Twelve Fingers

Twelve Fingers



he most sacred date in the Serbs' historical calendar. It commemorates the Battle of Kosovo, which took place five centuries earlier and in which, according to Slavic myth, the flower of Balkan youth was slaughtered at the hands of Turkish barbarism. A cloudless sky over the city and the sun bathing the rooftops decorated with flowers and pennants. It is a feast day. Men and women sporting colorful clothes and folkloric costumes mark the occasion with dancing in the streets.

Whether through ignorance or stupidity, it is also the day that Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, despised by the Serbian people, chooses for his visit to Sarajevo. The archduke has come to observe military maneuvers at the camp in Filipovic, at the invitation of the governor of Bosnia, General Oskar Potoirek. He is unaware that, spaced along the half-kilometer from the railway station to the city hall, where a ceremony is to be held, at least twenty-two armed conspirators from the Narodna Odbrana, the "Nationalist Defense," are waiting for him. They are determined to eliminate this highly visible symbol of tyranny.

At 9 A.M., Dimitri Borja Korozec goes into the Café Zora on Franz Joseph Street, where he plans to get something to eat. Under his arm he carries the Bosnische Post from the previous evening, with the route to be followed by Archduke Ferdinand. He selects a table in back from which he can see the entire room. Since 5 A.M. he has been roaming the streets of Sarajevo, examining step by step the itinerary planned for the archduke and his entourage. He has never been so excited. Despite the heat, he is wearing a dark pea jacket and loose-fitting gray serge pants, for better concealment of the weapons he is carrying. The Bergmann-Bayard automatic stuck in his belt chafes his skin. Every few moments he pats his leg to make sure the other pistol, the Reform, is still secure inside his sock. If everything works out right, in less than two hours the deed will be done. According to his instructions, after the assassination he is to meet Dragutin in Belgrade. He mentally reviews the plan for the thousandth time. Nothing can go wrong.

Suddenly, two young men enter the café. Dimo recognizes the first: Vaso Cubrilovic. Like him, Vaso is seventeen. Quite thin, he wears a mustache to look older. He does not succeed: the sparse fuzz indicates only a boy attempting to appear more grown-up. The two go to the same secondary school, and Dimitri has not seen him since he entered the Skola Atentatora. Dimitri tries to hide behind his newspaper, but Cubrilovic has already spotted him. He comes over to the table, accompanied by a Muslim named Mohammed Mehmedbasic, from the Herzegovina province. In January, at the age of twenty-seven, Mohammed had been recruited by the Mlada Bosna, the "Young Bosnia" organization, to assassinate the military governor of Bosnia-Herzegovina, General Potoirek. To the general's good fortune, the police had carried out a routine inspection of the train taking him to the capital. Mehmedbasic threw his dagger and poison out the window and gave up on the assassination attempt.

Dimitri senses that the two are nervous. Parts of the conversation among the trio were later written down by Mohammed and extracted from his Notebook of a Muslim Anarchist, discovered in a drawer upon his death, in 1940, in the house where he worked as a gardener:

"So, where've you been keeping yourself?" asked Cubrilovic, sitting down beside him.

I noticed immediately that the youth was bothered by our presence. He was almost a boy. He couldn't be any older than Vaso, who was seventeen.

"Oh, around," he answered, changing the subject.

I felt a certain apprehension in him. I pulled up a chair and sat down directly opposite him. Vaso introduced me:

"This is Mohammed Mehmedbasic. Mohammed, I'd like you to meet my friend Dimitri Borja Korozec. We're both students at the Gymnasium, and I can guarantee you he's the clumsiest person in the world," said Cubrilovic, laughing nervously, without hiding his agitation over what was about to happen.

Every few minutes he would glance at the door and check his watch. He wouldn't be able to keep the plan secret much longer. I tried to get him away from there, but it was too late. He told everything, looking Dimitri in the eye:

"ln a short time we're going to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand."

Dimitri reacted as if he'd been punched in the stomach:

"We who?"

"The Narodna Odbrana, the Mlada Bosna! There are seven of us: Mohammed, Trifko, Ilic, Nedjelko, Popovic, and Gavrilo. Seven patriots ready for anything!" the chatterbox boasted, opening his coat and allowing a glimpse of the bomb he was carrying.

