Hacking History

The Three Sisters of Gavrilo Princip,
Hacking History, or, Don’t Follow the Principles

On 28 June 1914, Gavrilo Princip assassinated in Sarajevo the Austrian Archiduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria ( heir to the throne) and his wife Sofia. This act allegedly triggered the World War One.

History is not written by the victors but by the historical visionaries, and it’ s not about truth but about paradigms. It’s an art to argue, a performance to convince, and the victory condition of history itself is to create a story that seem plausible, and also applicable to different times, in the future, in the past.

Consider the First World War, the first Great War, a war without precedent and supposedly impossible nowadays. The lad who pulled its trigger was Gavrilo Princip , a teenage Serb, a Bosnian Serb one might say, a Pan-Slavic conspirator against the Austro Hungarian Empire, a Yugoslav, an activist, a terrorist, a patriot, a national freedom fighter… what a lot of names he has.

Our world today doesn’t lack for passionate teenage street fighters. In my neighborhood, in San Salvario in Torino, Princip might be a tattooed anarchist who ends up in prison because he threw stones on a cop, while protesting against the imaginary European high speed train between Turin and Lyon, the TAV. What passions this obscure train provokes, a white-elephant pro-EU project will never be realized anyway, because nobody really wants the train on either side of the French Italian border, and worse yet, nobody can afford it.

Gavrilo’s fatal plan met with success, even though he never saw a Yugoslav nation ( he died in prison 4 years after he was promptly arrested). More history passed and Yugoslavia itself ended in bloodshed. Now, a century after the deed that made him known worldwide, the figure of Gavrilo Princip has been used in this memorial centenary by contemporary visionaries for their own purposes.

He fits pretty well as a standard terrorist, as an evil zealot who destroyed a wonderful empire of tolerance and benevolence, the Austro-Hungarian empire. He threw his own life away to do it, but the violent suicidal method is common nowadays among Muslim martyrs. One of Gavrilo’s armed comrades in the conspiracy was a Muslim, and just as ready to kill the Archduke as Gavrilo was.

Perhaps he’s best understood as an embittered outsider with a crank’s motivations to kill a celebrity, like the young men who murdered John Lennon, or President Kennedy. Or he might be a national martyr, a patriot who gave his life for the liberation of a long-suffering people, aspiring a better world, against a regime of royal foreign oppressors.

And yet, in the region where he killed and died, his name is fading. Young people in the Balkans find little to celebrate about him. They suffered too many recent losses of identity and family, to celebrate a remote act, which, during the span of a century, merely added to the turmoil.

Some presumptuous intellectuals dare to say: he could have been me, I understand, I might have done the same in those conditions. They are sitting in comfortable armchairs rather than stalking the streets for a motorcade, gun in hand. How many young men today are dying in irregular street wars, in paramilitary ambushes, raids and revenge attacks, in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Pakistan, Xinjiang, the Caucasus and now even Ukraine. What a difficulty it can be to survive one’s own historical visions! Are ancient nations any wiser in their old age than they were in their foolish youth?

What would Gavrilo Princip recognize in our world of patriots and terrorists? Where and how would he strive to make his name, if he were alive and unknown today? A policed world of austerity and globalized fundamentalism, of growing superstition and religion conquering science and secular politics. Perhaps he’d care nothing for the flags and coins of outdated nation states and choose to become a killer mercenary, out for the highest price. Who needs a gold coin with the face of some royal potentate when the world has Bitcoin?

In the former Yugoslavia, there used to be a joke about how to tell the difference between a Serbian girl and a Croatian girl. If you tell Croatian girl that she is pretty, she smiles. Say the same to a Serbian girl, and she scowls. What about the Bosnian girl? No jokes about her, but she is the third sister, the Cinderella of the region!
In Bosnia 28 June hundred years later Gavrilo is celebrated in the Serbian part as a hero ( organized by famous director Emir Kusturica), while in Bosnian Sarajevo he is remembered as a terrorist.
The paradox of Balkan history is that killers become rulers, warriors become peace makers, sisters become enemies then sisters again on new terms, and law exists mostly as a hoax to make this vicious circle seem like local politics as usual.
In Belgrade, Gavrilo Princip has his own road, which descends from the seven Belgrade hills, to the banks of the meeting point of two big rivers Sava and Danube. The flow of water unites the Balkan region in good and in bad: in recent tragic floods they were helping each other notwithstanding the ethnicity . Suppose that young Gavrilo Princip paid a compliment to the Croatian girl today, as well as to the Serbian and Bosnian one? Who would scowl, who would smile and who would pull the trigger?
Maybe those three girls could somehow offer this historic terrorist a chance to drop his gun, in a clinch between a kiss and a scowl, carrot and a stick, so that he can live in a country without borders instead of killing and dying for a song, a slogan and a bloodstained page in a history book.

