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WWI assassin still controversial

Updated: 2014-06-28 07:16
By Agence France-Presse in Sarajevo ( China Daily)

Shot that changed history still seen as heroic act by some, treachery by others

Sarajevo marks 100 years since the assassination that triggered World War I on Saturday, but without the leaders of Europe and with its people still torn over the legacy of that fateful day.

Five weeks after a Bosnian Serb nationalist kiled the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Europe's great powers were sucked through a complex network of alliances into four horrific years of war.

 WWI assassin still controversial

Gavrilo Princip is taken into custody after assassinating Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914. Provided to China Daily

The former foes marked the centenary of the attack at Ypres in Belgium, where German forces infamously first made use of mustard gas in 1915, with a low-key ceremony on Thursday during an EU summit.

But plans for heads of state and government to come together in the Bosnian capital on Saturday turned out to be wishful thinking, in light of the old Balkan divisions stirred up by the centenary.

"It would have been impossible to bring everyone (Serbs, Muslims and Croats) together on June 28 in Sarajevo," said the Bosnian Serb historian and diplomat Slobodan Soja.

Wildly differing interpretations of 20th-century history endure in a region scarred by the conflicts that marked the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

And the figure of the archduke's assassin, the 19-year-old Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip, is particularly divisive.

In Sarajevo, the Vienna Philharmonic - symbolic envoy from the capital of a once-loathed empire - will perform on Saturday in the newly rebuilt national library, destroyed during the 1992 siege of the city by Bosnian Serb forces.

The concert is the highlight of a series of cultural and sports events, most run with outside funding from France and the EU.

But there will be little sign of officialdom, from Europe or the Balkans.

Hero or terrorist

The Muslim majority in today's Sarajevo see Princip as a terrorist - all the more loathed for being associated with the Bosnian Serb forces that besieged the city in the 1990s.

"Within the army bombing Sarajevo, Gavrilo Princip was a cult figure," said the Bosnian Muslim historian Husnija Kamberovic.

Two plaques in the city commemorating Princip have been ripped up and a bridge named after him has reverted to its pre-1914 name.

But for Serbs he was a hero seeking to "liberate" Slavs from the Austro-Hungarian occupier.

In 1920, two years after he died in prison, Princip's bones were dug up and brought to Sarajevo to be buried. Until the Balkan wars he was the city's favorite son.

Serbian leaders have refused to join the ceremonies in Sarajevo, resenting the notion that Serb nationalism was to blame for triggering the Great War.

Instead they will hold their own events, backed by Milorad Dodik the president of the Serb part of Bosnia, the Republika Srpska, and the filmmaker Emir Kusturica.

Counter-commemorations will include the unveiling of monuments to Princip in a Serb area of Sarajevo as well as in eastern Bosnia and in Belgrade.

"The events in Sarajevo on June 28 are not meant as an attack on Serbia or the Republika Srpska," said Joseph Zimet, head of the French centenary mission in charge of this week's commemorations.

"And they are not a referendum on Gavrilo Princip," he said.

'Our own war'

Ethnic rivalries aside, ordinary people in Sarajevo - where memories of Bosnia's 1992-95 war and its 100,000 dead are still sharp - view the centenary with some skepticism.

"We have war commemorations here nearly every day - for our own war of the 1990s," said Jasmin Bukaric? a 34-year-old computer technician.

"One day it's for the Muslims, the next day it's the Serbs, then the Croats. All it does is increase the divisions" between the three communities, he said.

Badema Besic, a 63-year-old pensioner, said her main concern was "how to get by on 300 marks ($ 208) each month".

"They are going to have fun and spend money. Yes, they are commemorating a terrible war. But we remember a war that is far more recent."


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