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New Series no.13/14 December 1999 - February 2000
Libraries and archives in Kosova: a postwar report
by Andras Riedlmayer (Fine Arts Library, Harvard University)

In October 1999, two architects and I spent three weeks in Kosova conducting a postwar survey of the state of cultural and religious heritage (architectural monuments, libraries, historical archives and museums). Our Kosova Cultural Heritage Survey, supported by a grant from the Packard Humanities Institute, was undertaken, in part, to assess wartime damage and to identify projects and institutions in need of assistance.

Another goal of our survey was to collect documentation to support the investigations of the Office of the Prosecutor of the U.N. war crimes tribunal (ICTY), which has included the destruction of cultural and religious heritage in Kosova among the charges in its war crimes indictment of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevicand other officials.

In reading the following account, one should keep in mind that Kosova is a small place, half the size of Slovenia but more densely populated, and was poorer in resources than other parts of the former Yugoslavia. It should also be recalled that the Milosevic regime's imposition of direct rule over Kosova in 1989-90 was followed by a decade of systematic neglect of all public services and institutions, including libraries and archives.

Beginning in October 1990, ethnic Albanian faculty and students were ejected by Serbian police from classrooms and offices at the University of Prishtina, which became an apartheid institution reserved for ethnic Serbs only. At the same time, non-Serb readers were banned from the National and University Library, which serves as the central research library for the university and as Kosova's national library of record. Kosovar Albanian professionals were summarily dismissed from their positions at academic and public libraries and other state-supported institutions. The acquisition of Albanian-language library materials effectively ceased. In the mid-1990s a number of library facilities in Kosova were converted to other uses. Parts of the National and University Library building in downtown Prishtina were turned over to a Serbian Orthodox religious school; library offices were used to house Serb refugees from Croatia and Bosnia. For almost a decade 1.8 million Kosovar Albanians þ 90 percent of the population þ were not allowed to set foot inside libraries in Kosova.

Libraries and archives at war

During NATO's air bombardment of Serbia (March-June 1999), the National and University Library and the building that houses the Kosova State Archives and the Archives of the Institute of History, on a hill overlooking the city, were taken over and used as command and control centers by the Yugoslav Army.

At the State Archives, we were shown a certificate presented to the Serbian archive director by the Yugoslav Army command in recognition of the archive's cooperation with the war effort; when the Serbian administration left the archive in mid-June, the certificate was left behind. The use of protected cultural sites for military purposes is a violation of the laws of war, a breach analogous to the abuse of the Red Cross symbol.

Fortunately, neither the State Archives nor the National Library building were hit by bombs or missiles during the air war, but when the Yugoslav military departed, it left a mess behind. At the National and University Library equipment had been stolen, reading room furniture smashed, and the card catalog had been dumped in the basement. Items from special collections had been scattered throughout the building; 47 rare volumes are reportedly still missing. Discarded military uniforms, sniper rifles, and hand grenades were found in the stacks. KFOR peacekeeping troops kept the librarians out for a week while they swept the building for booby traps and explosives. An estimated 100,000 books from the National Library's reserve collection, multiple deposit copies of publications in Albanian kept for exchange and for distribution to public libraries elsewhere in Kosova, were gone - they had been sent to the Lipljan paper mill for pulping before the war by order of the Serbian library director.

Nevertheless, the National and University Library's central research collection of 600,000 volumes has, in the main, survived both the decade of the apartheid regime in Kosova and the recent hostilities without major losses. Now that the war and the `ethnic cleansing' are over, Kosovar librarians and archivists have returned to reclaim their institutions and have begun to assess the damage.

Archives: the loss of the public record

State institutions in Kosova, including libraries and archives, were stripped of equipment (computers, photocopiers, fax machines, etc.) by the departing Serbian administration after the end of hostilities and the arrival of NATO troops in mid-June 1999. The equipment, much of it antiquated, can be replaced. Other losses may be harder to repair.

During the withdrawal of Serbian military and police forces, public records and archives comprising almost the entire documentary base for the orderly functioning of government and society in Kosova were removed on orders from Belgrade. Registries of births, marriages and deaths, citizenship, probate and property records, as well as judicial and police records, and the working documents of many other state institutions were either evacuated to Serbia or burned in situ.

On 22 November, the Ministry of Justice in Belgrade announced (http://www. serbia-info. com/news/1999-11/22/ 15737.cfm) that public records in Kosova had been removed to Serbia `to prevent the Albanian secessionists from destroying or forging [them].' Presumably, control of these records will also make it possible for the Belgrade government to selectively add to, remove or alter documentation to suit its own purposes.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Kosovars who were deprived of their personal documents when they were expelled in the spring of 1999, whose passports or licenses have expired, who wish to register a marriage, buy or sell property, settle a legal dispute or claim an inheritance, are left stranded in a legal and documentary limbo.

