Heads turn here. No longer for a glimpse of visiting royals… Not at the shock of shots. One hundred years since the wearer of a feathered hat slumped against his dying wife in their open-topped car, this is history’s junction. The silt-heavy Miljacka flows past, too shallow to drown an assassin and his bungling accomplices. The disturbance as the culprits were apprehended, choking on non-lethal doses of cyanide, has dissipated among the city’s ghosts.
Now there are just pedestrians, checking the traffic. The impatient gauging their distance from the oncoming tram before they dash across the road. Those prepared to wait glance to make sure the boy racer roaring along the quay in a turbo diesel hits the brakes at the red light. You never know. He could be the son of a politician. Festina lente, as it says on the new bridge downstream – požuri polako in Bosnian tempo. At least dodgy drivers are ordinary hazards. Unlike the sniper-fire that hailed on Sarajevo in the nineties. Or the bullets that heralded the Great War.
They stand at ‘the street corner that started the twentieth century’. So the poster wrapped around the museum proclaims.
‘But it started in 1900.’
Their eldest child questions the logic of the notice. Yet she grasps its metaphor. She’s five years younger than Gavrilo Princip was when he raised his weapon. And took aim. He glowers – a hollow-cheeked teenager – above the entrance. Franz Ferdinand’s whiskers curl on the other side of the building. His stare inspects the river as it gurgles through the capital of his empire’s annexation.
A thunderstorm threatens. The air has grown oppressive. The vibe between the couple on Latinska ćuprija is tempestuous. That’s become their norm – a dynamic of power and revolt. It wasn’t always like this. But difficult years have led them to their July crisis. She feels she’s borne the brunt of it… as a woman, as the mother of his children. The balance that was vital to their marriage has been shaken.
‘You’re as smug as he was.’
She casts a rueful eye at the archduke. ‘His highness.’
Exasperated, he invokes a dead dictator – now icon whose omniscience may extend to secessionist wives. As if that’ll stop her launching into another of her tirades… She blames him, by default, for much of what’s gone wrong. These days he hasn’t a clue what she wants. Nor does she.
Freedom? Or maybe just to be free to be lovers again. Like the first time they came together to Sarajevo. It was 1996. He was returning to his war-wrecked hometown. She was enthralled by the indestructible beauty beneath the ruins. The city was rooted in him and they were joined by its trauma. But, full of joy, they were reckless. At the crenellated husk of the national library, he’d pulled her away from the dust of incinerated words. Even today, you must be wary of the unexploded. Especially in more isolated areas.
‘Don’t pee on a landmine.’
She’d instructed their youngest daughter a few days earlier. Half joke, half advice for the inevitable emergency as they reached an ancient fort atop a peak in Herzegovina. The thrills of travelling with kids! From flying back like swallows every summer, their children are familiar with the drill. The chances of detonation by urination may be slim. Particularly for girls. If you’ve got to the point of squatting, you’re probably OK. As a rule, though, it’s safer not to walk on the grass. Unless you’re with someone who knows the territory.
Bosnia remains a wounded country. Under the arched doorway of Vijećnica, a plaque testifies to an attack at the end of August 1992. The text is short but rancorous. It states that over two million books, periodicals and documents were consumed by flames. Irreplaceable thought and learning lost. But the edifice has finally been restored. The former city hall, which later became a repository of literature, gleams anew. An architectural jewel – connoisseurs remark on how its Austro-Hungarian grandeur adopts a ‘Moorish’ style. That meeting of East and West, a taste of the Orient in Europe… It’s been lavished with such stereotypical praise. The bricks are striped in shades of Bajadera nougat – hints of almond, hazelnut. Inside, the foyer rises to a hexagon of sky. She looks up, into its stained glass floral patterns. Dizzy, she sniffs back tears.
This was where Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were received. In between two attempts to slay them – the second of which was successful. Some say that carelessness was their graces’ downfall. Flouncing around, they seemed blasé about security. You’d wonder why they headed to this peripheral province. It’s fanciful, but did the Habsburg heir and the humbler Duchess of Hohenberg think of their trip as a romantic break? A myth, yet it wouldn’t have been a bad way to escape Viennese snobbery and Emperor’s disdain for his niece-in-law. Poor old Soph… She always felt sorry for the forgotten collateral spouse. The role of snaha – female relative by marriage – isn’t easy.
