Dispatch

How to Celebrate a War's Beginning

While Bosnia welcomed EU dignitaries for the official WWI centennial, protesters donned masks of assassin Gavrilo Princip and Serbs erected a statue in his honor.

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina — In the heart of Bosnia's capital city, where Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were killed in 1914, a young man clad in an imitation of the archduke's military garb opens the door of a car. It is a replica of the vehicle in which the royal pair was riding, parked right at the spot where the assassination occurred. For a small fee, visitors can hop inside, hold a parasol, don a hat, and snap a photo. Some smile gaily, others lean back in mock terror.

The car, which made its debut on Friday, sat over the weekend beside wreaths laid in honor of the would-be heirs to the Austro-Hungarian throne, whose deaths famously precipitated the start of World War I 100 years ago this week. The scene was thronged with hundreds of tourists, milling under a banner proclaiming the spot "the street corner that started the 20th century."

The young man dressed as the archduke, 15-year-old Emir Kapetanovic, said he and his father built the car together, and based on its popularity during the commemoration of the beginning of the Great War, they plan to now offer tourists rides around Sarajevo. "I'm not a historian," Kapetanovic said, but added that he has enjoyed meeting people who came from around the world to Bosnia for the centennial.

His car alone marks a big change from the days before the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia, which pitted the country's three main ethnic groups -- Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats -- against one another. Until 1992, visitors would often go to the same street corner in Sarajevo where Kapetanovic put his car, but to stand in the footsteps of Gavrilo Princip, an ethnic Serb and Yugoslav nationalist who shot the Habsburg royals in the name of freeing his country from the grip of empire. (Literally, footprints were emblazoned on the pavement.) Visitors could also go to a small museum dedicated to Princip and his co-conspirators, who were celebrated as freedom fighters, and read a plaque honoring the assassination. 

But at the outbreak of the war, Princip's footprints were ripped out of the ground, and the museum was re-branded as one documenting 1878-1914, the years that the Austro-Hungarian empire occupied Bosnia. Historians reassessed: Because Princip was a Serb, and the new war pitted Serbs against other ethnic groups, he was deemed to have been motivated by a desire to found a greater Serbia in which Bosniaks and Croats were subjugated. He was no longer lionized -- at least not publicly and officially. 

The war ended in 1995 with the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which created an ungainly power-sharing constitution based along ethnic lines and which gave broad powers in Bosnia to an international overseer, known as the high representative. Peace has held, but the country still struggles with corruption, political stagnation, and a shattered economy. Earlier this year, there were mass protests against the government across the country, forcing the resignation of several officials.

Many Bosnians, especially those in the ethnic Serb community, blame Europe and the rest of the international community for the country's woes. So today, while some recall the archduke and his wife as symbols of regional stability and European standards to which the Balkans aspire, others are seeking to reinvigorate Princip's legacy: to reinforce the idea of shaking off Europe's yoke. 

Indeed, centennial commemorations across Bosnia were fragmented. While official events in Sarajevo generally recalled the assassination as a tragedy and emphasized the importance of a united Europe of which Bosnia is a part, many of the country's Serbs boycotted these proceedings and honored Princip. Other Bosnians staged protests or counter-programming, in Sarajevo and elsewhere.

Less formally, at one moment over the weekend, someone drove by and shot a water gun at Kapetanovic's vehicle, letting out a peal of laughter. The switch from celebrating the assassin to celebrating the assassinated, it seems, is far from complete -- a fact that is arguably more telling about Bosnia's future than it is about the country's past.

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The official central event of the 100-year anniversary was a performance on Saturday evening by Vienna's Philharmonic Orchestra in Sarajevo's City Hall, which conductor Franz Welser-Most said was a symbol of peace that sent a message of "never again" to the world. The concert closed with Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," the European Union's anthem. (Bosnia is not yet in the EU.)

