Authors: Tim Butcher
Princip’s father, Petar, and mother, Marija, at their Obljaj homestead, circa 1930
Graffiti left by Gavrilo Princip in the garden of his home in Obljaj: his initials, in Cyrillic, and the year, 1909
The journey began with me and Arnie kneeling in roadside grit as we struggled to pack away our last supplies. We had been dropped by car in remotest Herzegovina and, with the noise of the engine dwindling, I heaved my now brick-solid rucksack onto my shoulders and looked around. To the south oozed a great lozenge of pastureland, a magnificent plain veined by watercourses and picketed tightly on all sides by foothills of high mountains. Somewhere over the peaks lay the Mediterranean, cities, motorways, industry and the broadband rush of the twenty-first century. But where we were standing seemed to belong to a rawer, older world order, a place of hard-scrabble rural living.
The hamlet of Obljaj, where Gavrilo Princip was born, is so small it does not register on many maps, but research had led me to the Royal Geographical Society’s subterranean archive in London, where I made a breakthrough. There I found an old and very detailed military map that located Obljaj on the inland flank of the Dinaric Alps, the range that forms the spine at the top of the Balkan Peninsula. Originally printed in 1937, the map presented in rather elegant pastel colours all relevant local features: a clutch of houses built in the lee of a humpback hill offering protection from winter winds, the sweep of the plain of Pasić, the massing of Alps nearby, the meanderings of the Korana River. But this particular map sheet also hinted at something else. Originally printed with Yugoslav army markings, the map was also stamped with a Nazi swastika dated 1941, clumsily overlaid by British military hieroglyphs from the 1950s. This was a place much fought over.
It was a midsummer day, the European sun seldom more powerful, as we set off on foot, the straps of my rucksack, map case and camera bag making me feel like stringed pork-belly roasting in the oven. The village we were looking for turned out to be so small that it was no wonder many maps failed to record it. After ten minutes of walking we turned left up the only lane into Obljaj as the main road continued on its way, gently undulating along the valley floor. We ducked where trees hung low between dry-stone walls sagging with age and walked past hushed farmhouses, open doors suggesting the owners might be within, dodging the formidable heat. Bossy chickens gave the setting its only sense of movement, patrolling in complete safety a gravel track patched by weeds only occasionally disturbed by traffic.
It was the ornate fence that gave away the location of Princip’s birthplace – the mere fact that it had one. No other property in this tiny community was similarly flattered, although those who had erected the commemorative railings fifty years ago might not recognise them any more. The metal was corroded, the foundation wall chipped and the entrance gate missing. The plot lay on the uphill side of the lane, so I wriggled out of my pack, dumped it on the ground to the pecking interest of some beaks, and enjoyed a relieving sense of lightness as I stepped up and into what had once been a busy family compound.
The grass had long since gone to seed, the tips crudely scythed for hay, the remainder meshed into a sprung mattress of tussock. The original farmhouse had never been much more than a hovel and now it was mostly vanished, the only structural relic a roofless, stone-built chamber set into the hillside, where livestock had originally been stabled. The Princip family had lived above, in a plain dwelling of stone walls capped by one of the steeply pitched roofs that were once characteristic of the Western Balkans. Tiled with hand-sawn shingles reaching sharply down from a high peak to a low, raggedy edge, the design always made me think of a wizard’s old hat crammed onto a child’s head. I had seen pictures of the original homestead, but in the wars that have washed over this region during the past century it had been targeted by those hostile to Princip’s memory.
It did not take long to walk around the garden, which was little larger than a tennis court. Nettles and summer weeds grew tall inside the ruined basement, sprouting through rain-smoothed heaps of collapsed masonry and oddments of broken roof tile. At first sight there appeared to be nothing to indicate this place had any significance at all. But then I spotted the wreaths – three of them, long past their prime, with withered leaves and plastic wrappers moth-wing fragile from overexposure to the sun. Propped against the inside wall of the basement, only the tops reached out from the undergrowth, so I had to stamp away nettles and bend down to look. There were no cards, but for me they still bore a clear meaning – someone, somewhere wanted to remember.
The rear of the plot was marked by a retaining wall of rocks mostly felted with green moss. One of the larger stones was bare and on its flat, grey face my fingers were able to touch something missed by those who had sought to erase the memory of the young man born here. In three-inch-high letters I could make out the initials ‘G.P.’, graffiti scratched into the rock face by a young Gavrilo Princip, and the date ‘1909’.
