Read The Trigger Online

Authors: Tim Butcher

The Trigger

BOOK: The Trigger
7.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

The Trigger


Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart

Chasing the Devil: The Search for Africa’s Fighting Spirit

The Trigger

Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War

Tim Butcher

Grove Press

New York

Copyright © 2014 by Tim Butcher

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Scanning, uploading, and electronic distribution of this book or the facilitation of such without the permission of the publisher is prohibited. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated. Any member of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or anthology, should send inquiries to Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 154 West 14th Street, New York, NY 10011 or [email protected]

First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Chatto & Windus an imprint of Random House

Published simultaneously in Canada

Printed in the United States of America

ISBN 978-0-8021-2325-1

eISBN 978-0-8021-9188-5

Jacket front photography: Gavrilo Princip © Topfoto;

Background map: © the National Archive of Bosnia and Hercegovina;

Bottom photograph: The Illustrated London News Picture Library, London,

UK /The Bridgeman Art Library

Grove Press

an imprint of Grove/ Atlantic, Inc.

154 West 14th Street

New York, NY 10011

Distributed by Publishers Group West

14 15 16 17 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

For my greatest shapers

Stanley and Lisette



Note on Pronunciation

CHAPTER 1 Fresh Flotsam
CHAPTER 2 A Troublesome Teenager
CHAPTER 3 The Wild West
CHAPTER 4 Over Tent Mountain
CHAPTER 5 Fishing in a Minefield
CHAPTER 6 Rocking Bosnia
CHAPTER 7 The Fall of Gabriel

CHAPTER 8 Fin-de-siècle Chat Rooms

CHAPTER 9 A Mystical Journey
CHAPTER 10 Arming the Trigger

CHAPTER 11 An Assassin’s Luck

CHAPTER 12 More Than One Shadow
List of Illustrations

Notes and Bibliography



The anglicised version of Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian spelling has been used in The Trigger. Pronunciation largely follows that of English letters although with the following exceptions:

c – is ts as in tsar. Hence the name Princip is pronounced Printsip

j – is y as in yam. Hence the town Jajce is pronounced Yaitsay

č – is ch as in scratch. Hence the town Glamoč is pronounced Glamotch

ć – is a softer ch. Hence the name Filipović is pronounced Filipovich

r – can be used as a rolled r vowel sound as in purr. Hence the Vrbas River is pronounced Vurrbas

š – is sh as in shin. Hence the word for tent, šator, is pronounced shator

dž – is a hard j as in gin. Hence the name Džile is pronounced Jillay

dj – is a soft j as in jack. Hence the name Hadji is pronounced Hajee

ž – is a yet softer j as in pleasure. Hence the name Draža is pronounced Drarjer

The Trigger

Gavrilo Princip’s war-damaged tomb


This story springs from many sources, but the most powerful one for me was a discovery I made at a street market in Sarajevo, back when the city was under siege in 1994. I was a young reporter sent by the Daily Telegraph to cover the Bosnian War, which had begun two years earlier in this land of mountain and myth. Shelling had often made it too dangerous for civilians to venture outside in their capital city, but during a lull in the firing I joined locals as they reclaimed the streets. One afternoon I walked into an open area busy with people reduced by the war to selling possessions laid out in piles across unswept pavements. Pickings were meagre: half-worn brake pads from cars that had not run in years, a set of taps unused because of no mains water. I took a photograph of an elderly man sitting under an umbrella, shaded from the July sun, as he sold cigarettes one by one.

And then I noticed people occasionally slipping away from the market to visit a stone building on the edge of a nearby cemetery. I went to explore.

It was about the size of an electricity substation, a modest structure with a box design, easy to overlook. It wore the livery of so many wartime buildings in Sarajevo: a cavity from what appeared to be an artillery strike, terracotta roof tiles rucked out of alignment, the door ripped from its hinges, its frame pockmarked by shrapnel. I followed the market-goers and, in the summer heat, my sense of smell told me from some distance what was going on. They were using it as a makeshift lavatory. My diary recorded it in malodorous detail:

The graveyard was unkempt but I was not prepared for what I found … The floor was just a sea of turds. Amongst the mess were dozens of used sanitary towels, a bra and lots of rubbish. A tombstone lay smashed in two on the floor and the light hung wrecked from the ceiling which had a gaping hole in it.

But what made me curious was that the building was clearly some sort of chapel. A cross was visible above the doorway. Why be so disrespectful of a religious site?

I found the answer on a piece of black marble set into an external wall. It was a commemoration stone bearing the date 1914 and some Cyrillic text, including a list of names. At the top of the list, in the most prominent position, was one that jumped out at me: , Gavrilo Princip.

When I went to Sarajevo for the first time as a reporter, a single thought kept coming to me: this was where the event took place that triggered the First World War, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip. As a schoolboy I remember struggling to pronounce the killer’s name, but as I grew older my understanding of the crisis he precipitated became clearer – millions of lives lost in a clash so colossal it reshaped the world. Yet the Bosnian War of the 1990s seemed far removed from the fighting of the Great War, a localised, ethnic conflict in the Balkans, a region synonymous in Western eyes with impenetrability, backwardness and violence. For much of the twentieth century Bosnia had been one of the component parts of Yugoslavia, but when its leaders in Sarajevo sought to create their own separate country they clashed with the Serbian authorities who dominated the Yugoslav nation and who opposed the break-up. Tens of thousands were to die in fighting that, if you took away the helicopters, wire-guided missiles and satellite navigation systems, seemed to belong to an earlier, more brutal age: deliberate attacks on civilians, torching of homes, systematic rape, genocide.