As was the case in the 1992-95 Bosnian war, the major losses of historical archival materials in Kosova involved bodies of older records (such as property deeds, some of them dating back to Ottoman times) that had been retained by the record-creating agencies rather than being transferred to the custody of the state historical archives.

The only public historical archive known to have been destroyed during the war was the regional archive for the district of Decani, located in the town of Junik, which was burned by Serb forces. The other regional archives lost computers and other equipment, but their collections have reportedly survived. This is a preliminary assessment, based on our visits to the regional archives in Pec (Albanian: Peja), Junik, Dakovica (Gjakova), and Vucitrn (Vushtrri) and the Kosova State Archives in Prishtina. The International Council on Archives (ICA) sent its own mission to Kosova in December 1999 and is expected to issue its report early this year.,p>

Academic and Public Libraries

Some academic libraries were plundered of parts of their collections, including several of the faculty libraries of the University of Prishtina. We visited the libraries of the Faculty of Architecture, where all but two dozen volumes had been taken, and the Faculty of Law in Prishtina. A portion of the Law Faculty's 100,000-volume collection was subsequently discovered by KFOR stashed in various locations around Prishtina, boxed for shipping and marked with Cyrillic labels reading `Biblioteka.'

However the main research collection of the National and University Library has survived essentially intact. The most pressing problems facing the library at this point are:

  • Missing, damaged or outdated equipment. The building's HVAC system is not operational. During our visit at the end of October 1999, we saw librarians working with their overcoats on. A colleague who visited at the end of January wrote that it was sad to see the librarians `in unheated offices, without lights or electricity trying to carry on their work. But they are determined.' The conveyor-belt system used to retrieve books from the library's stacks, located on two basement levels, is also broken and beyond repair; the librarians have to hand-carry books requested by patrons up and down several flights of stairs.

  • The need to make up for a decade of neglect of collection development. In ten years, only 22,000 items were added to the collection, none of them in Albanian, the language of the overwhelming majority of the population. Checking the shelves, we saw recent books in Serbian (publication dates in the mid-1990s), while books in Albanian and in foreign languages (English, French) were old, with publication dates from the late 1980s and before. Since the end of the war, there has been no money to buy books to make up for the lost years, but the librarians told us that `every day two or three people show up' with donations for the library, `sometimes with 10 cartons of books.' There is also the prospect of help from abroad. Tania Vitvitsky, Project Director at the Sabre Foundation (, went to Prishtina in October 1999 for an assessment visit and is working with the Kosova library, government agencies, and publishers to set up a book donation program.

  • The loss of on-line catalog records and automated systems. Before the war, the library's on-line records were distributed from a central computing facility in Belgrade, which served as the union catalog for all national libraries in the Yugoslav federation. That utility has severed its link with the Prishtina library since the war. Fortunately, the library also kept paper records (a card catalog), which can still be used by readers and staff. The library urgently needs assistance with a new automated system and reconversion of its catalog.

  • The need for professional training. While the library's current staff includes some library professionals, their training predates the 1990s and they had been cut off from the profession, unable to work for the past decade. Unfortunately, the University of Prishtina does not currently have a program in librarianship or archive studies. Until such a program can be set up, short courses and workshops by visiting experts may be the best way to fill the training gap.

  • The lack of financial support. Staff at the National and University Library and other libraries in Kosova have been working without salary for more than six months since the end of the war. The United Nations administration in Kosova (UNMIK) has promised support, but has been unable to provide it because member countries have not lived up to their financial commitments. At a press conference in February, UN administrator Bernard Kouchner said he had no money to pay public employees:

  • `Some of them have not been paid for months - Now, there is zero point zero zero deutschemark in the budget 2000 of Kosova. [...] It is the first time in the history of United Nations peacekeeping operations that we have to deal with a budget, with the payment of the civil servants and organise an administration,' he said. `It is why it is so important to get not only promises, but cash.' (Jerome Rivet, `UN Raises Alarm after Money Runs out in Kosova,' Agence France-Presse, 3 February 2000.)

During our stay in Prishtina, we met with the National and University Library's director, Mehmet Gerguri, and his staff. Mr. Gerguri had worked at the library since 1968 and was appointed as director in 1989. After the imposition of the Serbian apartheid regime in October 1990, ethnic Albanian librarians were dismissed and barred from the premises. Mr. Gerguri and his colleagues were able to reenter the library after the arrival of NATO forces (June 1999) and resumed the work that had been interrupted nine years previously. Among their first tasks, after cleaning up the premises, reshelving the scattered books and refiling the library's dumped card catalog, was to take stock of the condition of libraries throughout Kosova. Although the survey was still in progress, Mr. Gerguri was kind enough to share the data in hand and has since provided me with an update.

