The Independent (London) [Foreign News, p. 15]
August 21, 2000, Monday
Sarajeva - Heritage reduced to ashes as Serbs tried to wipe Muslims from history
THE ACRID smell of burning still wafts up as Lejla Gazic carefully unwraps a package containing charred fragments of yellowing paper. The burnt scraps, detailing housing construction in the Ottoman era, are some of the few extant records to survive the Serb bombardment of Sarajevo's Oriental Institute in May 1992.
Once the institute's collection filled 18 steel cases. Now these scorched remnants of a nation's history, together with a few handfuls of books and other records, barely fill the shelves of a single metal filing cabinet.
The institute's staff such as Ms Gazic are working with their colleagues abroad, as they catalogue and classify the few surviving records, and try to rebuild the institute's collection. "Less than 1 per cent of our collections has survived. We are preparing four books, cataloguing what is left. Archivists in Germany have catalogued some of our lost manuscripts, so now we have a record of the memory of our lost manuscripts," said Ms Gazic.
The reconstruction of the archives started after the war. But Ms Gazic and her colleagues know that however much can be reconstructed, an irreplaceable part of Europe's heritage is gone for ever. The destruction of the Oriental Institute was one of the most shocking acts of the Bosnian war that lasted from spring 1992 to December 1995. Bosnian Serb gunners deliberately targeted the building, which housed the largest collection of Ottoman, Islamic and Jewish manuscripts in south-east Europe. It was an attempt to wipe out not just Bosnia's Muslim population, but the very idea of the nation itself.
Incendiary shells were used to ensure the institute's collection was burnt as rapidly as possible. In those flames perished a priceless part of Europe's heritage, including 5,263 bound manuscripts in Arabic, Persian, Hebrew and Adzamijski, Bosnian Slavic written in Arabic; 7,000 Ottoman documents that catalogued centuries of Bosnian history as well as many thousands of other records and books, and works of poetry and literature.
Institute officials say the manuscripts were not moved to a safe place because nobody could then imagine they would be targeted. "It was the beginning of the war. Nobody could imagine that archives and books would be burnt. You can imagine that people might fight each other for some reason but not that they would burn someone's heritage. The cases fell right through to the second floor. When we opened them, there were ashes inside," said Ms Gazic.
The destruction of the institute's collection is a loss not just for Bosnia but for Europe and the world. Bosnia was at the northern end of the Ottoman empire - which lasted from the early 14th century to the 1920s - in contact with Venice and Dubrovnik.
Three months later, in August 1992, the gunners targeted the National and University Library, and once again the air over Sarajevo filled with charred fragments. Dr Kemal Bakarsic, librarian of the National Museum, said then: "All over the city, sheets of burning paper, fragile pages of grey ashes, floated down like a dirty black snow. Catching a page, you could feel its heat, and for a moment read a fragment of text in a strange kind of black and grey negative, until, as the heat dissipated, the page melted to dust in your hand."
This attempt to re-engineer the country's history still continues in Republika Srpska, that part of Bosnia under Serbian control, said Dr Enes Kujundzic, director of the National Library. In towns such as Banja Luka and Visegrad, the centuries old mosques and medresas (Islamic schools) have been dynamited.
The sites of the former Ottoman buildings have been levelled, and grass and trees planted over them, in a maniacal attempt physically to rewrite the Ottoman past into a Serb present.
"Bosanski Brod has been renamed Srpski Brod, Foca is now called Srbinje. All the Bosnian place names have been turned into Serbian ones. Now the Serbs have some doubts about what they did here, as every normal human being would. This is their means of justifying it," said Dr Kujundzic.