Austrian President Heinz Fischer was the guest of honor at the concert in the recently refurbished city hall, which was destroyed by the Bosnian Serb army in 1992. After the concert, he called for "a century of peace after a century of war." Several hundred people watched the event on a big screen set up outside. 

The concert and other official commemorations were organized and funded primarily by European countries, namely Austria and France. But as dignitaries, foreign diplomats, and local politicians hobnobbed in government buildings, a cluster of protesters gathered just across the river that runs through Sarajevo. Some wore homemade paper cutouts with Gavrilo Princip's face printed on them as masks. Others stood facing the city hall holding a banner that read, "We are occupied again -- by nationalism, capitalism, the EU and international community." 

"This concert was absolutely unnecessary," said protester Aldin Arnautovic. "It is strange to commemorate the beginning of any war, and it is precisely the people inside that building who are to blame for our current situation." 

Meanwhile, the country's Serb leaders actively celebrated Princip. On Friday in East Sarajevo, a predominantly Serb suburb of the capital, a statue of Princip went up. It stands over six feet tall. "These fighters for freedom 100 years ago set the course we should follow for the next 100 years," Nebojsa Radmanovic, the Serb member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency, said at the statue's unveiling, referring to Princip and his co-conspirators.

Milorad Dodik, the leader of Republika Srpska, Bosnia's majority-Serb region, said that disagreements over Princip are indicative of a deeply divided Bosnia. "People who live here have never been on the same side of history and are still divided," he told journalists. "We are sending different messages, and that says it all about this country which is being held together by international violence." (He was referring to the 600 European soldiers still stationed in Bosnia.)  

On Saturday, the official Serb commemoration of the assassination took place 75 miles away in the eastern town of Visegrad, on the border with Serbia. The Belgrade Philharmonic played a Vivaldi concert. In the town of Andricgrad, there was a dramatic restaging of the assassination in three acts, written by Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica and entitled "Rebel Angels." (A mosaic mural of Princip and his co-conspirators put up in Andricgrad is inscribed with words Princip wrote on his cell wall in the prison camp where he died: "Our shadows will walk through Vienna, wander the court, frighten the lords.") And Princip's restored boyhood home in the northwestern town of Bosansko Grahovo was unveiled on June 28 as a museum, funded by a wealthy Serbian businessman. 

"The Serbs are trying to prove that he is a nationalist, while in Sarajevo now people are against him only because Serbs are for him," Arnautovic said at the protest in the capital, "and all this just perpetuates nationalistic revisionist history."

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But Bosnians are divided over more than Princip's legacy. They also disagree about what image their country should project and how Bosnia should interact with the world -- and not just during the centennial.

Speakers at the official commemorations over the weekend were adamant about offering a positive picture of Bosnia. "For the past 100 years, the information that the world has received from here was about war and atrocities," said Ivo Komsic, Sarajevo's mayor. "Now we're sending a different message of peace, love, and understanding." 

But Arnautovic worries that this message will only serve to distract from Bosnia's fracturing and lack of political or economic progress, for which he believes many of the centennial's honored guests bear at least some responsibility. "All the [international diplomats] will go home," he said, "and we in Bosnia will remain with our huge problems, only with the hope that someone will look at us in another hundred years."

Sean Gallup/Getty Image

Dispatch

The Hidden Victims of India's Suicide Belt

Farmers are killing themselves over debt in Punjab state -- and leaving wives, daughters, and other women behind.  

BAKHORA, India — A blue and white wooden sign marks the "stitching room" in the gurudwara, a Sikh congregation center, in the small village of Bakhora. The walls of the room are lined with hand-drawn posters illustrating steps to making a "ladies kameez," or tunic. Samples of colorful bags, belts, and toys are scattered all around. A quiet hum fills the room as some 20 women huddle over sewing machines, at work on long and short stitches -- "neat, 'til perfect," explains the instructor.

Preeti, one of the chattiest students, holds a sniffling child under her shawl as she sews.

