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61st IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 20-25, 1995

Libraries Are Not for Burning: International Librarianship and the Recovery of the Destroyed Heritage of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Andras Riedlmayer, Harvard University


In the past three years, the cultural heritage of Bosnia-Herzegovina has suffered major destruction. The result is what a Council of Europe report has called "a cultural catastrophe." Historic architecture (including 1200 mosques, 150 churches, 4 synagogues and over 1000 other monuments of culture), works of art, as well as cultural institutions (including major museums, libraries, archives and manuscript collections) have been systematically targeted and destroyed. The losses include not only the works of art, but also crucial documentation that might aid in their reconstruction. Our Bosnian colleagues need the assistance of the international library community to help them recover and reconstruct some of what has been lost and to rebuild the buildings and institutions that embody their country's cultural heritage. The paper suggests some innovative ways that librarians outside of Bosnia, through their home institutions and professional organizations, can provide material and technical assistance, training and documentation to help to undo the destruction of memory.


Three years ago this August, Bosnia's National and University Library, a handsome Moorish-revival building built in the 1890s on the Sarajevo riverfront, was shelled and burned. Before the fire, the library held 1.5 million volumes, including over 155,000 rare books and manuscripts; the country's national archives; deposit copies of newspapers, periodicals and books published in Bosnia; and the collections of the University of Sarajevo.

Bombarded with incendiary grenades from Serbian nationalist positions across the river, the library burned for three days; most of its irreplaceable contents were reduced to ashes. Braving a hail of sniper fire, librarians and citizen volunteers formed a human chain to pass books out of the burning building. Interviewed by an ABC News camera crew, one of them said: "We managed to save just a few very precious books. Everything else burned down. And a lot of our heritage, national heritage, lay down there in ashes." Among the human casualties was Aida Buturovic, a librarian in the National Library's exchanges section, shot to death by a sniper.

Three months earlier Sarajevo's Oriental Institute, home to one of the largest collection of Islamic and Jewish manuscript texts and Ottoman documents in Southeastern Europe, was shelled with incendiary grenades and burned. Losses included 5,263 bound manuscripts in Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, and adzamijski (Bosnian Slavic written in Arabic script); 7,000 Ottoman documents, primary source material for five centuries of Bosnia's history; a collection of 19th-century cadastral registers; and 200,000 other documents of the Ottoman era, including microfilm copies of originals in private hands or obtained on exchange from foreign institutions. The Institute's collection of printed books, the most comprehensive library on its subject in the region, was also destroyed as was its catalog and all work in progress.

In each case, the library alone was targeted; adjacent buildings stand intact to this day. Serb nationalist leader Radovan Karadzic has denied his forces were responsible for the attacks, claiming the National Library had been set ablaze by the Muslims themselves "because they didn't like its ... architecture." (New York Newsday, 30 November 1992) The 200,000-volume library of Bosnia's National Museum (est. 1888) was successfully evacuated under shelling and sniper fire during the summer of 1992. Among the books rescued from the Museum was one of Bosnia's greatest cultural treasures, the 14th-century Sarajevo Haggadah.

The work of Jewish calligraphers and illuminators in Islamic Spain, the manuscript was brought to Bosnia 500 years ago by Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. It entered the Natiional Museum's collection over a century ago. Successfully concealed from the Nazis by a courageous museum curator during World War II, the Sarajevo Haggadah has now once again had to be hidden in a secret location.

The National Museum, meanwhile, has been badly hit. Shells have crashed through the roof and the skylights and all of its 300 windows have been shot out, as have the walls of several galleries. Parts of the Museum's collection that could not be moved to safe stores remain in the building, exposed to further artillery attacks and to decay from exposure to the elements. Dr. Rizo Sijaric, the Museum's director, was killed by a grenade blast on 10 December 1993 while trying to arrange for plastic sheeting from UN relief agencies to cover some of the holes in the building. In April 1992, Serbian forces began bombarding the historic city of Mostar, the center of the country's southwestern region, Herzegovina.

The Archives of Herzegovina, housing manuscripts and records documenting the region's past since the medieval period, was repeatedly hit and suffered severe damage. Over 50,000 books were destroyed when the library of Mostar's Roman Catholic archbishopric was struck by shells fired from artillery positions on the heights overlooking the city. Further tens of thousands of books and documents were exposed to fire and damp when shells smashed through the roof and windows of the Museum of Herzegovina. The University of Mostar Library was also hit and burned, along with a score of other libraries and archives at various locations in the city.