The discovery was electrifying, a direct link to my quarry, so I spent several moments picturing the young boy who had earnestly left his mark here more than a hundred years ago. Arnie had been busy introducing himself to a young boy who had appeared in front of the property next door, a house that was clearly inhabited, albeit with walls unplastered and doorframes unpainted. Rural homes in Bosnia are often works-in-progress, constantly being developed with extensions and conversions so that members of the wider family have a place to stay. But the war of the 1990s had added greatly to this phenomenon, with so many communities destroyed that, approaching twenty years since the fighting finished, entire villages still have an air of jerry-built incompletion.
‘Come over here,’ Arnie called. ‘You will want to meet this family.’
People were now emerging from all corners of the house, rubbing day-rest from their eyes. Two elderly men, one leaning heavily on a stick, came out of the front door; a nervous-looking grandmother in a black headscarf approached no further than the doorjamb; a large man in his fifties bustled half-dressed down an external staircase, pulling on a sleeveless shirt; and the young boy to whom Arnie had first spoken had been joined by another, who seemed to pop up from some sort of cellar. I got a strong sense that visitors were a rarity.
‘May I introduce the last Princips living in Obljaj,’ Arnie said, his voice a blend of pride and surprise.
One by one, he went through the names, as chairs were arranged for us on a shaded section of the verandah and space cleared from a clutter of hay rakes, scythes and other equipment used for subsistence farming. They were all members of the Princip clan. Miljkan was the one with the walking stick, a tall man, hard of hearing, moustachioed grey. Aged eighty-two, he sat next to his brother, Nikola, five years his junior, much slighter and shorter, with the habit of looking at you from the corner of his eye. The shy woman was Miljkan’s wife, Mika, also in her late seventies, and the younger man his son, a fleshy, shaven-headed fifty-one-year-old called Mile. It was Mile who emerged as the most talkative, engaging with us enthusiastically, after Arnie’s explanation of our plan to follow the journey of his ancestor.
‘I am the one who likes to keep the family tradition alive,’ Mile said. ‘So although I was baptised Mile, I like to use a better-known name. Have a look at this.’ He showed me a book of poetry he had written in tribute to his famous forebear, the back-cover biography spelling out the author’s preferred name. I have only an elementary grasp of Cyrillic, so it took a bit of lip-synching and finger-tracking to work out that he wrote under the nom de plume of Gavrilo Mile Princip. The text went on to say, rather portentously, that living in Obljaj was both ‘a curse and a duty’ for the writer.
My repeated mentions of their famous ancestor seemed to animate the whole group and it was Miljkan who spoke next, his voice husky from age, but his recollection convincingly sharp of the young man he referred to affectionately as Gavro.
‘I was born here in 1930 and although Gavro was already dead by that time, I remember both his parents well and the house over there where they lived.’ The old man was now looking in the direction of the stable-like ruin set into the hillside next door. ‘His parents would sit and take coffee outside the front on sunny days and talk of Gavro. I remember listening to the stories from when I was about the same age as this chap.’ He waved his cane at the youngest of the boys, his four-year-old grandson, Vuk, who was earnestly trying to follow the discussion.
I was delighted to meet them, greeting everyone formally and shaking hands. Princip had died childless and, during my months of research, I had committed a lot of time to seeking in vain any surviving relatives. From my computer terminal in South Africa I got rather excited when I found fifty-three Gavrilo Princips registered on Facebook, so I wrote to them all. All I got was a nasty note from site administrators saying that my account could be suspended for sending out unsolicited messages. The closest I had come to contacting a member of this family was tracking a distant relative, an elderly man living over the hills to the north-east in the Bosnian city of Banja Luka. I mentioned him and, as one, my new acquaintances dropped their gaze. Arnie translated their collective mumblings.
‘That man lost his son in the fighting of the 1990s,’ Arnie said quietly, his head tracking between the contributions emerging from all sides. ‘The young man is buried in the family plot here in the village. Apparently the father never recovered from his grief. He is still in mourning. He cannot move on. A sad business. A tragedy. His anger has no end.’