I thought Vaso was going too far and grabbed him by the arm, saying, "Shut up! Do you want to ruin everything?"

Vaso laughed. "Don't be silly. From the talks we had in class I know Dimitri sympathizes with our cause."

I studied the face of the youth across from me. His look was one of hatred, not of fear. The hatred wasn't directed at the archduke but at us, for he leapt to his feet, shouting and furiously raining blows on Vaso.

"How dare you? He's mine, understand? He's mine! Mine!"

I dragged the puzzled Cubrilovic away before the commotion brought the police.

* * *

As soon as the two leave the Zora, Dimitri senses the danger to which he has exposed himself. He is astonished at his reaction: he isn't given to such outbursts. He is generally of serene temperament. Everyone in the café turns to look at him, intrigued. If he now leaves abruptly it will appear even odder. Austrian secret agents are everywhere in the city. He must dissimulate, create some justification so that the pointless argument won't arouse suspicion. Remembering the phrase he shouted, he has a stroke of genius. He repeats it, this time in a querulous tone, giving a falsetto intonation to his voice:

"He's mine! I love him so much! O God, don't let him desert me!"

Feigning hysterical sobbing, he heads toward the men's bathroom with effeminate steps. As he passes, those present indignantly turn their heads and resume their discussions.

In the bathroom, as he washes his face and hands, Dimo reevaluates the situation. Nothing has been ruined. Not even the fact of there being other assassins lying in wait will stop him from being the first to open fire on the archduke. The only one he fears is Gavrilo Princip. He remembers the hollow-eyed, consumptive youth well from student meetings. He doesn't like him, for Princip has always disdained him as if Dimitri were a child trying to be a man, but he does respect his reputation. At the Skola Atentatora Gavrilo was known as a good shot. So what if he was? It would be enough for Dimitri to position himself in the best spot and the prey would be his. He had been trained for more difficult situations than this at the Assassins' School. He cannot weaken in the face of this obstacle. He knows exactly where to place himself to await the cortege, which is why he has chosen the Café Zora.

To arrive at City Hall the entourage will go along the Appel Quay on the banks of the Miljacka River, turn to the right onto the Lateiner Bridge at the Schiller market and take Franz Joseph Street. The Zora is located precisely at the next corner. Beside the Zora is an alleyway from which Dimo plans to fire his automatic. Standing before the sink, he checks the Bergmann-Bayard's clip, then cocks the weapon. He opens the bathroom door with renewed zeal and crosses the room toward the door. It's time to take his place at the site of the ambush. As he passes the counter, he sees his image reflected in the large mirror behind the bar. In a rare gesture of vanity, the neglectful Dimitri runs his dozen fingers through his curly hair.

* * *

At ten o'clock, Archduke Ferdinand has just finished reviewing the troops and leaves for City Hall to attend the reception. His entourage consists of six automobiles. The mayor, Fehim Curcic, and the chief of police lead the cortege. Immediately behind them, with its top down and sporting the Hapsburgs' Austro-Hungarian banner, comes the car with Ferdinand, his wife, Sophia, and General Potoirek, sitting in the rear seat. The vehicle's owner, Count Harrach, sits beside the driver. The head of the archduke's military chancellery, the archduchess's lady-in-waiting, and Potoirek's adjutant, Lieutenant Colonel Merizzi, are in the third car. The fourth and fifth carry officers of Ferdinand's garrison, along with high-level Bosnian functionaries. No one is in the sixth automobile, which is merely a backup in case one of the others stalls.

The crowd, indifferent to political questions, amasses along the Appel Quay cheering the imperial couple. The seven assassins mingle with it. Princip and Grabez station themselves at the Kaiser Bridge. Ilic, who has no fixed position, moves along the avenue. Popovic remains a short distance away. Near the Cumburja Bridge are Cabrinovic, Cubrilovic, and Mohammed. Thanks to his position, Mohammed, the Muslim, is the first with a chance to attack. He grasps the grenade, but hesitates, fearful of wounding many innocent bystanders. While he is deciding whether or not to throw it, the cortege slowly drives past him.