Throughout Bosnia, libraries, archives, museums and cultural institutions have been targeted for destruction, in an attempt to eliminate the material evidence D1 books, documents and works of art D1 that could remind future generations that people of different ethnic and religious traditions once shared a common heritage in Bosnia. In the towns and villages of occupied Bosnia, communal records (cadastral registers, waqf documents, parish records) of more than 800 Muslim and Bosnian Croat (Catholic) communities have been torched by Serb nationalist forces as part of "ethnic cleansing" campaigns. While the destruction of a community's institutions and records is, in the first instance, part of a strategy of intimidation aimed at driving out members of the targeted group, it also serves a long-term goal.

These records were proof that non-Serbs once resided and owned property in that place, that they had historical roots there. By burning the documents, by razing mosques and Catholic churches and bulldozing the graveyards, the nationalist forces who have now taken over these towns and villages are trying to insure themselves against any future claims by the people they have driven out and dispossessed.

Other Bosnians, however, remain determined to preserve their country's historic ideal of a multicultural, tolerant society and the institutions that enshrine its collective memory. Surviving staff members of the National and University Library -- Serbs and Croats as well as Muslims -- are still at work in Sarajevo. An estimated 10% of the Library's collection was saved, as were computer tapes containing cataloguing records for at least some of the items that perished in the fire. In temporary quarters, 42 librarians (out of a pre-war staff of 108) are preparing inventories, undertaking what conservation measures are possible under current conditions, keeping track of titles published in Sarajevo since April 1992, and planning for the post-war reconstruction of their institution. They are also trying to serve the needs of 850 faculty members and the 4,500 students still studying at the University of Sarajevo; 70 students have completed work for doctoral degrees since the beginning of the siege.

The librarians and research staff of Sarajevo's Oriental Institute have also decided to carry on, despite the nearly total loss of their Institute's collections. In temporary quarters, they have been holding seminars and symposia to share their research, reconstructed from notes kept at home, and making plans for the Institute's future. They have issued a call for moral and material support from their colleagues throughout the world.

Response thus far by international agencies, institutions and professional organizations has been only modestly encouraging. UNESCO has given its endorsement to the rebuilding of the National Library, has sponsored a number of meetings to discuss the project, and has set up an office in Sarajevo. However, few books and little aid has actually reached Sarajevo thus far.

The Helsinki Citizens' Assembly, a human rights group based in Prague, has called on its affiliates to assist Bosnia's National Library and has established collection sites for donated materials in Europe.

Tony Bloomfield,
11 Goodwin Street,
London N4 3HQ
tel.: 44-71-272-9092
fax: 44-71-272-3044

A similar effort is underway in France, led by the Association pour la renaissance de la Bibliothque nationale Sarajevo, which is collecting both funds and book donations

23-25 rue des Petites Ecuries,
75010 Paris, France
tel.: 33-14-801-0580
fax: 33-14-253-5803

The Turkish National Library has undertaken to locate Bosnia-related materials in its own collections -- with the goal of making copies available when Bosnia's National Library is rebuilt -- and has issued a call to national and academic libraries elsewhere urging them to join the effort.

Altinay Sernikli,
T.C. Milli Kutuphane Baskanligi,
06490 Ankara, Turkey;
fax: 312-223-0451

In June 1994, Iran's ambassador to Bosnia promised financial support for the reconstruction of the Oriental Institute; the Royal Library in The Hague has also pledged assistance. Publishers in the Czech Republic and Germany have offered to help produce reprint editions of the classics of Bosnian literature. A small group of British academics have established Bosnia-Herzegovina Heritage Rescue U.K., a private foundation, to assist with immediate conservation needs in Bosnia.

Dr. Marian Wenzel
9 Canterbury Mansions,
Lymington Road,
London NW6 2EW U.K.
tel.: 44-71-433-1142

In the United States, tax-deductible contributions to support the reconstruction of Bosnia's National Library can be sent to the Sarajevo Fund (P.O. Box 1640 Cathedral Station, New York NY 10025).

The above represents but part of a growing number of efforts -- most of them small in scale -- to remedy what a Council of Europe report has characterized as a "major cultural catastrophe." What has largely been lacking, except in symbolic terms, has been an organized response on the part of the professional library community.

The American Library Association's official response, at its 1993 meeting in Denver, was to issue a cautiously-worded statement decrying the loss of access to information by the peoples of the former Yugoslavia.

This statement (CD#37) was passed over the vocal objections of some members, who wanted the ALA to avoid involvement in "political" issues. The full text of the statement was sent to the official addressees (including the White House and the U.N.), but it was decided not to give it wider publicity. IFLA adopted a similar resolution, pointing no fingers and naming no names, at its meeting in Barcelona later that year.

