Systematic destruction of cultural monuments
by Judith Armatta
Report on the testimony of Harvard expert on cultural heritage of the Ottoman-era Balkans András Riedlmayer at the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague
Milošević Trial, Court Room One, Day 213, 8 July 2003
Harvard expert on the cultural heritage of the Ottoman-era Balkans András Riedlmayer returned to the ICTY to advise the Court on the results of his study on ‘Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Bosnia-Herzegovina’ during the war. He had provided a similar assessment early in the Milošević trial on cultural destruction in Kosovo.
Mr Riedlmayer studied 392 cultural and religious heritage sites in 19 municipalities in Bosnia, in a broad arc from Višegrad and Zvornik in the east to Prijedor in the northwest and Nevesinje in the south. He found that 92% of the 277 Islamic mosques were either heavily damaged or destroyed. The same was true for other Islamic religious monuments, such as turbes (shrines) and tekkes (dervish lodges). Virtually no minarets survived the 1992-1996 war intact in the parts of Bosnia controlled by Bosnian Serb forces, he concluded in his report filed with the Court.
The study included Roman Catholic churches, mostly associated with the Croat population of Bosnia. Of the 57 churches, none escaped undamaged. More than 75% were either heavily damaged or destroyed. In addition, Mr Riedlmayer stated in his report, as in the case of the mosques, Catholic churches of historic and cultural importance appear to have been disproportionately targeted.
The Bosnian National Library and the Institute for Oriental Studies were both totally destroyed from bombardment with incendiary shells. Mr Riedlmayer called the destruction of 1.5 million books (the bulk of the Library's collection) the largest single incident of deliberate book-burning in modern history. The losses at the Oriental Institute included the country's richest collection of Islamic manuscripts (5,263 codices in Arabic, Ottoman Turkish, Persian and Bosnian), many of them unique, the products of five centuries of Bosnian Muslim cultural history.
As a result of his study, Mr Riedlmayer concluded that the Bosnian Serb destruction of Islamic and Catholic cultural and religious heritage sites was intentional and systematic. The damage to these monuments was clearly the result of attacks directed against them, rather than incidental to the fighting. As evidence, Mr Riedlmayer cited blast damage showing explosives had been placed inside the buildings, the lack of damage to surrounding buildings, the absence of bullet holes, the absence of fighting in the area, and the fact that in a number of towns the destruction took place while the areas were under the control of Serb forces.
The likely intent of destroying the cultural and religious heritage of a people, he said, was reflected in a comment by Simo Drljača, Bosnian Serb police chief in the Prijedor area: ‘With their mosques, you must not just break the minarets. . . . You've got to shake up the foundations because that means they cannot build another. Do that, and they'll want to go. They'll just leave by themselves.’ The intent was to erase history, to destroy a people's connection with place, to create a condition of anomie.
The intent to destroy the cultural identity of a people was also evident in the complete removal of any sign that the monument had ever existed. Mr Riedlmayer showed the Court a number of photographs where empty sites of former mosques were covered with grass, often with a rubbish tip or rusting vehicle marking the spot as a further desecration. A video clip taken by a news agency at the time showed a bulldozer clearing the rubble of a blown-up mosque in the town centre of Bijeljina, while soldiers stood casually by and civilians went about their business. In some cases like that of the 18th Century Sava Mosque in Brčko, the rubble was dumped on top of a mass grave site and used to cover the remains of Muslim civilians killed by Serb forces.
In on-site research, Mr Riedlmayer talked with people from the local communities, some who witnessed the destruction of their monuments. Though not part of his research, he collected reports of civilians killed or burned alive when mosques and Catholic churches were torched. More than 30 members of the Muslim congregation were reportedly burned alive when the mosque at Hanifići in Kotor Varoš was destroyed. In the Prijedor village of Čarakovo, he was told that Serb forces gathered 18 Muslim villagers in front of the mosque and killed them, wrapped the imam (clergyman) in a prayer carpet and burned him to death, then burned down the mosque and blew up the minaret. . . . Similar incidents occurred at Catholic religious sites. In the town of Prijedor the Roman Catholic parish church was mined twice (September 1992 and August 1995). After the second explosion, which levelled [sic] the remains of the church, Bosnian Serb police detained the parish priest, Father Tomislav Matanović, and his aged parents, who were not seen alive again; their bodies were discovered six years later, shot in the head and dumped into a well near Prijedor. In another incident in Prijedor municipality, the Catholic church was burned along with all the houses in the village of Briševo and 78 parishioners, including women and children, were reportedly killed.
