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A Century From Archduke's Death, Spotlight Turns Back To Bosnia


People from around the world are in Sarajevo this week to mark 100 years since the gunshot that changed history. On June 28, 1914, a young assassin killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, triggering the First World War. Bosnia is hosting concerts, conferences and art exhibitions to mark the centenary. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports from Sarajevo on what locals make of the big commemoration.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: In the heart of Sarajevo's old city, the Markale market is a bustling place. People sell tiny, wild strawberries, homemade cheese flavored with roasted peppers and garlands of dried okra they call Bosnian Viagra. It looks like an old-fashioned, traditional way of life, but many of the vendors here did not choose this lifestyle. Shakira Zornich has worked in the market for 22 years.

SHAKIRA ZORNICH: (Through translator) Our politicians have brought us down to the level of beggars. I used to work in a bank before the Balkan War, and you can see what I'm doing now.

SHAPIRO: Across the road, Veid Sjenar, has a fruit stand.

VEID SJENAR: (Through translator) What I'm doing right now, I'd never choose to do it in my life. I'm an auto mechanic by trade, but there are no jobs in that field. It's a struggle to live, to work, everything.

SHAPIRO: When I ask about the anniversary of Archduke Ferdinand's assassination, this 48-year-old man laughs bitterly, showing a row of bare gums where his teeth used to be.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) It has very little to do with us, with the people. The people are too busy trying to work to get enough money to survive.

SHAPIRO: In Bosnia today, people talk less about 1914 and more about 1995. That's the year the Dayton Peace Accords ended the ethnic war in the former Yugoslavia. The peace agreement set up a new system of government where almost every official office in Bosnia exists in triplicate, from the police force to the schools. Edin Hajdarpasic is a history professor at Loyola University in Chicago. He grew up here in Sarajevo and came back for a conference on World War I.

EDIN HAJDARPASIC: Essentially what the constitution does is write into the functioning of the government that at every position you need a certain number of Serbs, Muslims and Croats based on their ethnic criteria, not by how well they do their job but really defining them ethnically.

SHAPIRO: That was a good way to end the conflict 20 years ago. It's a terrible way to run a country today. Bosnia now has dizzying numbers of well-paid government bureaucrats. Hajdarpasic says corruption is everywhere.

HAJDARPASIC: In Germany, political representatives make three times the average salary. In Bosnia, they make six times the average salary, in a country that came out of the war impoverished - with 2 million people displaced, with so many economic resources devastated.

SHAPIRO: Politicians have no incentive to fix the system, he says, because it would mean giving up their money and power. Instead officials play up the old ethnic fears to keep the broken structure in place. In February, the people's frustration bubbled over into violent protests captured here in a You Tube video. Demonstrators in Sarajevo set fire to the president's mansion. Nothing changed.

A few months later, historic floods killed dozens of people and washed away entire towns. This local newscast shows rescuers boating through a flooded neighborhood calling out names of people who may still be trapped in buildings. Bosnians were furious at how little the government did to respond. None of these problems got much international attention. But now, camera crews from around the world are filling the streets of Sarajevo, focusing on the assassination of the Archduke 100 years ago.

EDIN ZUBCEVIC: For me, it's a kind of travesty.

SHAPIRO: I met music producer, Edin Zubcevic, in a cafe not far from where the assassination took place.

ZUBCEVIC: There is no bottom. That's what we learn in Bosnia. There is no bottom. We can - falling down 'til eternity because we are just small enough to not be important for anybody.

SHAPIRO: He says the whole world is here in Bosnia celebrating something while the people who live here have no reason to be happy. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Sarajevo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.