The debates in Denver and Barcelona reflect an unfortunate confusion. The burning of libraries and archives cannot be construed as a mere expression of one side's views in a political dispute. It is also not merely one of the regrettable calamities of war. It is a crime against humanity and a violation of international laws and conventions. The latter include the 1931 Athens Charter, the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, the 1964 Venice Charter, and the 1977 Protocols I and II Additonal to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, all of which were ratified by the government of the former Yugoslavia and remain legally binding upon its successor states.

The prosecution of cimes against culture remains one of the urgent tasks facing the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and deserves our support. But we can also play an active part, in our professional capacity as librarians and representatives of our home institutions, to assist in the task of rebuilding the libraries and cultural heritage of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In addition to the examples given above, there are also other creative ways to use our collective expertise and resources. Although the scale of destruction is unprecedented, not all has been lost in Bosnia and some of what has been destroyed may be recoverable.

Sarajevo's Gazi Husrev Beg Library, one of Bosnia's preminent manuscript libraries (est. 1537), was shelled in May 1992, but most of its collection has been saved. That collection, along with other caches of rescued but endangered materials (including most the holdings of the Archives of Herzegovina in Mostar), requires the attention of conservation professionals. Even before the fighting is over, we can offer training internships as well as technical and material assistance to our Bosnian colleagues, who face the task of caring for, preserving and restoring these precious items.

Of the manuscripts and documents destroyed in the fire that consumed the Oriental Institute, many had been filmed before the war as part of research and exchange projects. Copies of those microfilms, now dispersed in foreign libraries and research institutes, can be collected -- with the help of foreign librarians and scholars -- to form the core of a rebuilt Institute. With some colleagues, we have launched a project to gather information on microforms and other facsimiles of rare and unique Bosnian materials currently held in collections outside of Bosnia. Colleagues who know the present whereabouts of such material are urged to contact the author.

In addition to the burning of libraries, the most grievous loss has been the systematic destruction of historic architecture and works of art in Bosnia. An estimated 1,200 mosques, over 150 Roman Catholic churches, 10 Orthodox churches, 4 synagogues, and more than 1,000 other monuments of culture have been destroyed or severely damaged since 1992.

Bosnians are anxious to rebuild at least a representative portion of these monuments of their country's multi-ethnic heritage. This will require not only financial support and technical expertise, but also documentation, much of which now survives only outside of Bosnia. Libraries and photo archives abroad hold the key to any possibility of recovering and reconstructing what has been destroyed. Art librarians and their associations represented in IFLA could contribute by organizing surveys of library holdings of such materials and sharing the results with our Bosnian colleagues.

We have at hand some of the means to undo the destruction of memory.*

* Those who know the whereabouts of microfilms and photo archives documenting the destroyed cultural heritage of Bosnia are asked to contact the author:

c/o Fine Arts Library, Harvard University, Cambridge MA 02138
e-mail: riedlmay@fas.harvard.edu.
Further information on this project, and about other initiatives aimed at helping Bosnian libraries, is available on the Bosnian Manuscript Project's home page on the World Wide Web:



Arhiv Hercegovine. _Katalog arapskih, turskih i persijskih rukopisa 3D Catalogue of the Arabic, Turkish and Persian Manuscripts._ Ed. Hivzija Hasandedic. Mostar: Arhiv Hercegovine, 1977. 330 pp.

_The Art Treasures of Bosnia and Herzegovina._ Ed. Mirza Filipovic; text: Djuro Basler et al.; photographs: Sulejman Balic et al. Sarajevo: Svjetlost, 1987. 176 pp. : col. ill. A reminder of what Bosnians of all religious backgrounds -- and the rest of us -- have been deprived of in little more than three years of organized destruction. Illustrations include: illuminated pages of manuscripts from Bosnia's Christian, Islamic and Jewish traditions, historical documents, civil and religious architecture, and other works of art. This book was also published in German and Serbo-Croatian editions.

Bollag, Burton. "Bosnia's Desperate Campuses," _Chronicle of Higher Education_, vol. 41 no. 16 (14 December 1994), pp. A40-42.

_______. "Rebuilding Bosnia's Library: Local Scholars Seek Help of Colleagues Worldwide," _Chronicle of Higher Education_, vol. 41 no. 18 (13 January 1995), pp. A35-37.

"Bosnia-Herzegovina: History, Culture, Heritage." (Special issue) _Newsletter / Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture_, no. 31 (April 1993). 46 + 14 pp. : ill. Lists nearly 500 monuments of Bosnian culture (mosques, churches, libraries) destroyed in the first months of the war. Available from: Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture, P.O. Box 24, 80693 Besiktas-Istanbul, Turkey.