I veered the conversation away from the recent war and towards safer, older territory, explaining that Arnie and I hoped to walk all the way to Bugojno, just as Princip had done with his father in 1907 when they trekked to the railhead before taking the train to Sarajevo. This prompted an immediate and busy discussion. Mile said that the closest station to Obljaj was not in Bugojno, which lies roughly a hundred miles by road to the east, but in the opposite direction at a place called Strmica, twenty miles to the west. People then all spoke at once, but it was old Miljkan putting his hand on his son’s knee who settled the matter. ‘The railway line to Strmica only went down to the coast of Dalmatia,’ he said. ‘To go inland, to go to Sarajevo, you needed the railway that started at Bugojno. It was the first line in the country, built by the Austro-Hungarians.’
‘In which case,’ Mile said, ‘you will have a tough old time. It’s a long, mountain walk to Bugojno and the most direct route takes you right over Šator.’ He pointed his arm out straight and flat in the direction of the mountains to the south-east and then tipped it upwards at a steep angle.
‘Šator means “tent”,’ Arnie explained. ‘Basically we are going to have to climb Tent Mountain.’ From the village, the edges of the open pastureland on the valley floor appeared trimmed all around by dark-green slopes but, over in the direction Mile was pointing, it was possible to see a rockier peak much further away, pale and haughty above the valley sides.
The family history was kept like a rosary by the last Princips in Obljaj, polished in the retelling, a chain strung with fact, memory and myth, reassuring for later generations in its completeness and circularity. It did not presume to tell the whole history of the south Slavs, but it did give clues about key themes that shaped the development of the Western Balkans. I spent the rest of that summer day with the Princips, only moving to keep up with the shade tracking across the verandah, listening closely to the full story – the Director’s Cut, if you like. It took hours as everyone, even young Novak, Nikola’s eight-year-old grandson, took turns to offer up links in the chain of memories.
The Princips were not from Obljaj originally, but instead trace their roots to the rugged mountain badlands of Montenegro far to the south. Their arrival here in the middle of the eighteenth century formed part of the gradual ethnic division of the region’s south-Slav population. It was a split predominantly defined not by language, culture, costume or physical appearance, all of which remained very similar across the local population, but by faith.
The modern history of the Western Balkans began roughly halfway through the first millennium, with the collapse of ancient Rome and the arrival in the area of a dominant population of Slavs, one of the many mass migrations from further east that populated much of Europe. Long before the tight modern concept of today’s nation state, national identity was then defined most strongly through religion, and in the Western Balkans the south-Slav arrivals found themselves atop some of the great faith fault lines of medieval Europe. Those who were converted to Orthodox Christianity by missionaries sent from Byzantium, the eastern relic of the collapsed Roman Empire, came to identify themselves as Serb. Those further north who converted to Catholicism, as professed by Western Christian followers of the papacy in Rome, would come to regard themselves as Croat. Other early versions of Christianity – such as Bogomilism, a medieval church that emphasised ritual over hierarchy – thrived here after the start of the second millennium, later to be denounced and persecuted as heresies by the more established streams.
Halfway through the second millennium, as the Middle Ages drew to a close, Islam would bring its influence to the Balkan Peninsula when it fell to Turkish forces from Asia Minor. These were outriders of the Ottoman Empire that replaced Byzantium, renaming as Istanbul the old Byzantine capital of Constantinople. A significant proportion of local Slavs in Bosnia would convert to Islam, progenitors of the Bosnian Muslim population of today. Jostling for pre-eminence among different streams of Christianity would come to influence the history of the Balkan Peninsula, but in Bosnia the evolution of a large Slav Muslim population added another dimension to the rivalry.
Miljkan touched on this tussle when he described how members of his family from Montenegro had ended up so much further north here in Bosnia. They were Serbs, south Slavs who had adopted Orthodox Christianity; a people who had flourished so richly in the Middle Ages that they staked some of the Western Balkans as their own nation, Serbia. It was ruled by a succession of kings, tsars and despots, with a Church so powerful that it seeded the area with some of the most venerable monasteries and reliquaries of Christendom. Independence for Serbia lasted until the occupation by invading Ottoman Turks in the fifteenth century. By the time Miljkan’s ancestors moved to Bosnia in around 1750, Serbia as an independent state was almost 300 years dead, a distant source of legend and myth kept alive by stories told around the hearth.