bosnia report
New Series No: 23/24/25 June - October 2001
Monument and crime
by Andrew Herscher and Andras Riedlmayer

Monument and Crime: the destruction of historic architecture in Kosovo

(Please click here to download a PDF version of this article with photographs, published in Grey Room 01, Fall 2000)

While international accords prohibit the targeting of cultural artifacts during warfare, this legal protection implies that war is not waged over questions of culture and thus, that cultural artifacts can unproblematically be distinguished from legitimate military targets. (1) The 1998-99 conflict in Kosovo, however, was sanctioned by recourse to little else than culture; competing versions of Kosovo’s cultural identity were staged as the bases for competing claims for sovereignty over the province, and cultural artifacts were presented as precise evidence of those claims. The entanglement of the cultural and the political that led to the wide-scale destruction of historic architecture in Kosovo, then, was less an avoidable anomaly of the con‘ict than one of the conflict’s constituent elements. As such, the war in Kosovo is characteristic of a new form of conflict that is produced not out of geopolitical or ideological disputes, but out of the politics of particularist identities. In this new form of conflict, ‘behavior that was proscribed according to the classical rules of warfare and codified in the laws of war in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as atrocities against non-combatants, sieges, destruction of historic monuments, etc., now constitutes an essential component.’ (2) The recruitment of cultural heritage as evidence in support of a political project is, if not inevitable, a prevalent dimension of discourse on that heritage. The situation in Kosovo, however, can be distinguished by the degree to which culture, and specifically, architecture, was—and remains—the symbolic centerpiece of Serb nationalist claims to the province. Kosovo’s Serbian Orthodox buildings— both surviving medieval monuments and the products of twentieth-century church construction programs—have served as proxy for a Serb population to substantiate Serbian state sovereignty over Kosovo, the population of which has been predominantly Albanian since Serbia claimed Kosovo as a province in 1912. Reciprocally, architectural heritage associated with Kosovo’s Albanian majority has been subjected to institutionalized disregard in the management of Kosovo’s cultural heritage and, during the 1998-99 conflict, catastrophic destruction. While this destruction constitutes a war crime in violation of the Hague and Geneva Conventions, it is also the counterpart to a sanctioned cultural heritage policy carried out for decades before the war.

Three justifications

When the Kingdom of Serbia wrested control of Kosovo from the Ottoman Empire in 1912, it set out three justifications for Serbian rule in the province: the ‘moral right of a more civilized people,’ the ethnographic right of a people who ‘originally’ constituted Kosovo’s majority population, and the Serbs’ historic right to the place which contained the Patriarchate buildings of the Serbian Orthodox Church. (3) While these buildings directly substantiated the third of these justifications, they also were scripted as evidence for the preceding two claims; the medieval architecture of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo testified both to the Serbs’ level of civilization and to their past presence in the province.

Between the world wars, this patrimony of medieval architecture was supplemented by an extensive church-building campaign in Kosovo; this campaign led both to the reconstruction of ruined Serbian Orthodox churches and the construction of new ones. Significantly, it is often difficult to distinguish between the two procedures, as what was termed a ‘reconstructed’ (obnovljena) church was sometimes located on a site where a medieval chronicle or charter attested that a church once existed, even if no elements of the original building remained. This equivocation between reconstruction and construction reflected the manner in which Serbian Orthodox architecture in Kosovo was endowed with a continuous existence on an ideological level as a marker of Serb presence in the province, whether or not this architecture actually existed on a material level. To reinforce the same historical continuity, churches built in this period, in both Kosovo and Serbia, utilized a historicist architectural vocabulary drawn from medieval Serbian Orthodox churches. (4)

Indeed, as prominent historic churches in Kosovo, such as the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin at Gracanica Monastery, were often used as direct models for contemporary churches elsewhere in Serbia, the merging of the historicist with the historic mirrored the intended merging of Kosovo with Serbia proper.