A few meters further on, Vaso Cubrilovic, Dimitri's acquaintance, demonstrates that his rhetoric is more explosive than the gun he carries. He desists from the attack and retreats across the Lateiner Bridge. The next conspirator is more decisive. He is Nedjelko Cabrinovic, son of an old Austrian spy. An experienced agitator, Nedjelko has come from Belgrade to take part in the assassination and has no desire to waste the trip. As soon as the entourage passes, slowly descending the wide avenue, he takes the bomb from his coat pocket, breaks the percussion cap against a lamppost, and throws the smoking object toward Archduke Ferdinand.

In the short time the bomb takes to cover the distance between Cabrinovicís hand and the archduke's car, a small event drastically affects the terrorist's deadly act.

Upon hearing the hissing of the fuse being activated against the lamppost, Count Harrach, thinking that a tire has gone flat, orders the driver: "Stop the car. That's all we need! We have a flat," and starts getting out of the vehicle.

The driver, who unlike the count has seen the bomb approaching through the air, does exactly the opposite: he accelerates.

With the sudden movement of the automobile, the count is thrown backward into the seat, causing the device to pass over his head. Ferdinand, out of pure reflex, raises his arm and deflects the bomb, which explodes on the ground directly in the path of the third car. The explosion injures a dozen spectators and Lieutenant Colonel Merizzi suffers a neck wound. The principal target, however, is unharmed. The cortege continues toward City Hall at high speed.

When he discovers that the archduke has escaped unscathed, Cabrinovic swallows a vial of cyanide and throws himself into the Miljacka River. Futilely: the poison is old and the river is shallow. The frustrated assassin goes down in history as "the one who failed."

* * *

Archduke Ferdinand is furious when he enters City Hall. He says to the mayor, who struggles to keep up with his lengthy strides, "So, Mr. Mayor. I visit your city and am met with bombs? It's outrageous! Outrageous!"

The mayor, whether through nervousness or unconsciously, begins to spout the speech he had prepared previously, as if nothing had happened:

"Your Most Esteemed Imperial Highness, it fills our hearts with joy to receive such a noble dignitary . . ."

The absurdity of the situation serves to calm the archduke, and he concludes the ceremony by thanking his host for the cordial reception.

Meanwhile, the group of officers accompanying Ferdinand are discussing the need for an immediate change of plans. General Potoirek implores the archduke to leave the city by the shortest possible route. The heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne is braver than he appears. He refuses to interrupt the scheduled program: "Ridiculous. It takes more than an anarchist's bomb to frighten a Hapsburg!"

In addition to his courage, there is a secret known only to his closest advisers. Ferdinand is counting on a special kind of protection. He is wearing under his tunic a new bulletproof vest made of braided silk sewn in oblique strips. Overconfident, the archduke insists on attending the luncheon in the governor's residence and carrying out the scheduled visit to the museum. He thinks of his wife's safety:

"Sophia, it's not necessary for you to come with me. It's best that you leave immediately."

"My dear, if you think you can get away from me so easily, you're very mistaken," answers the duchess, looking at him with a mixture of apprehension and tenderness.

To understand the duchess's determination, it is necessary to know something about her situation vis-à-vis the Austrian court. The emperor had never approved of the marriage. Tradition demanded that Ferdinand marry a descendant of the House of Hapsburg or one of the reigning dynasties of Europe. Sophia does not meet the desired criteria. The union is accepted, but the marriage is morganatic, specifying the wife's inferior position.

Rigid imperial protocol did not allow her to sit in the carriage beside the archduke during ceremonies. Because the two were so much in love, they had both looked forward to the trip to Sarajevo, where, far from the court and the emperor's sight, they could appear together.

"All right. If that's what you want, so it shall be," agrees Ferdinand.

The couple descends the steps of City Hall and enters the waiting automobile.

* * *

Dimitri hears the thunderclap and the commotion brought about by the explosion. People are running in every direction. He sees policemen arguing and pointing toward the Cumburja Bridge. Despite his apprehension, he decides to wait before leaving the side street where he has positioned himself, concealed behind a stack of empty beer barrels. He has lost all notion of time. Finally, he can no longer contain his curiosity. He hides the automatic in his pocket and walks to Franz Joseph Street to try to find out what has happened. He deduces that one of the seven men of the Narodna Odbrana threw a bomb, but he doesn't know the outcome. He quickens his pace toward Appel Quay. When he arrives at the corner of the quay, across from the Schiller market, he bumps into a youth coming out of the market eating a sandwich. He recognizes him immediately. It's Gavrilo Princip. Feigning surprise, he says, "Gavrilo! It's been such a long time! What're you doing here?"