Mr Riedlmayer also reported that some of the destruction in the spring of 1992 has been linked to JNA forces. He provided several examples where JNA aircraft, tanks and troops were sighted firing on religious or cultural monuments. Milošević singled out one example of a mosque at Orasje which the report said was destroyed by uniformed JNA troops arriving in a military transporter. ‘Weren't Croatian forces in control of Orasje?’, Milošević asked. Mr Riedlmayer replied that they were in control of the Orasje in Northern Bosnia, but not of the Orasje in Doboj municipality where JNA troops were seen by an eye witness.
Addressing Judge May, Milošević attempted to distinguish between mutual destruction of religious monuments by all three sides and the destruction of cultural monuments. The former, he said, occurs in civil wars, while the latter is genocide. Mr Riedlmayer, however, denied that the destruction was equivalent on all sides. While acknowledging that Serb Orthodox monuments had suffered some destruction, he testified that it had not happened to an equal degree or simultaneously. In areas under the control of Bosnian Serb forces, there seems to have been nearly complete eradication of non-Serb religious structures. In areas under the control of the Sarajevo Government (i.e. the Government of Bosnia-Herzegovina), especially urban areas, by and large Serb Orthodox sites survived intact.
No evidence of ‘revenge’
Judge May noted that destruction of Serb Orthodox monuments was not part of the indictment. It would nevertheless have some relevance if it supported Milošević's theory that mosques and Catholic churches were targeted out of revenge, rather than in a systematic campaign. None of Mr Riedlmayer's evidence supported the revenge theory. From the study, he said, one can conclude that the vast majority of destruction of mosques and Catholic churches happened in the first year or year and a half of the war, at the same time as the forcible expulsion of the minority population. When Milošević asserted that a particular Serb Orthodox church in Mostar was destroyed in June 1992, one year before any mosques or Catholic churches in the area were destroyed, the witness showed the breadth of his expertise when he replied that nearly all mosques and Catholic churches in Mostar were destroyed prior to June 1992, during the Yugoslav People's Army April-May siege of the city.
The Accused also attempted to distinguish between cultural heritage and religious monuments, stating that only the former was covered by international covenants. Mr Riedlmayer, while acknowledging he is not a legal expert, said he believed other conventions protected religious monuments. In fact, one of the charges against Milošević is for violating the laws or customs of war, including seizure of, destruction of, or wilful damage done to institutions dedicated to religion, charity and education, the arts and sciences, historic monuments and works of art and science.
Milošević then asserted that religious buildings, the Sarajevo Library and Oriental Institute were being used for military purposes to fire against Serb forces. With respect to the Oriental Institute and the National Library, Mr Riedlmayer said if that were the case he would have expected allegations [to that effect] to have surfaced during or immediately after the war, but they did not. In other cases, mosques and Catholic churches were destroyed while under Bosnian Serb control in areas where there was no fighting -- and they alone were targeted. The surrounding buildings showed no damage.
The Accused produced an order from Republika Srpska President Radovan Karadžić dated 12 May 1993 to the effect that Serbian forces were to guard all religious sites in Banja Luka and protect them from repeated terrorist attacks. On redirect examination, the prosecutor asked the witness if any mosques were still standing on that date in Banja Luka. Mr Riedlmayer replied that only three had been destroyed as of that date. However, thirteen were destroyed in succeeding months, so that by December 1993 none were left. The witness said he had no knowledge that anyone had been prosecuted for disobeying Karadžić's order or destroying the mosques.
Mr Riedlmayer ended his testimony by quoting a Muslim citizen of Banja Luka, following the destruction of the 16th Century Ferhadija mosque: ‘It is as though they have torn our heart out. They wanted us to understand we had no place here.’ The testimony and the report are cogent evidence that ethnic cleansing involves more than killing and dislocation. The destruction of a people's cultural monuments effectively separates them from place and casts them rootless into the world. It destroys their self-identity as a community existing over time. As the Prijedor police chief said, it is an essential element in ethnic cleansing.
This report was posted on the website of the Coalition for International Justice (CIJ) on 9 July 2003, updated 11 July 2003