Biased criteria

While the construction of religious buildings in Yugoslavia was restricted from the establishment of Tito’s Communist government in 1945 until the relaxation of church-state relations in the mid-1970s, the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments of Kosovo, founded in 1952, institu-tionalized the production of cultural heritage in Kosovo and provided another field on which an ideology of culture would play itself out. (5) By the time of last year’s war, some 210 Serbian Orthodox churches, monasteries, and grave-sites were listed as protected historic monuments in Kosovo, including over forty churches built between the 1930s and the 1990s. In contrast, only fifteen of the more than six hundred mosques in Kosovo were listed as historic monuments, even though well over half of these mosques date from the Ottoman era (fourteenth through nineteenth centuries). (6) As the criteria for considering mosques as ‘historic monuments’ were far more restrictive than those for Serbian Orthodox buildings, Kosovo’s cultural heritage was materially transformed: while listed buildings received all funds designated for historic preservation, the renovation of unlisted mosques was undertaken without the Institute’s supervision and frequently resulted in the damaging or destruction of original architectural elements. (7)

Beginning after the death of Tito in the 1980s, the resurgence of Serb nationalism and the formation of new relations between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Belgrade government led to the initiation of a new program of church building in Kosovo. New Serbian Orthodox churches constructed in the 1990s were prominently positioned in the centers of cities such as Prishtina and Djakovica, while dozens of smaller churches were also constructed in provincial towns and villages, many with the patronage of prominent members and supporters of the Milosevic regime. At the same time, Albanian resistance to Serbian control of Kosovo was sometimes expressed through the vandalism of precisely those artifacts by which that control was legitimated: historic and contemporary Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries. (8) This vandalism was heavily publicized in the state-controlled media as part of a campaign charging Kosovo’s Albanians with ‘genocide’ against Kosovo’s Serbs and their cultural heritage. Monument protection was seized upon by the Serbian government as one of the pretexts for its decision to impose direct rule on Kosovo, a province that had in Tito’s era received considerable control over its own internal affairs; if architecture legitimated Serbia’s claim to Kosovo, then damage to that architecture became damage to that claim.

Targeting heritage

The revocation of Kosovo’s autonomy in 1989, the declaration of a state of emergency in the province, the forced removal of ethnic Albanians from all public institutions, and a series of human rights abuses perpetuated by Serb security forces in the province led to escalating tensions between the province’s ethnic Albanian majority and the Serb government. (9) Increasing repression and the evident failure of non-violent resistance to bring about change led to the formation of an armed insurgency, the Kosovo Liberation Army, and the outbreak of open conflict between the KLA and Serbian government forces in 1998. Serb forces initiated a counter-insurgency campaign in March 1998, directed against the KLA and Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian population. In this campaign, as large numbers of Kosovo’s Albanian population were forcibly deported from their homes, the historic architecture associated with that population was systematically targeted for destruction. This targeting took place both as groups of people were being expelled from their places of residence, apparently to diminish these people’s incentive to return to their hometowns and villages, but also after expulsions took place, apparently to remove visible evidence of Kosovo’s deported Albanian community. (10)

The primary buildings singled out by Serb forces for destruction in 1998 and 1999 were mosques; at least 207 of the approximately 609 mosques in Kosovo sustained damage or were destroyed in that period. (11) Other architectural targets of Serb forces were Islamic religious schools and libraries, more than 500 kullas (traditional stone mansions, often associated with prominent Albanian families), and historic bazaars. Three out of four well-preserved Ottoman-era urban cores in Kosovo cities were also severely damaged, in each case with great loss of historic architecture.

The damage sustained by these buildings was not collateral. Damaged and destroyed monuments were often situated in undisturbed or lightly-damaged contexts, and the types of damage which monuments received (buildings burned from the interior, minarets of mosques toppled with explosives, anti-Islamic and anti-Albanian vandalism) indicate that this damage was deliberate, rather than the result of monuments being caught in the cross-fire of military operations. In a number of cases, eyewitnesses have also been able to precisely describe attacks on historic monuments. While the United Nations High Commission on Refugees has estimated that 70,000 homes were destroyed in Kosovo from March to June 1999, the destruction of historic architecture has a unique significance in that it signifies the attempt to target not just the homes and properties of individual members of Kosovo’s Albanian population, but that entire population as a culturally defined entity.

Revenge attacks

The United Nations Security Council resolution that authorized the United Nations administration in Kosovo following the end of the war in June 1999 allows official FRY and Serbian personnel in Kosovo for certain limited purposes: to mark and clear minefields, to provide liaison with the international security mission, and ‘to maintain a presence at Serb patrimonial sites. (12) Although international peacekeeping forces took measures to guard the most famous medieval Serbian Orthodox sites, less well-known churches and monasteries in rural areas abandoned by the fleeing Serb minority population became the targets of revenge attacks by returning Albanians. In the weeks after the war, more than seventy buildings were vandalized or destroyed; while most were built in the twentieth century, some dated from the medieval period and were listed monuments. (13)