Maybe she should’ve rebelled. Although often struggles only cause more pain, even if this was never their intention. Take Princip. His motives might be debatable, but he didn’t set out to spark a worldwide bloodbath. Hapless lad or terrorist, he died one-armed and tubercular – a prisoner in Theresienstadt – before the end of the war his actions had ignited. While millions of young men like him were gunned down, shelled and gassed.
‘Can we go to see the statue?’
‘The one they put up this year.’
She saw it on the news in Ireland. The British channels covered the story at the kick-off of their World War I commemoration fest. Most cameras focused on the assassination site on the Latin Bridge. But some lenses zoomed out further, to a monument erected in East Sarajevo. Aka Lukavica. Across entity lines, après la guerre, this erstwhile suburb appropriated the city name in a manner sounding rather Berlinesque. It’s not too hard to bypass. After a scattering of buildings, the road melts back among farms and thicketed countryside. This is the chunk of Bosnia defined as ‘Republika Srpska’ by the Dayton Peace Agreement. Detached red-roofed houses accommodate generations, floor upon floor.
Quiet, she gazes out the passenger window. Thinking of the unsaid between the pair of them… Cornflowers and bindweed mingle with garden gladioli. Errant petals brighten fences that can’t enclose roaming hens. In pastures beside some farmhouses a few cows graze. At one driveway a guard dog lies chained. Lazing in the heat, he shows no interest in his charge – an incarcerated beast.
‘Oh my God, a bear!’
The children jump at her shout, straining to see if she’s right. But they missed it. They’re clamouring to go back. Their father isn’t pleased about having to do a U-turn on a dangerous bend. He doesn’t believe her. Now she’s hoping that the creature really is ursine. Otherwise he’ll devour her. Though who could imagine something so bizarre? They pull in tight along the verge outside the residence of – yes – a captive bear. It seems crazed, pacing up and down an iron cage. He gets out for a closer look. The animal lumbers into the hut at the top of its rusted confines. As if it’s scared of humans.
‘And wolves! Vukovi!’
The kids yell at two wildish dogs slinking across the overgrown lawn into wooden kennels. They’re leaner than the German shepherd sprawled on sentry duty. Grey-backed, buff at the chest, their legs are longer than those of domestic mutts. Their snouts are pointier too. Čuvaj se psa – ‘beware of the dog’ – reads the sign at the gate. An understatement, considering the menagerie, but they’re more nervous about the pet collector. One of those ‘bear-like’ Balkanites who populate foreign commentary on this region? Luckily it appears that nobody’s at home. So they won’t have to explain their borderline trespass. This mini-zoo isn’t open to the public.
Then they resume their search for Princip. Though there’s no way it can compete with the attraction of neighbourhood fauna. But first, a stop for coffee… In a café called ‘Dublin’. It’s got the Irish flag printed on its sugar sachets and a window adorned with a scene from O’Connell Street. The waiter has no idea what inspired its Hibernian theme but he gives them clear directions to the statue. They find Gavrilo lording over a park across from rows of apartment blocks. He’s been upgraded from the sullen waif with a pistol stuck in his pants or drawn from the worn lining of his jacket. Here he poses, broad-shouldered, above his Cyrillic name. A wilting yellow bloom in one hand and ribbons in Serbian colours in the other, he seems a bit too burly, too mature.
A pensioner in a blue singlet addresses her as ‘young lady’ – a welcome compliment for a mother of three kids. The old guy wants a photo with his hero. It’s a quaint request in the selfie era. She takes a couple of snapshots. He’ll bring them back to America, where he’s lived for fifteen years. Questions about why he left his homeland float unuttered. She guesses he’s more ex-communist than war criminal. She could be misjudging him. He might be neither. Or both. They talk about Ireland. She tells him the First World War was virtually deleted from Irish history. Until it got a retro-trendy revamp. Mostly for the sake of diplomacy, so that heads of state can honour… what? Heinous waste. The futility of fighting is tangible in the damage still visible throughout Bosnia. And lodged in innumerable hidden scars.
