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Searching for Gavrilo Princip

Eighty-six years ago the Serbian teenager shot an Archduke and set Europe on the road to World War I. Today he is all but forgotten

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I had arrived in Bosnia knowing little about Sarajevo except that it had hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics and had withstood a devastating 1992-95 siege involving Bosnian Serb besiegers and Bosnian Muslim defenders. After excruciating negotiations, Bosnia and Herzegovina had been created out of part of what had been multiethnic Yugoslavia, with now mainly Muslim Sarajevo as its principal city.

I also knew that these ethnic passions were nothing new in the Balkans. Sarajevo was the place where, on June 28, 1914, a 19-year-old Serb nationalist named Gavrilo Princip shot Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand.

The assassination was one of the defining events of the 20th century, touching off World War I. By the end of 1918, more than a generation of Europe's best lay dead in the trenches.

But who was Gavrilo Princip? I soon realized that although he was a national hero prior to Yugoslavia's early 1990s disintegration into warring factions, he was now considered a criminal terrorist by Bosnia. Even finding the site of the assassination was difficult. But was it possible that the history of Gavrilo Princip and the event that sparked World War I was not lost or destroyed but merely hidden away? In the summer of 1992 when Serb snipers and artillery began pounding Sarajevo, citizens attacked symbols of the former Yugoslavia. First on their list was the old Gavrilo Princip museum. The bulk of the collection was saved, I was told, by a courageous curator named Bajro Gec. But where was Gec? "Try the Jewish Museum," I was advised. "You may find him there."

Inside the shuttered museum, Bajro Gec escorted me down to the basement, where two large wooden trunks sat beneath barred windows. He slowly lifted one of the lids as the hinges shrieked in protest. "Here are the clothes Princip wore when he was arrested," said Gec, holding up a black wool suit with tarnished metal buttons.

Since Princip was 19 at the time of the assassination, he could not be hanged under Austrian law. He died of tuberculosis after only four years of a 20-year sentence.

No longer are bridges, army barracks and elementary schools named after Gavrilo Princip. But his memory still is revered by Petar Princip, 61, the family's last direct descendant in Bosnia.

Says Petar, "I'm proud to be a Princip, but I'm also sad to be part of a forgotten history."

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