"Why not come here? One would just be gossiping at home otherwise, sitting, doing nothing," Preeti explains. And here, she laughs, "we all get to gossip together."

Four years ago, Preeti was brought to Bakhora, in India's Punjab state, to marry her cousin after her father committed suicide in a nearby village. One of Punjab's many destitute farmers, her father took his own life -- ingesting the same pesticides he used on his fields -- because he could no longer pay back his debts. A few months later, her mother died, "of heartbreak" says Preeti. She was orphaned along with her four sisters.

After her marriage, Preeti came to work at the sewing center, a vocational site established to support the women who are being left behind by the disquieting rate of suicide in India's agrarian heartland.

Since 1995, according to data compiled by India's National Crime Records Bureau, more than 290,000 farmers have killed themselves in India. Yet other studies of suicide, which remains criminalized and highly stigmatized in India, suggest that the official figures may even underreport the problem. According to a 2011 report by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University School of Law, one Indian farmer commits suicides every 30 minutes. (By contrast, a 2012 report in the medical journal Lancet questioned whether the rates of suicide among farmers are actually higher than the national average.) 

One way or the other, there is little doubt that India's farmers are in trouble. Stagnant prices for produce, a lack of crop insurance and loan-forgiveness policies, and an unregulated lending market have left many farmers in insurmountable debt, fueling the disturbing suicide trend.

The problem is particularly acute in Punjab. The epicenter of India's agriculture bounty, Punjab reportedly has the highest rate of farmer suicide among the country's states. Baba Nanak Education Society, an NGO working in the region that helped found the Bakhora sewing center, reports that at least 44 families in Bakhora alone have experienced a debt-related suicide.

While suicide victims are overwhelmingly men, the surviving women are particularly vulnerable to problems after their husbands, fathers, or other male family members are gone. Female heads of households traditionally have little earning power or independence. In some cases, families have dealt with multiple suicides, and the dependents, unable to cope with the resulting economic burden, also resort to the ultimate step of desperation. Widows routinely face disinheritance and dislocation, or abuse at the hands of their in-laws, while children -- especially girls -- are affected by abrupt removal from schools, nutritional deficits, and at times even bonded labor.

Noting these dangers, NGOs have stepped up their efforts to provide relief for women in Punjab. This includes the stitching center, which provides both training and employment. And the message of such efforts is clear: In what has become known as Punjab's suicide belt, men may be the ones taking their lives in an instant, but women are increasingly at risk of suffering over the long term.

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In the 1960s, the "Green Revolution" came to Punjab. With droughts threatening food security in India, the government implemented a series of agricultural reforms -- primarily importing high-yield seed varieties -- aimed at ensuring that an independent India could feed itself. The efforts were hastened, in part, by the United States, which tied food aid to certain agrarian sector reorganization. Though a relatively dry state, Punjab was the site for these efforts because it was equipped with a network of colonial-era canal networks and a predominantly agrarian population.

Yet by 1970s, even as yields increased for larger landowners, small farmers were not sharing in the bounty. Unable to afford the expensive inputs required in the new agrarian economy, many farmers found their holdings becoming less profitable: They went into debt simply to buy seeds and provide irrigation for the season. Meanwhile, revenue from grain sales remained stagnant even as input costs increased. Minimum Support Prices (MSPs) of grains -- the pre-season price guarantee for farmers, set by the federal government -- were not adjusted for inflation. Thus, the farmers who provided food security to the nation began facing insecurity within their own homes. 

Frustration among food growers resulted in mass farmer protests through the 1980s and 1990s, and they continue today. But desperation also turned inward: Farmers resorted to killing themselves. 

NGOs in the region began noting farmer suicides in the late 1980s. A 1990 report by the NGO Movement Against State Repression (MASR) listed nine suicides in a single village in the state. By 1998, NGO appeals to the president of India and the government of Punjab listed 93 suicides in the region's south.

