Allan Little talks about the city of Sarajevo

Allan Little
Allan Little

Former Stranraer Academy pupil Allan Little, now an acclaimed television journalist, returned to his home county last week to talk about Sarajevo, the city that history keeps courting.

His fascination with the Balkan metropolis with the fingerprints of the past all over it, began when, as a 19-year-old history student, he backpacked there specifically to stand at the spot where the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, the spark that lit the touchpaper to the First World War.

On his arrival, he was mistified why no one understood where he wanted to go? Only later did it dawn on him that the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was the name etched into the consciousness of Sarajavans, being a national hero to the Bosnians. Everyone knew where Princip had fired the shots rather than where the Archduke was shot.

Just over a decade later, Little returned to cover the Balkan war in Yugoslavia from 1991 to 1995 for the BBC and co-wrote the defining book on the bloody conflict ‘The Death of Yugoslavia’. But, as he explained, this beautiful city has been the stage for more than one shift in the ethnic tectonic plates of Europe becoming the place where, in Little’s words: “the 20th century began, and indeed ended, in gunfire and smoke”.

Little took his audience, in a packed Scottish Power marquee, back to the baking heat of the city on June 28th, 1914 when Sarajevo was filled with tension and resentment over the visit of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife. A determined nationalist movement wanted Serbia to break free from under the control of the hated empire and join with other Slav provinces to form a separate nation. The choice of June 28th for the state visit was inflammatory to Slavs as that date marks the a signifcant anniversary for Serbian patriotic observances. For Franz Ferdinand’s advisors to press ahead with the visit on that particular date was “rubbing the Serbs nose in it”, said Little.

The chain of events that day are well documented, but Little brought fresh insight to this monumental turning point in history.

With potential assassins hiding on every street corner, the royal couple had survived the first attempt on their lives when two bombs exploded near their motorcade, injuring dignitaries in the car behind and people on the street. The bomb thrower, Nedeljko Čabrinović, then tried to kill himself by swallowed a cyanide pill and jumping into the river. But poor Nedeljko was one of life’s underachievers as the pill made him vomit, and the water was only 13cm deep due to the hot, dry summer. He was arrested instead.

Seemingly undeterred, the procession quickly sped away towards the Town Hall for an official reception. The Duke spent most of the time there berating his hosts for failing to control bomb throwers. An eye witness later said that they knew when he walked out of the Town Hall he was heading straight to his death. The successful assassin, Princip, then benefiting from a huge stoke of luck. The route of the motorcade was changed at the last minute to allow the royal couple to visit the injured from the bomb attack in hospital, but no-one told the driver. When he turned a corner onto the original route, the shouts of protest from the Archduke’s party made him slow down and stop - right beside Princip, who took out his pistol and fired at point blank range, killing both the Archduke and his wife Sophie.

Little said that there was a misconception that the Balkan states were “always tearing themselves apart”. Not so, he protested, “They co-operated in peace for centuries” with Sarajevo a haven of tolerance for many persecuted groups.

But Sarajevo became synonymous with conflict once again at the tail end of the 20th Century when the Bosnian War for independence led to the city suffering the longest siege in the history of modern warfare -1,425 days. Little recalls being in the city that he had grown to love for its architecture and culture at time when order had broken down to such an extent that a hand grenade was the same price as a fresh egg, as Bosnians, Serbs and Croats turned respected neighbour into sworn enemy for four long, bitter years of fighting. After reporting from the front line of the brutal conflict that erupted as the Slav states turned on each other, Little was heartened to find that, on a recent visit to 21st Century Sarajevo, time had healed the hate and the city famed for recognising and accepting other creeds and nationalities had moved forward with renewed hope to become the European Capital of Culture in 2014, exactly one hundred years after the assassination of one man on its streets untimately led to deaths of millions.