Council of Europe. Parliamentary Assembly. _Information Report on the Destruction by War of the Cultural Heritage in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina_. Strasbourg, 1993 D0 Reports 1-5 (2 February 1993 D012 April 1994) were adopted as Assembly Documents nos. 6756, 6869, 6904, 6989, and 7070). Based on research and site inspections of institutions (libraries, archives, museums) and architectural monuments, carried out by rapporteurs commissioned by the European Parliament. Reports are available from: The Secretary, Committee on Culture and Education, Conseil d'Europe, B.P. 431, Strasbourg Cedex F-67006, France.

Detling, Karen J. "Eternal Silence: The Destruction of Cultural Property in Yugoslavia," _Maryland Journal of International Law and Trade_, vol. 17 no. 1 (Spring 1993), pp. 41-75. Examines the legal implications, incl. the applicability of the 1954 Hague Convention and other treaties to Yugoslavia and its successor states.

_Dossier: Urbicide, Sarajevo 3D Sarajevo, une ville blesse._ Ed. by Borislav Curic [et al.]. Sarajevo: Drustvo arhitekata Sarajevo; reprt. Bordeaux: Arc en reve centre d'architecture, 1994. [100] pp. Catalogue of an exhibition of photographs documenting the destruction of Sarajevo's historic buildings and cultural institutions targeted by Serb forces. The exhibition was first held in Sarajevo in the fall of 1993; it has since been shown in Europe and the U.S. Text and captions in English, French and German.

Fisk, Robert. "Waging War on History: In Former Yugoslavia, Whole Cultures Are Being Obliterated." _The Independent_ (London), 20 June 1994, p. 18. First of a series of reports on cultural genocide, its ideologists, and efforts to document the destruction and to bring perpetrators to justice; reprinted in the _San Francisco Chronicle_, 3 July 1994.

Gazi Husrevbegova biblioteka u Sarajevu. _Katalog arapskih, turskih i persijskih rukopisa 3D Catalogue of the Arabic, Turkish and Persian Manuscripts_. Ed. Kasim Dobraca, Zejnil Fajic. Sarajevo: Starjesinstvo Islamske vjerske zajednice, 1963-[1991]. 3 vols.

Lovrenovic, Ivan. "The Hatred of Memory." _New York Times_, 28 May 1994, p. A15. A noted Bosnian scholar descibes the destruction of public and private libraries in Sarajevo, including his own.

Malcolm, Noel. _Bosnia: A Short History._ London: Macmillan ; New York: NYU Press, 1994. xxiv, 340 pp. The best history of Bosnia in English; a synthesis of Bosnian and foreign scholarship based on primary source materials now largely destroyed.

_Mostar '92: Urbicid_. Ed. Ivanka Ribarevic-Nikolic and Zeljko Juric. Mostar: HVO Opcine Mostar, Drustvo Arhitekata Mostar, 1992. 167 pp. Catalog of an exhibition of photographs documenting the destruction of Mostar's historic buildings and cultural institutions by Serbian shelling in 1992; incl. English text and captions.

Orijentalni institut u Sarajevu. _Katalog perzijskih rukopisa Orijentalnog instituta u Sarajevu_. Ed. Salih Trako. Sarajevo: Orijentalni institut u Sarajevu, 1986. 268 pp. Catalog of the Institute's collection of Persian MSS, now destroyed; ill. with facsimiles.

Schwartz, Amy. "Is It Wrong to Weep for Buildings?" _The Washington Post_, 10 May 1994.
Report on a symposium on the destruction of cultural heritage in Bosnia, held on 2 May 1994 at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The full transcript of this symposium was submitted to the U.N. Commission of Experts investigating war crimes in the Former Yugoslavia. The transcript is available on the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) gopher: see <URL: gopher://cormier.icomos.org:70/11/.icomos/treaties/hague/carnegie>.

Sijaric, Rizo. "Update on the Zemaljski Muzej, Sarajevo." _Museum Management and Curatorship_, 12 (1993), pp. 195-199.
An appeal for help by the director of Bosnia's National Museum; an appendix details ongoing efforts to preserve rescued library materials and museum objects and to keep cultural life going under siege.

_Vodic kroz naucne i strucne biblioteke u Bosni i Hercegovini_. Ed. Ljubinka Basovic. Sarajevo: Narodna biblioteka SR Bosne i Hercegovine, 1977. 86, [12] pp.
A guide to Bosnia's academic and research libraries and their holdings.

Wenzel, Marian. "Obituary: Dr. Rizo Sijaric, Director of the Zemaljski Muzej, Sarajevo. Killed in Sarajevo, 10 December 1993." _Museum Management and Curatorship_, 13 (1994), pp. 79-80.

Zdralovic, Muhamed. "Bosnia-Herzegovina." In: _World Survey of Islamic Manuscripts_, Vol. I. Ed. G.J. Roper. London: Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, 1992, pp. 87-110.