When the warning bells elicited little response, NGOs continued documenting suicides, hoping stark statistics would eventually provoke action. Between 1998 and 2008, Baba Nanak Education Society documented 1,774 suicides in just one of Punjab's 20 districts; in all, the NGO estimates that there were as many 50,000 suicides across Punjab in those 10 years. Farmer unions place the figure close to 90,000 between 1990 and 2006.

The Punjab government finally acknowledged the crisis in 2001 and announced the allocation of compensation to family members. Yet like many promises that are made during election cycles, and ignored once politicians are in office, the actual disbursement was delayed for another decade. Meanwhile, little else has ever been done to curtail the crisis.

Compensation, certainly, is critical. But addressing the roots of the problem requires wholesale policy changes. Lawmakers in Delhi must increase MSPs in tandem with inflation, for instance, and all levels of government must work to implement loan-forgiveness programs and regulations for credit systems.

This March, during election campaigning and under pressure from farmers' unions to pay long-overdue compensation to suicide-affected families, Punjabi authorities agreed to reassess the scale of crisis. But 27 years after the first debt-induced suicide was brought to the state's attention, the government's sole move was simply to commission yet another survey.

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The agrarian debt that has fueled farmer suicide has also had a broad ripple effect in communities, affecting both men and women. Meena's family is one of them.

Meena, whose name has been changed for her protection, is from a village near Bakhora. In the winter of 2011, Meena's husband parked his motorcycle outside their daughters' primary school to pick them up after classes. He drove away with the three girls, telling them they were going to buy new clothes. Careening through some fields, he abruptly stopped at a fast-flowing point in a nearby canal.

Then, one by one, the father tossed his girls into the water.

A shopkeeper, Meena's husband had suffered serious losses as the farming community in his village came on desperate times. He was dismayed, Meena says, at the birth of each daughter -- viewed as burdens on the family. He left his only son -- the lone potential caregiver, in his father's eyes -- at home with his wife on the day he tried to kill the girls.

The girls lived, their shivering bodies pulled from the canal by local farmers who heard their shrieks. Their father was arrested and charged with attempted murder.

With her husband detained in the local police station, Meena was left on her own. "He is our only source of support," she says. She doesn't condone his crime, but she is also resigned to his prejudice. "What are we to do with three daughters?"

While family violence is pervasive across the country, there is also a noted correlation between socioeconomic upheaval and violence inflicted on women. In tough economic times, women and young girls are at high risk for becoming the repositories of everyday frustrations felt by men. The perceived burden of an unmarried daughter -- who offers little in the way of earning potential and whose wedding dowry is customarily paid by her family -- continues to inform the treatment meted out to young girls.

Meena's husband returned home six months after he was arrested. (He was never convicted of a crime.) Today, three years later, it is now Meena who bears the brunt of his desperation: She has bruises on her arms, a small gash on cheek, and a recovering bloody nose.

"Don't worry," she says, struggling to make eye contact, "he doesn't hurt the girls now."

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In Bakhora's stitching center, the women work quietly, fastening two small bells to each stretch of embroidery. They are making key chains to sell in craft stores in the cities nearby.

The stitching center, a collaboration between Building Bridges India and Baba Nanak Education Society, is one of five vocational projects the two NGOs set up to respond to the particularly precarious place of many women in the suicide belt. The products created are just one measure of the program's success; for the women, a teacher tells me, the center is something of a safe house.

"Certain days, someone just wants to sit for a while. Not being able to work. You know, life happens... that is okay," she says.

Yet the center's efforts only go so far. It can instill women with marketable skills, which are valuable, and it can provide a sense of community. But those are no substitute for compensation, crop insurance, interest rate caps, and loan-forgiveness -- among other things that are desperately needed to stem the suicide crisis and its effects.

Preeti's husband, a small farmer, is deeply in debt. The stitching center provides her some additional income, but with three children at home, it is not enough to pull her family out of poverty.   

"This last one isn't a girl, but I have two at home," explains Preeti rocking her son. "Something needs to change, especially for their sake."

PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images