By Daria Sito-Sucic
(Reuters) – Thousands of cyclists tore through the Bosnian capital on Sunday in a race sponsored by the Tour de France to promote peace a century after the Sarajevo assassination that lit the fuse for World War One.
The race was the first in a string of events to mark the June 28 centenary of the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in 1914.
That year’s Tour de France began the same day, but was called off as Europe raced to war. Forty-eight of the Tour’s cyclists, including three former winners since its start in 1903, were among more than 10 million soldiers who would die.
“It is an event which gathers and unites the people, and the message we are sending from here is the message of peace and unity,” Christian Prudhomme, the director of the Tour de France, told Reuters.
Sunday’s race was loaded with symbolism, the 150-kilometre (93 mile) course crossing the former frontline during Bosnia’s 1992-95 war. The capital remains divided, between the country’s two autonomous regions created with the war’s end.
Bosnia’s Serbs, Croats and Muslim Bosniaks themselves are divided too over how they see the assassination of Ferdinand by Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip.
Serbs see Princip as a freedom fighter, his gunshot bringing down the curtain on centuries of imperial occupation over the various peoples of the Balkans.
Many Bosniaks and Croats take a more benevolent view of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and say Princip was the trigger for four years of terrible bloodshed and suffering.
Many see him as part of the same arc of Serb nationalism behind much of the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia’s 1992-95 war in which 100,000 people died, the large majority of them Bosniaks.
The war ended in a peace deal that split power along ethnic lines. Divisions persist, stifling progress towards the European mainstream.
Sunday’s race is the only event marking the start of the Great War to be jointly organized by Bosnia’s two ethnic-based regions. Serbs are refusing to take part in the main commemoration in Sarajevo, saying it is designed to paint them as aggressors.
“Our cyclist friends will symbolically cross the line which divided Sarajevo 20 years ago,” said Bakir Izetbegovic, the Bosniak chairman of the country’s tripartite presidency.
“This will symbolize the unification of the city and the end of a century of wars in the Balkans and Europe,” he said.
Part of the official schedule of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the Sarajevo race brought together 120 cyclists from 20 countries, escorted by thousands of local cyclists including children dressed in yellow jerseys of the Tour de France.
“Sport is a very, very good way of forgetting about the problems,” said Irish cyclist Stephen Roche, the 1987 world champion.
“For me, it is important to come here and do my little piece to maybe make people smile, east, south, north, west, and just come together for one sporting event.”
(Editing by Matt Robinson and Sophie Hares)