"I'm eating a sandwich."

"I can tell that. Don't treat me like a child."

"I guess there's no harm in telling you, since the attempt failed," Princip replies, with his mouth full.

"What attempt?" asks Dimitri, feigning ignorance.

"Against the tyrant's son who dares to defile our streets on the day of the Battle of Kosovo. Too bad the wretch got away."

"Got away how?"

"He brushed aside a bomb thrown by Cabrinovic. That idiot Cabrinovic couldn't hit an elephant lying down to sleep."

"Elephants don't lie down to sleep," Dimitri informs him absentmindedly, recalling the circus.

"Who cares? The fact is that now it's impossible to get him. The cowardly heir must have left Bosnia already hiding under his wife's skirts."

Dimitri is torn between sadness at the failure of the attack and joy at still having the opportunity to kill the archduke. "Maybe he's still in the city," he says hopefully.

"You're an optimist," replies Princip.

They fall silent, while Gavrilo finishes his sandwich and takes a grimy kerchief from his pocket to wipe his hands. When he opens his coat to put away the kerchief, Dimitri sees a Browning pistol tucked into his waistband. Nonchalantly, Princip changes the subject, asking about a common friend they know from political discussions at the Café Zeatna Student, "The Thirsty Student."

"Have you seen Milosevic?"


"Neither have I. So, good-bye."


The two go their separate ways, walking in opposite directions. Dimitri Borja Korozec returns to his ambush spot in the alley, waiting for Franz Ferdinand to continue with the rest of his schedule, and Gavrilo Princip goes to meet his destiny.

* * *

Certain that the Austrian would never dare remain in Sarajevo, the other assassins disperse into the throng of people talking about what had happened.

Caring nothing about the opinion of the conspirators, the archduke resumes the parade with his entourage. There is a small detour from the original route. Before going to the museum, Franz Ferdinand plans to visit the people injured in the attack. But the individual responsible for these changes in itinerary is none other than Lieutenant Colonel Merizzi. Wounded by a fragment from the bomb, Merizzi is himself in the Centralna Bolnica, the hospital toward which the archduke is heading. Thus, none of the drivers has been advised of the altered plans. The procession once again moves down the lengthy avenue of the Appel Quay at high speed, but instead of continuing straight, following the Miljacka River to the hospital, it takes the original route, turning onto Franz Joseph moments after Dimitri and Gavrilo separated. When he notices the mistake, General Potoirek shouts to the driver: "This isn't the way! You have to take the Appel Quay!"

Startled, the driver slams on the brakes to begin backing up, and the archduke's vehicle stops directly across from the Schiller market.

Dimitri can't believe his eyes when he sees the tyrant's car motionless almost beside him. At that distance he can't miss. He takes the Bergmann-Bayard from his belt. To steady his aim, he rests his extended arm on one of the barrels in the alley where he has ensconced himself. His heart is in his throat. His excitement is comparable only to that which he experienced in the arms of Mira Kosanovic. He holds his breath and fires. The gun breech doesn't move. He fires again. Nothing happens. He has the impression that for some reason his finger has expanded and he can't squeeze the trigger. He examines the hand holding the weapon and sees to his horror what's wrong. Such was his will to assassinate the heir that, in the excitement of the moment, purely by reflex, he had inserted both forefingers on the trigger at the same time. He tries to pull them out by wetting his fingers with saliva and twisting the object as if it were a tight-fitting ring. No good. The automatic is stuck on his fingers. The anomaly that all had thought to be the mark of the assassin has occasioned the miscarriage of his mission. At the instant this occurs to him, Dimo hears two shots. He lifts his head in time to see an image that will haunt his nightmares forever: Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, lying drenched in blood over the body of the dead duchess. Standing less than two meters away is Gavrilo Princip, the Browning still smoking in his hand.

On the trigger of the weapon, a single finger. The finger that unleashed the First World War.

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Excerpted from Twelve Fingers: Biography of an Anarchist by Jô Soares. Copyright © 2001 by Jô Soares. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.