© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Sarajevo Celebrates WWI Centennial With Joy And The Macabre


I'm Scott Simon. One hundred years ago today, a 19-year-old named Gavrilo Princip fired two shots that rocked the world. He shot and killed the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, along with the archduchess, Sophie, as they rode a car through Sarajevo.

The anger and entangling alliances that followed lit a fuse that blew up into what became World War I just a month later. NPR's Ari Shapiro has been in Sarajevo all week reporting on events leading up to this day and he joins us now. Ari, thanks for being with us.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: It's good to talk to you, Scott.

SIMON: What's the scene in Sarajevo like today?

SHAPIRO: The scene's changed a lot just in the last couple of days. There are now camera crews all over the old city of Sarajevo. The Latin bridge next to the side of the assassination has turned into a huge stage that has gone up just practically overnight.

On that street corner where Ferdinand was shot 100 years ago was a deli, today it's a museum. They've now put a replica of the car the Archduke was riding in on June 28th, 1914. And so you've got tourists hopping into the car, posing, taking pictures, selfies. It's a very strange juxtaposition of the kind of joyful, frivolous celebration and the macabre marking of this assassination.

Sarajevo's seen so much history, but I remember just a single pretty simple plaque that's on the north end of the Latin bridge, over the Miljacka River, that seems to me to mark the shooting without glorifying it.

Yes, and that plaque is still there, but it turns out it's the latest in a string of about half a dozen monuments to Gavrilo Princip. And they have gone up and come down in almost at that exact spot for the last 100 years because you find this intense tug-of-war over his legacy whether he is a hero or a villain, a freedom fighter or a terrorist.

And as the power changes in Sarajevo, which, as you know, it has done a lot in the last 100 years, people put up new monuments, tear down the old ones. Even today, I have found that talking to people in the old city, people have opinions about Gavrilo Princip.

If you ask Muslims or Croats what they think of him, more often than not you'll hear that he was a terrorist whose actions were inexcusable. If you're talking to Serbs, they're more likely to describe him as a hero who was fighting to overthrow the oppressive empire.

SIMON: What kind of observances are planned today?

SHAPIRO: Local officials are trying to steer away from that political debate and more towards the cultural.


SHAPIRO: Scott, what you're listening to here is a rehearsal I sat in on it for a show that's going to take place just before midnight tonight. The theatrical director, Haris Pasovic, told me he's working with 300 performers from 12 countries I asked him what role artists should play at a moment like this and he said the artist always plays the same role - we entertain people and by entertaining people, we tell the truth, he said.

HARIS PASOVIC: The 20th century was the century of wars. And we want to send a message of a new beginning from Sarajevo from the same side, on the same date, 100 years later and that's the message of love.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: Sarajevo, Sarajevo, Sarajevo. (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: There are also movies as part of the commemoration. "Bridges of Sarajevo" had a red carpet premiere last night. This is a collection of short films, spanning 100 years in this city from the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand to the present day.

But this is all happening in a country with very dysfunctional government and high unemployment, where many people struggle just to get by. So plenty of locals question these fancy events. Even some artists are skeptical, like the music producer Edin Zubcevic.

EDIN ZUBCEVIC: We are people who celebrate, commemorate something and we are not able to get close to the reason to be happy and to celebrate.

SHAPIRO: So I put this question to Sarajevo's mayor, Ivo Komsic. In the last few days, I've spoken with many people in Sarajevo who say the 100 year anniversary has nothing to do with us. What we need is jobs and food. We don't need the Vienna Philharmonic. What do you say to those people?

IVO KOMSIC: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: This the first time I heard something like this, he said. And I'm not a person who drives around in a car. I walk around this city and speak with people and nobody says that.

He told me people are thrilled with everything that's going on. He said most of the pictures from Sarajevo over the last 100 years are suffering and in pain, and now he wants the world to have different pictures of the city.

SHAPIRO: This is an art exhibition in a mostly abandoned underground shopping mall. It's 100 posters commemorating the 100th anniversary of the shot that triggered World War I. One says happy anniversary and it has a champagne bottle but instead of a cork popping out of the bottle, it's a bullet.

Many of these posters reference not only World War 1 100 years ago, but the Balkan war that ended just about 20 years ago. One poster says, simply, Sarajevo and the dot on the J is a blood spatter.

SIMON: All right. The siege of Sarajevo is a much bigger event at the minds of Sarajevans than this anniversary in a sense, isn't it?

SHAPIRO: Absolutely. Even 20 years after the end of the war, so many people I spoke with said this is a city where everyone has PTSD - post-traumatic stress disorder. And they mean that in a literal way. You walk around Sarajevo and you see these immense, beautiful graveyards. And when you start walking through, you see that every gravestone has a death date between 1992 and 1995.

I'm reminded of the William Faulkner quote, the past is never dead, it's not even past. There is such a through line between what happened 20 years ago and what's happening today, and it is all layered on top of itself here in the streets of Sarajevo.

SIMON: NPR's Ari Shapiro. Thanks so much for being with us.

SHAPIRO: It's a pleasure, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.