The Serbian government has used these attacks as the basis to petition the United Nations to allow the return of its troops and police to Kosovo to guard historic monuments. While this petition was unsuccessful, the postwar attack on Serbian cultural heritage has been appropriated by Serbian cultural institutions as a means to deflect attention from the assault on Albanian cultural heritage that preceded it. These institutions have reported only on the postwar damage sustained by Serbian Orthodox heritage and these reports have been regarded as neutral and objective assessments by international cultural heritage institutions. (14) As a result, there has been little awareness of or concern for the damaged cultural heritage of Kosovo’s Albanian majority. The only official acknowledgment by the Serbian government that damage was done to Albanian cultural heritage in Kosovo was made in the frame of an assessment of NATO war crimes, which ostensibly included the aerial bombardment of several Albanian historic monuments. (15)

The international community in Kosovo has also been reluctant to acknowledge the damage that was done to Albanian cultural heritage in Kosovo. The initial UNESCO report on the state of cultural heritage in Kosovo after the war was based primarily on information supplied by Serbian cultural heritage institutions. (16) More generally, however, the international community has conceived of its mission in Kosovo as simply a humanitarian triage to provide for the basic needs of Kosovo’s ravaged postwar population, a population which is dealt with less as peoples with distinct and valuable cultural heritages than as generic refugees. As some commentators have pointed out, the NATO intervention in Kosovo was based on an ideology of victimization: ‘when NATO intervened to protect Kosovar victims, it ensured at the same time that they would remain victims, inhabitants of a devastated country with a passive population. (17) The same ideology also underlays the bracketing-off of cultural heritage from what is called the ‘reconstruction’ of Kosovo.


1. On international accords on the protection of cultural property in warfare, see Jiri Toman, The Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (Paris: UNESCO, 1996).

2. Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), p.8.

3. See Noel Malcolm, Kosovo: A Short History (New York: New York University Press, 1998), p.xlvii.

4. On early twentieth-century Serbian historicist architecture, see Bratislav Pantelic, ‘Nationalism and Architecture: The Creation of a National Style in Serbian Architecture and Its Political Importance,’

Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 56, no. 1 (March 1997), pp. 16–41.

5. The early history of this institution—originally, the Institute for the Protection and Study of Cultural Monuments in the Autonomous Province of Kosova-Metohija—is given in Ratomir Karakusevic, ‘Rad Zavoda za zastitu i proucavanje spomenika kulture AKMO od svog osnivanja do

danas,’ Glasnik Muzeja Kosova i Metohije, 1 (1956), pp.357–65.

6. On listed historic monuments in Kosovo, see Mileta Milic, ed., Cultural Heritage of Kosovo and Metohija (Belgrade: Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments of the Republic of Serbia, 1999).

7. See Haki Kasumi, Bashkesite fetare ne Kosove (Prishtina: Instituti i Historise se Kosoves, 1988), 114.

8. A partial list of vandalized Serbian Orthodox sites is given in William Dorich, Kosovo (Alhambra, Cal.: Kosovo Charity Fund, 1992).

9. For an account of this period in Kosovo, see International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, International Helsinki Federation Responses to Human Rights and Humanitarian Law Violations in Kosovo (Vienna: International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, 1999).

10. Nearly half (47 percent) of Kosovar refugees reported seeing places of worship destroyed before they left Kosovo; see Physicians for Human Rights, War Crimes in Kosovo: A Population-Based Assessment of Human Rights Violations Against Kosovar Albanians (Boston, MA: Physicians for Human Rights, 1999), p. 86.

11. This and the following data on damage sustained by cultural heritage in Kosovo are from a survey carried out by the authors in the fall of 1999, publication forthcoming.

12. See United Nations Resolution 1244, Annex 2, sec. 6


13. For a documentation of postwar attacks on Serbian Orthodox sites, see ‘Destroyed and Desecrated Christian Orthodox Shrines in Kosovo and Metohija’ (

14. For example, reports from the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) in Yugoslavia and the Society of Conservators of Serbia were consolidated in ‘War Damage in the Balkans,’ US/ICOMOS Newsletter (March-April 1999).

15. See NATO Crimes in Yugoslavia: Documentary Evidence 24 March-24 April 1999 (Belgrade: Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, 1999), 226-228. In two cases (Djakovica

bazaar and Prizren League Museum in Prizren) in which NATO is alleged to have destroyed Albanian historic monuments in Kosovo, however, the damage sustained by these monuments is incompatible with the damage produced by aerial bombing.

16. See Colin Kaiser, Report on Mission to Kosovo, 4-14 July 1999 (Paris: UNESCO, 1999).

17. Slavoj Zizek, ‘Attempts to Escape the Logic of Capitalism,’ in London Review of Books 21, 28 October 1999), p.14.


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