Sarajevo was where many of the Bosnian War’s defining horrors took place. In early exchanges, forces commanded by Bosnian Serb hardliners had been able to secure only a few of Sarajevo’s peripheral suburbs, so they withdrew to the high ground that presses in on this cupped hand of a city and set about imposing one of the cruellest sieges in modern warfare. The lights went out, taps ran dry and supplies dwindled to a trickle, condemning 400,000 Sarajevans to survive on the collapsing skeleton of their home town. Their tormentors suffered no such supply problems and were able to dictate the nature and pace of their assault.

With their soldiers on the frontlines unable to advance, Bosnian Serb commanders sought to wear down their enemy by pounding them with artillery dug in on the nearby hilltops. When they ran out of military targets they kept on firing, wantonly destroying religious buildings, assembly halls, hospitals, newspaper offices, libraries – anything that contributed, no matter how marginally, to Bosnia’s nascent sense of national identity. And when they ran out of those, they kept up their barrage, firing with deliberate cruelty – actions that were later to be successfully prosecuted as war crimes – into residential areas. With grim inevitability, many of Sarajevo’s bloodiest incidents took place as civilians were cut down by shells when they emerged from cover for essential supplies: queuing for bread, waiting at a standpipe for water, crowding market stalls whenever smugglers made it into the city.

As a foreign correspondent, peacock-proud to be covering my first full conflict, I was kept busy by a city that seemed to bookend the bloodletting of the twentieth century. I was witness to a conflict that realigned the way the modern world fought. NATO would go to war in Bosnia, for the first time in its history, changing fundamentally the international community’s willingness to intervene. And the Bosnian War would spill further into the future, its battlefields a training ground for jihadists who would take part in the 9/11 attacks on America.

Disturbed by what I was seeing, I read everything I could find about Bosnia’s background to try and understand the source of the conflict. History seemed to loom over Sarajevo from the same heights held by the Bosnian Serb gunners, as I learned of complex colonial and religious influences that had pulled the local Slav population in different directions through the ages. Lying where Europe’s south-eastern fringe comes up against influences from Asia Minor, Bosnia had a back-story dominated for hundreds of years by foreign occupation, first by the Ottoman Empire, then by Austria–Hungary (otherwise known as the Habsburg Empire). Although its people shared the same language and cultural roots, cleavages over the centuries had created three identifiable groups: Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims. I read repeatedly how the era of foreign domination had been ended by the First World War when a new nation, Yugoslavia, emerged out of the fighting, one that allowed local Slavs to rule themselves for the first time in the modern era. In all my research the role of Gavrilo Princip appeared settled: the backwoodsman from the Bosnian hinterland who brought freedom to his people by sparking the war that finally swept away foreign control.

So why were Sarajevans now desecrating the tomb of someone who fought for their freedom? Gavrilo Princip was a Bosnian Serb – the same ethnicity as the extremists attacking the city – but spite alone could not explain what I had found. There had to be more to it.

Fresh Flotsam

Uncle Alyn

No 62 Squadron. Uncle Alyn stands fifth from the left

In other wars more people have died, more nations been involved and the world brought closer to annihilation, but somehow the First World War retains a dread aura all of its own. The guns fell silent all those years ago, but like a refrain that stays with the audience long after the music stops, the First World War has a returning power. So monumental was the suffering, so far-reaching the influence on history that the war still generates reward not just for writers, academics and artists, but for people simply learning about themselves, their bloodlines, their place. The Great War’s power lies with the suspicion that its impact has yet to be fully understood.

I was born in Britain half a century after the fighting ended, yet the First World War has always been thereabouts, a background presence shaping me and my setting, a founding sequence in my make-up. Often it was so faint it was difficult to discern: the whittling of one’s own self through the loss of a distant ancestor. Occasionally it spiked: in my teens sitting with my mother as she wept through the Festival of Remembrance televised each year from the Royal Albert Hall in London. But a war from a hundred years ago remains relevant enough to intrude on our todays through a sense that closure has perhaps yet to be reached. The moral clarity that framed the Second World War’s struggle against Nazi totalitarianism, or the Cold War’s friction between right and left, seems to evade the earlier conflict. The question, ‘Was it right to go to war in 1914?’ can be answered in many ways, through bullet points or lengthy treatises, but I wonder if any answer is totally convincing. This is what keeps the First World War so charged – the unease born of doubt as to whether the sacrifice was worthwhile. For me, this is what transforms so powerfully the words of Laurence Binyon, plain enough by themselves, but, when delivered on a raw November morning to a gathering of people wearing red paper poppies, they ache from what might have been: We Will Remember Them.

In the small Northamptonshire village where I grew up, the First World War was remembered in glass. Hellidon was too small to have shops, so the community revolved, as it had for centuries, around the church of St John the Baptist, a modest but stolid place of worship in keeping with the village’s position at the middle of Middle England. Built of locally quarried ironstone, St John’s was chilly-damp in winter, yet on summer nights the butterscotch masonry bled warmth from the day’s baking in the sun. It was old enough to have known fighting; indeed, my childish imagination was fired by stories about the runnels that flute the stone arch in the portico. I was told they had been left by seventeenth-century noblemen sharpening their swords before battle in the Civil War.

BOOK: The Trigger
7.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Frayed by Pamela Ann
The Year of Shadows by Claire Legrand
The End of Days by Helen Sendyk
The Hinky Bearskin Rug by Jennifer Stevenson
Devil's Food Cake by Josi S. Kilpack
Thera by Jonathan G. Meyer