Gavrilo Princip and Two Girls

In English, in French, in Italian
In the former Yugoslavia, there used to be a joke about how to tell the difference between a Serbian and a Croatian girl. If you tell Croatian girl she is pretty, she smiles. If you say the same to a Serbian girl, she scowls.

Well, in 2013, smiling Croatia joined the European Union. In the same year, scowling Serbia, after much heavy diplomacy and a traumatic change of national policy, managed to became a valid candidate for a membership process that will have Serbia in the EU probably by 2020. The two girls, the scowling and the smiling one, will finally belong to the same political arrangement again, just like they both used to belong to Yugoslavia, before they ruined it. Nowadays they are divided by a heavy border, even though the rest of the world can’t possibly tell these two girls apart unless they offer them a compliment.

When dropping by smiling Croatia and scowling Serbia, one notices similar changes in their ways of life: the roads are better, there is more order in public spaces, buildings have facelifts and paint-jobs, and the restaurants serve nicer food. But when speaking to the Balkan locals, those in the EU or out of it, one hears about the darker side of EU integration: less local power, less money, less identity.

Serbia these days has truly weird, ecstatic politics. The current Prime Minister belongs to the party of Slobodan Milosevic, the deceased malefactor who brought war to the Balkans in the 1990s. Despite that, there’s serious talk that he might get the Nobel Peace Prize together with the Albanian leader because of the Kossovo negotiations. He remarked with startling frankness: I made that war, so I am the one entitled to sign a peace treaty.

La Vita e’ Bella

NATO bombings in Serbia/Kosovo
The Diary published by Granta

La vita e’ bella

Even though I wrote this years ago, even though I am not a futurist or a pessimist, I did not expect this kind of development of events: after all this time, after such an experience, history does not, unfortunately, walk with big steps as Zoran Djindjic, our killed president, hoped…

On 24 March, 1999, NATO begin air strikes on Yugoslavia.

26 March 1999, 5.p.m.

I hope we all survive this war, the bombs: the Serbs , the Albanians, the bad and the good guys, those who took up the arms, those who deserted, refugees going around the Kosovo woods and Belgrade’s refugees going around the streets with their children in arms, looking for non existing shelters, when the alarm for bombing sets off. I hope that NATO pilots don’t leave behind wives and children whom I saw crying on CNN as their husbands were taking off for military targets in Serbia. I hope we all survive but not this world as it is. I hope we manage to break it down: call it democracy call it dictatorship. When USA congressman estimates 20 000 civilian deaths as a low price for the peace in Kosovo, or president Clinton says he wants a non harassing Europe for American schoolgirls, or Serbian president Milutinovic says that we will fight to the very last drop of our blood, I always have a feeling they are talking about my blood, not theirs.

And they all become not only my enemies, but beasts, werewolves, switching from economic policy and democratic human rights to amounts of blood necessary for it (as fuel). Today is the second aftermath day: I went to the green and black market in my neighborhood, it has livened up again, adapted to new conditions, new necessities: no bread from the state, but a lot of grain on the market, no information from the official TV, so small talk among frightened population of who is winning. Teenagers are betting on the corners: whose planes have been shot down, ours or theirs, who lies best, who hides best victims, who exposes best victories, or again victims. As if it were a football game of equals. More


I have little new to say about my 78 days of humanitarian bombing, but my experience might be new to the people of Syria.

In the Orwellian days of 1999, Serbia was being blown up for blowing up Kosovo, officially a part of Serbia. So one can see why the Serbia of the 1990s is offered as a model for a military intervention in Syria.