Any hope of ‘Stoljeće mira nakon stoljeća ratova’? ‘A Century of Peace after the Century of Wars’ – the title of a multimedia spectacle performed on 28 June. Back in the city centre its promotional banner hangs across the main street. Almost one month later it’s beginning to sag, eclipsed by an advert for the Film Festival and a Bajram greeting from the Islamic Community. A few more days until the end of Ramadan… At sunset each evening, cannon-shot rings out from a mosque in the old town. There’s an intake of breath before the muezzin’s call confirms it was fired in worship, not in warfare. Or maybe that’s just her over-reaction. Based on what she remembers – the blast of homemade explosives, the numbing thud of mortars. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that a girl from ‘bandit country’ got involved with a guy from Sarajevo.
Their birthplaces are, officially, at peace. Armed conflict has shifted from Bosnia and Northern Ireland, back to the Middle East. Gaza under bombardment, Iraq riven apart… After over three years of carnage, Syria’s cries are ignored. So are those of other neglected ‘civil’ wars. The ‘fortunate’ get a fast-fading media spot, a flurry of hashtags – #PrayFor all in the plane that was blown to scraps of fuselage over Ukraine. They die as images ogled in cyberspace. But does the world give a toss about these viral martyrs, any more than it does about those who are mourned off-line? And even when outrage goes beyond a ‘share’ or a ‘retweet’ it seems so ineffective. The cronies of today’s great powers protect their interests regardless. As people are slaughtered.
‘Like in Srebrenica.’ He stubs out his cigarette.
‘Yeah, it’s happening again.’
The headstones in the cemetery at Potočari date lives cut short in July 1995. White marble, except for the green wood stumps which mark where remains were buried on the recent anniversary – the earth is still fresh around them. The youngest of this year’s 175 identified victims was only fourteen, the age of their first-born. Over 6,000 others have already been laid to rest. Of the 8,372 known to have been massacred. The men and boys of entire families wiped out in a ‘safe haven’… under the watch of the United Nations.
They’re recorded in lengthy columns bearing the same surnames. Even if they can be seen and heard no more, their existence is inscribed on a crescent of giant slabs. Graves stretch into the hills and the horror can’t be counted. But there’s a presence. And its weight is what visitors carry with them. Forever. A reminder. In front of the rose-rimmed gathering space, a fountain gently weeps. He holds out his hands in Muslim prayer. She blesses herself. Useless gestures… Yet this place demands them. Humanity has failed here. So has God, many would argue, though men did the killing.
Confronting the reality of genocide stifles personal strife. They leave in silence. Their children are no strangers to Bosnian graveyards, but the little one whispers at the exit:
‘Mama, are there any wars in Ireland?’
‘No, lovie. Not now.’ She hugs the worried child. ‘There used to be… A long time ago.’
The twentieth century is aeons away for kids of the twenty-first. Though, with her Arabic name and big, dark eyes, their youngest could pass for Palestinian or Syrian. And all three of them look Bosnian – post-war by the serendipity of the decade of their birth. A peaceful childhood, it’s the least that they deserve. Everyday disputes seem so petty in Srebrenica.
A land of tough love – the spectre of war gives a sharp sense of perspective. In Bosnia, you don’t quarrel about what can still be mended. They want to fix things but, when passion sours to bitter accusation, it’s impossible. Enemies are often those who had the most in common. Rebuilding any relationship, whether intimate or international, needs trust… and commitment.
‘You must be strong.’
She’s been told. She resents the implication that stoical strength is a female obligation. Along the lines of ‘stay alive for our children’… or whatever Franz said to Sophie when she was fatally injured. But, by then, he was also doomed. Perhaps, for all their aristocratic flaws, there’s truth to the legend of their closeness.
‘This might be my last time in Sarajevo.’
He doesn’t listen, doesn’t want to hear. It shatters her to admit this about a city that’s seduced her, somewhere so ingrained in their children. A place that’s been their link for twenty years, since the siege… They could surrender to the friction that’s escalated between them. Break up. Balkanise. Be done with each other for good. She’s barricaded her heart in self-defence. Yet she wishes she could grab his sun-steeped hand and waltz away with him. To rediscover their kiss, to try to reconcile.