to abdicate the royal rights of his unborn children because he married Chotek.

Ferdinand’s assassination, a plot by Serbian nationalists to end Habsburg rule in Bosnia, sparked World War II.

It also might explain some of the reasons behind the most recent war in Bosnia that left 250,000 people dead and 2 million displaced as if the damage spread by that one act would return decades later.

Zijad shows me a photograph of Ferdinand’s killer, a solemn-looking man named Gavrilo Princip. There used to be a black tablet and footprints embedded in the sidewalk representing the assassin’s position when he fired twice into Ferdinand’s open car.

The tablet read:

Here, in this historical place, Gavrilo Princip was the initiator of liberty, on the day of St. Vitus, the 28th of June 1914.

There is added significance that the assassination took place on St. Vitus Day, or Vidovda, which commemorates the 1389 defeat of the Serbs in Kosovo by the Ottoman Turks. Vidovda has been at the center of Serbian nationalist identity for centuries.

In the power grab following the collapse of communist Yugoslavia, President Slobodan Milosevic exploited that sentiment.

By invoking the memory of what happened in Kosovo, he radicalized Serb nationalism in a conquest to build a Greater Serbia, provoking wars in Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia and, finally, Kosovo.

Identity has had a profound impact on the history of Bosnia, which has passed between Christian, Islamic and Orthodox powers. Nowhere else in the Balkans is the weave of ethnic influence so complex.

Zijad’s “Mission Impossible Tour” takes visitors to the heart of Bosnia’s conflict-laden past, with the assassination site just one of the places highlighted in Sarajevo.

A destroyed children’s hospital and mine-pocked hills in the distance are viewed above the empty stadium that hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics.

It’s an eerie contrast of time: In the early 1980s, Sarajevo claimed world spotlight for the games. Ten years later it was the war.

A tunnel that runs under the Sarajevo airport was once the only way to enter and exit the city during the siege of war. It is now a tourist attraction.

The city’s parliament building, now a towering wreck caked with black burn marks and a symbol of the ultimate breakdown of order and civility, is unavoidable.

Zijad’s tour is a modest business built on explaining what happened in Sarajevo and how quickly the country disintegrated after the collapse of communism. It grapples with the burden of history and with the new ghosts that crowd a country where old ones have never faded.

During 1,395-day siege of the city by Serb forces, Princip’s footsteps were destroyed by Muslim citizens who thought the memorial a provocative symbol of Serb nationalism.

Zijad moves from the center of the road and points to a stark-white plaque at the street corner, almost unrecognizable on the side of a building, just inches from the ground. It reads:

From this site on June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip shot at and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie.

“For years after the war there was nothing,” Zijad says. “It was forgotten. Like nobody cared. Nobody cared for history. There is no time for history when you are trying to survive. Then three weeks ago, this appeared.”

But history can be as divisive as anything else in post-war Bosnia. Though the nationalist edge has been removed from the new plaque, its appearance along with plans for a larger museum near the site, have been protested.

“It is officially a museum of the assassination, but there is problem,” Zijad said. “Sarajevo politicians cannot decide about what it will be inside of the museum. Some of them like to present Gavrilo Princip as a hero, and some of them like a criminal. The museum will never be a museum of the assassination. Instead it will be a gallery or museum of homemade products.”

Franz Joseph Street has also been renamed. Since the assassination it has been changed several times, each time to reflect the ruling power.

After 1918 it was the Street of Kings Army. After World War II it was named after the Yugoslav National Army. Now it is Green Berets Street, named after the first organized army unit for an independent Bosnia.

But the changes cannot erase history. And Bosnian society has been so completely ripped apart it seems irreparable, even eight years after the war’s end. Though efforts are made to mend the damage, in some respects they are superficial.

Construction continues on the city’s old town hall. The last photographs taken of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie Chotek alive show them leaving the hall, also known as the Vijecnica.

The hall later became the National Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina and housed 1.5 million volumes, including rare books and manuscripts of the regions’ cultural and ethnic history.

Ninety percent of books were destroyed when the library was shelled.

The physical and psychological damage from the war also remain elsewhere in Bosnia.

In Mostar, fragments of the 427-year-old Stari Most Bridge are being retrieved from the bottom of the Neretva River and pieced back together. Croat forces shelled the ancient bridge in 1993 to cement the ethnic divisions in the city. Two wars raged between the Croats in the west of Mostar and the Muslims to the east.

The bridge will reopen at the end of the year.

Traces of a battleground remain on the road heading north from Mostar. Across a long plateau a water tower pierced by a tank round folds like a giant tin can. Dozens of gutted farmhouses shimmer on the flat horizon.

The road continues through the Dinaric Alps, winding through the Neretva River gorge, a moody landscape of mist and limestone hills.

It passes small villages with the ruins of burnt-out homes. One or two sit among a group of 10. Other places, they fill a hillside.

These shells trace what the world defined as “ethnic cleansing” the systematic removal of an ethnic group, either by forced expulsion or mass execution. They are the chilling evidence of the war’s cruelty.

And though the international community has made great efforts to help war refugees return to their homes, some 367,000 remain displaced.

Minority groups who do return face harassment. Violence toward minority returnees rose in 2002, according to a report by the Commission of European Com-munities. Just last year, three Bosnian-Croats were murdered after returning to Konjic in what the commission said was the gravest single return-related crime since the war.

Mistrust and the stark realization that there will be few opportunities when they return keep many refugees’ houses empty.

In Sarajevo, however, many neighborhoods have returned to the way they were before the war, with Croats, Muslims and Serbs living side by side.

“People can live next to one another,” Zijad says. “They can tolerate each other. But they are not ready to forgive and forget.”

While there is a degree of optimism in Sarajevo simply because the war is in the past, the slow transformation of political, legal and economic structures leaves a sober view of the future.

Unemployment hovers around 41 percent. Twenty percent of the population lives in poverty. Foreign aid, which has fueled the economy in the past, has fallen off. The country’s gross domestic product is half of its pre-war levels. Public spending is excessively high and deficits are running larger. Corruption is widespread.

Zijad takes life with a healthy dose of cynicism, pausing for a long drag of his cigarette.

“We have 3.5 million people and 86,000 bureaucrats,” he says. “There is no economy here. If the foreign organizations leave there will be war one month later. They ask me, ‘What are we doing here? There is no problem here. We don't need a gun.’ I say, ‘It's because all radical elements are afraid of you.’

“No one won the last time. They are waiting to be a winner, because with a winner, a winner makes history.”

Sightseeing Tours

Zijad Jusufovic

Tel/fax: 387-33-235-109

Cell : 387-61-191-880 or 387-61-899-161

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