I wrote a diary in my attempt to make some sense of the situation, when citizens in Serbia were living in the internal repression of the Milosevic regime. The international community was keen on isolation and sanctions for Serbia, while global entrepreneurs profited by the disorders by selling us black-market diesel, cigarettes and weapons. I was among the traitors to our patriotic military, but I was also a legitimate target for the NATO airplanes, who, after all, planned to overthrow the regime through making life impossible for the population. More

No Life in Serbia

In English, in French
He woke at five in the morning with a gun in his hand. There is no life for us anymore, he said.

Then this man, sixty years old, an exemplary father and husband, “a hard and diligent worker, a citizen”, shot his son. He shot his sleepy and dumbfounded wife, who had scarcely understood his last declaration.

He continued his armed assault by opening the doors of the neighboring homes of his close relations. He shot them in their heads as they slept. All in all, he shot thirteen victims, including his mother and a child of two. More

Ten Years Without Zoran Djindjic

In English, French
I met Djindic before he became “the” Djindic. He jumped over the office table and shook my hand when our mutual friend introduced me as a feminist, ironically. I remember, too, that afterwards, whenever he would meet me, he would shake my hand in a feminist leftist way — but not ironically, on the contrary, seriously amused.

Later on, when he became public domain, we no longer met privately — only randomly. He was the most important Serbian politician of the 20 century, who managed to step into the 21st, who toppled Milosevic, who was eventually killed by state mafia resisting his progressive steps toward a modern Serbia.

- History marches with big steps, he once said, when his daughter was just born and we sat at his place in his small apartment. He was regretting his lack of time for a private life.

The Likes of Me

The Suitcase
in English, French
A couple of days ago, the two former members of the Croatian military won a “not guilty” sentence in the Hague international war crime tribunal.

I was not present in the general headquarters of the Croatian army while they were deciding on their “Operation Storm” action of 1995. I don’t know if the telephone rang there. I also don’t know if President Bill Clinton personally told them to go ahead with the largest land offensive since World War II, because the CIA would help. That is what certain Serbian newspapers published recently.

I have a remarkable lack of knowledge about world paramilitary conspiracies, secret chambers in the Vatican, mysterious double-agents doing their jobs badly… Generally, the things I know are in the public domain, because people said these things publicly and I took notes, or because I was just personally standing there.

Consider those days in August 1995, when that “Operation Storm” took place. I stood at the border between Croatia and Serbia, watching the endless caravan of people fleeing on truckbeds, in their cars, on foot, in nightgowns, in torn Serbian uniforms, with guns and babies. I talked to those people. I took photos: I personally saw newborn refugees carried in shoe boxes, babies who were born during the exodus of ethnic Serbs fleeing the Croatian army.

I saw angry Serbian soldiers tearing off their military insignia because they were given orders by their military to abandon the region without fighting. I also saw people being given food and shelter by the local Serbian population. I heard the refugee stumbling towards an unknown destiny, since they had lost everything.

Operation Storm put a swift and sudden end in to four years of fighting for Serbian autonomy inside Croatia. The plans for a Greater Serbia torn from the fabric of Yugoslavia had been crushed by 150,000 Croatian Army troops. I heard the fleeing Serbs saying how rich and happy they had been in their rural homes. They had Croatian accents — if you ask me, that is, a woman with a Belgrade accent. They’d been born in Croatia of a people established there for centuries, but they were keenly aware of being Serbian Orthodox non-Catholic non-Croats.

They rejected a Croatian identity and passport, preferring their own rules and ideas. Their most important aspiration was to live within the Greater Serbia promised to them by Milosevic and his generals. Some were kissing the Serbian flag and the picture of Milosevic. Most of them were tearing the flag and swearing at the broken promises and the reeling military defeat of their beloved leader.

Later, I saw the endless caravan of Krajina refugees being routed by the Serbian police outside Belgrade. Only those Serbs who had relatives in the capital were allowed enter the city. Naturally scarcely any of them could prove that. People within Belgrade did not see or hear the refugees, except for what the official Milosevic tv or radio allowed. Of course that was a thoroughly censored version of events.

I don’t know where those people ended up. Their exact number is vague, it varies in the telling, from two hundred thousand to half a million displaced ethnic refugees.

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