The survey includes complete data for public libraries in 25 of Kosova's 29 municipalities, with combined pre-war holdings of 2,015,000 volumes (as of 1990). Of the 25 main public libraries, 10 have survived intact, 12 suffered damage of varying degrees and 3 were burned down.

However 62 of the 158 branch libraries serving neighborhoods and villages were completely destroyed. The combined holdings of all of these public libraries after the war were reported at 1,114,000 volumes. This represents a drop of more than 900,000 volumes from the pre-war total - a loss of 44.7 percent of the collections held by public libraries in Kosova.

More than 2/3 of the reported losses occurred when branch libraries in villages and small towns were burned down as part of `ethnic cleansing' operations. School libraries were also devastated - a July 1999 UNICEF survey found 43 percent of all schools in Kosova destroyed or severely damaged and 95 percent of schools in need of repairs. One example is the village school in Vlastica (Llashtica) in southwestern Kosova, where a reporter found `the classrooms ransacked, the files of student records destroyed, the library of 14,000 books burned, and one of the teachers lost to the violence.' (David Finkel, `Up against the Wall,' Washington Post, 12 December 1999).

Libraries and archives of religious institutions

The oldest libraries and archives in Kosova are the collections of the Christian and Muslim religious communities. The three most important Serbian Orthodox institutions, the Serbian Patriarchate in Pec and the monasteries at Visoki Decani and Gracanica, have notable collections of manuscripts and documents from the medieval and Ottoman periods. These monasteries and their collections survived the war without damage and are under the protection of KFOR troops; some of the most valuable material had reportedly been moved to Serbia before the outbreak of the war. The Orthodox Church also has a seminary and theological library in Prizren (Bogoslovija Sv. Kirila i Metodija, est. 1871). Since the end of the war in June 1999, the seminary has served as a shelter for Serb refugees; we found the building intact and closely guarded by German KFOR soldiers.

The manuscript libraries and historic archives of the Islamic Community of Kosova (KBI), which held the written record of 600 years of Islamic culture in the region, suffered terrible destruction. The most serious loss of non-governmental archives in Kosova was the burning of the KBI's Central Archive in the center of Prishtina, housed in a building adjoining the fifteenth-century Sultan Murad Mosque. The Islamic Community archive was torched by Serbian policemen on 13 June 1999 and burned all day, the flames providing a dramatic backdrop for television camera crews covering the arrival of the first British KFOR troops in Prishtina.

The KBI's Central Archive had been established in the late Ottoman period as a provincial archive for records and deeds of religious endowments (waqf), records of the training and appointments of Islamic religious personnel and jurists (ulema), the records of Islamic schools, and other documents going back for more than 300 years. The catalog of the archive perished with the collection, which completely filled floor-to-ceiling shelving on three sides of two large rooms (ca. 168 linear meters / 550 linear feet). The fire destroyed the building and all of its contents, including the oldest part of the archive. However, about 20 percent of this archive's holdings, records of the Islamic Community from the period between the two world wars, had been transferred several years ago to the custody of the Kosova State Archives and escaped destruction.

Six of the regional historical archives of the Islamic Community were also attacked and wholly or partially destroyed, including the KBI archives in Pec (Peja), Dakovica (Gjakova), Srbica (Skenderaj), Glogovac (Gllogoc), Suva Reka (Suhareke), and Lipljan (Lipjan).

The Alauddin Medrese in Prishtina, an Islamic secondary school, and its theological library survived unharmed, but other Islamic manuscript collections in Kosova were singled out for destruction by Serbian forces in March-June 1999. Among the most serious losses:

  • The burning on 24 March of the library of Hadum Suleiman Aga in Dakovica (founded 1595; the building dates from 1733), with holdings of ca. 200 manuscripts and 1,300 rare books in Ottoman Turkish, Arabic and Aljamiado (Albanian in Arabic script), as well as the regional archives of the Islamic Community (KBI) with records going back to the 17th century. Among the unique items held by the library was a manuscript of the Albanian Mevlud (poem in praise of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad) by Hafiz Ali-Riza Ulqinaku (1855-1913).

  • The destruction of the Bektashi tekke (dervish lodge) of Axhize Baba in Dakovica (Gjakova), which had one of the most valuable collections of Islamic manuscripts in the region. The fire consumed 250 manuscripts and more than 2,000 rare books; the computerized catalog was burned along with the library. The oldest codex in the collection was a 12th-century Persian manuscript. The tekke was burned to the ground at the beginning of May 1999 by Serbian troops using shoulder-launched incendiary grenades.

  • The library of the Atik Medrese, an 18th-century theological school in the historic city of Pec (Peja), was also burned to the ground, with only parts of the outer walls still standing and its collection of 2,000 printed books and ca. 100 manuscript codices a total loss. Another Ottoman-era theological school, the Atik Medrese in Urosevac (Ferizaj) was also burned down and the remains leveled by bulldozer.

Two important tekke libraries in the town of Orahovac (Rahovec) survived the 1998-99 `ethnic cleansing' of the area with relatively minor damage. The manuscript collection of the 17th-century Halveti tekke in Orahovac was reportedly ransacked in April 1999 by Serbian troops looking for valuables. Books had been taken from the wall cabinets and thrown on the floor, but only a few were said to be missing. The roof of the Melami tekke, where Sheh Hilmi Maliqi established Kosova's first Albanian-language school in the 19th century, was pierced by a projectile when Serb forces shelled the town in the summer of 1998. The hole in the roof has since been repaired and the ceiling has been patched, but the main room of the tekke, where Sheh Hilmi's books and autograph manuscripts are kept, suffered water damage and smells of mildew. In Prizren, the collection of the Museum of Islamic Manuscripts in the Sinan Pasha Mosque is in need of conservation but is otherwise intact.

Hundreds of old, hand-written Korans (mushaf) and other manuscripts and religious books in mosque libraries were destroyed when 209 mosques (1/3 of all Islamic houses of worship in Kosova) were burned down, blown up or severely damaged by Serb forces in the spring of 1999 and during the previous summer.

Inside an old village mosque in Crnoljevo (Carraleve), damaged by explosives set off inside and vandalized by Serb forces in May 1998, we found traditional Islamic leather bindings from which the pages had evidently been ripped out by hand. Torn pages from manuscripts and old printed books in Arabic and Ottoman Turkish, some scorched or smeared with excrement, were scattered amidst the fallen rubble and debris. Crude anti-Muslim and anti-Albanian graffiti in Serbian covered the walls. Of the 37 families who had been living in the village before it was `cleansed' in May 1998, seven families had recently returned and were rushing to rebuild their burned-out homes before the onset of winter. They told us they didn't know what had happened to the other 30 families, but said that a mass grave with 22 bodies had been found near the village.

Many private libraries, both religious and secular, were also lost during the `ethnic cleansing.' In Pec (Peja) we visited the Kurshumli Mosque, built in the early 17th century by Merre Husein Pasha, an Albanian native of Pec who had risen to the rank of grand vizier (chief minister) of the Ottoman Empire. The mosque he built is now an empty shell with charred walls surrounding a gaping hole in the sky and roof tiles crunching underfoot. The imam of the mosque told us that he had moved his grandfather's library of 500 old books into the mosque at the beginning of the war, thinking they would be safe there (`they might burn my house, but surely they wouldn't touch the mosque. . .'). The books were burned, along with the mosque. In a corner of the mosque's entrance portico still sheltered by a dome that hadn't collapsed, we saw the remains of charred pages mingled with the fallen plaster and rubble. Spray-painted on the gate was a huge Serbian cross, alongside graffiti declaring in foot-high letters: OVO JE SRBIJA (`This is Serbia').

Prof. Nehat Krasniqi teaches at the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Prishtina and is in charge of rare books and manuscripts at the National and University Library. He told us he'd spent the 1990s, the years when he was without a job, having been dismissed from both the library and the university, combing the countryside for old books and manuscripts. He found more than 200, which have now been added to the National Library's collection.

He told us about his plans for a manuscript salvage project. He wanted to go out into the countryside to collect those old manuscripts still in the possession of families in rural areas. More than 500 villages in Kosova were burned down in the spring of 1999 and hundreds of thousands of people are spending the winter in tents or other temporary shelter, or doubled up in the homes of relatives. Humanitarian agency officials say that many are likely to abandon the countryside and move to Prishtina, already at double its pre-war population. In the process, whatever family heirlooms survived the war are at serious risk. With the old people who still read and valued these manuscripts now dead or dying, it is likely that some of the old manuscripts that survived the flames and the `ethnic cleansing' may be left behind or discarded as family possessions get pared down to portable essentials.

What Prof. Krasniqi needed to undertake this salvage project was some gas money for travel and a small fund to pay those owners not willing to donate their manuscripts. In response to a preliminary version of this report, in December 1999 the executive board of IFLA provided a grant of 7000 Dutch guilders (ca. $3100) to support Prof. Krasniqi's work. Other assistance projects may follow. IFLA/FAIFE (, in cooperation with UNESCO and the Council of Europe, is sending an expert mission to Kosova to assess the needs of libraries (25 February-5 March 2000). Despite what they have gone through and the hardships they still face, our colleagues in Kosova are looking to the future. Let us hope that they will find the assistance they need to restore the libraries and library services that can help the people of Kosova build a better tomorrow.

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