bosnia report
New Series No: 29-31 June - November 2002
Bricks and mortar
by Robert Bevan

Nationalist Serb songs were played with renewed vigour on the radios and in the bars of Banja Luka last summer. They were played at the height of the war in Bosnia, the night before the first of the town's 16 mosques was dynamited and as its Muslim population was killed or expelled.

The beautiful 16th-century Ferhadija Mosque was among the casualties of this ethnic cleansing - far from the military front line. Its minaret survived the blast briefly, but was soon brought down and bulldozed with zest by the town's Serbian authorities. Over 1,100 mosques and other Muslim buildings, 309 Catholic churches and monasteries and 36 Serbian Orthodox churches, libraries, museums, archives, graveyards and ancient Ottoman houses were among the thousands of cultural monuments destroyed - more often than not deliberately - during the war in the former Yugoslavia. Eight years after the destruction of the Ferhadija, the few dozen Muslims left in Banja Luka, now the capital of the Dayton-created Republika Srpska (RS) had, with the help of Muslims from elsewhere in Bosnia, been trying to lay a cornerstone for a new mosque on the site. The songs in the bars last summer helped fuel a riot that saw elderly Muslims pelted with stones, bottles and eggs, and a pig let loose to defile the site. The British ambassador was among those forced to take refuge from the mob in a nearby community centre. On the other side of the square outside the city hall, the largest Orthodox church in Bosnia is being built.

Ferhadia Mosque

Ferhadija Mosque

It is a pattern that has been repeated in other Croat- and Serb-controlled towns where Muslims were forced out and the centuries-old physical evidence of their presence pulverised. In Foa, Stolac, and Trebinje, Muslim returnees have been trying vainly to rebuild even a fraction of their religious patrimony. Building permits are refused and threats made. Decision-making councils are suddenly inquorate. Serb and Croat authorities discover ‘evidence’ of pre-existing churches on Muslim sites. ‘There were never any mosques in Zvornik,’ was the town's Serbian mayor's incredible claim. ‘There never were any mosques in Foa,’ echoed the mayor there. In truth, there were four, dating from 1500-1752, including the renowned 16th-century Coloured Mosque. All deliberately destroyed along with dozens of secular buildings, a mausoleum, fountains, etc. Drive through Croat-controlled Stolac today and the only sign of progress among the destroyed Ottoman houses is a wooden fence demarcating the site of the dynamited main mosque - which had recently been used for a car park. Other sites are being used for markets and bus stations.

The killing of a person destroys an individual memory. The destruction of cultural heritage erases the memory of a people. It is as if they were never there. Bomb someone's home, their place of worship and their parents' graves; seize their documents and burn the land records and they have nothing to keep them there and no evidence they ever lived there, even if they want to return.

Terms such as ‘warchitecture’ and ‘urbicide’ have been coined to describe this cultural genocide but it is by no means unique to the Bosnian war. The same year saw the Taliban's dynamiting of the giant Bamiyan Buddhas; the continued destruction of historic Tibetan Lhasa by the Chinese (including the carting away to Shanghai of a five-metre-high bronze-and-gold statue from the tomb of the seventh Dalai Lama). And, of course, in Israel, the wholesale destruction of Arab villages and the redevelopment of Arabic quarters of Jaffa and the Magharibeh quarter of Jerusalem that followed the 1948 war has been intensified with the levelling of Palestinian homes in response to the Al-Aqsa intifada. Here, too, building permits and bulldozers, destruction and rebuilding, are weapons of war and of ethnic cleansing.

In centuries of conflict, architecture has inevitably been damaged or destroyed in the mêlée, but buildings have also been deliberately attacked for what and whom they represent. Whether Reformation iconoclasm or the Nazi eradication of Jewish synagogues in the Holocaust (Sarajevo's Sephardic synagogue, which was shelled in the recent war, was turned into a garage by Nazis in the last) architecture takes on a totemic quality. This may be to make permanent a territorial conquest or make concrete a new national, religious or ideological identity. It may be genocide or ethnic cleansing. It may simply be a desire to lower an enemy's morale by attacking their precious identity. This, arguably, informed the shelling of Dubrovnik, or the carpet bombing of Dresden and Lübeck and the ‘Baedeker’ raids on historic English towns. The fate of cultural monuments in warfare says much about the motivation of people who build or destroy them. Whether in divided Nicosia, Belfast and Kashmir, flattened and rebuilt Warsaw and Beirut, or District Six in Cape Town levelled under apartheid, architecture is never considered an innocent bystander.

As weaponry got heavier, the first international treaty for the protection of cultural heritage was drawn up at the 1899 Hague Conference. A 1954 Hague Convention followed, and additional cultural protocols to the Geneva Convention were drawn up in 1977. This offers a legal framework for the destruction of heritage to be considered a war crime but it is rarely invoked. The Nuremberg war trials addressed the issue but there has been little headway in today's Hague proceedings on the former Yugoslavia.

Dayton has brought a sort of peace to Bosnia but has only hindered the rebuilding of Bosnia's built heritage. The splitting of the country into the RS and the Bosnia-Herzegovina Federation (which is subdivided into further cantons) has resulted in no less than 12 culture ministries. None has effective overall control. There is no strategic plan for rebuilding and little co-operation between the different ethnic bodies, whose heritage priorities can be poles apart. Expertise has vanished and records been burned.

Annexe Eight of Dayton did call for a Bosnia-wide commission to preserve national monuments, but this is ineffectual and rarely meets. The RS constitution, in defiance of international pressure, is still that signed by Radovan Karadñiƒ and refers only to Serb heritage. UNESCO, the EU and other foreign donors have stepped in to help.

In some cases it has caused more damage than war itself. Saudi Arabia's ruling Wahhabi sect has supported the rebuilding of many mosques in Muslim-controlled areas, but to their eyes the richly decorated indigenous Islamic architecture of the Balkans reeked of idolatry. In Kosovo, Saudi-inspired ‘restoration work’ has seen the flattening of a library and 16th-century Islamic school in favour of the austere Gulf version. It comes as no surprise that Wahhabism had close links with the Buddha-blasting Taliban. Claims have also been made that Wahhabi-funded groups have linked aid to sectarian rebuilding programmes.

But it is the fundamental demographic shifts that underlie the difficulties. In Mostar, the centuries-old Ottoman bridge, which became a potent symbol of communities divided by the war when it was blasted into the Neretva River by Croat forces, is now being rebuilt. But for whom? Before the war, cosmopolitan Mostar had one of the highest percentage of mixed-faith marriages in Bosnia. As Croat extremists moved in and divided and killed family members, thousands of liberal ecumenical Mostarians fled the west of the city to be replaced by Croat peasants driven into town and radicalised by their experience of ethnic cleansing. The resulting 10-month-long vicious siege of what became Muslim east Mostar by the Catholic Croat west has left a legacy of bitterness and division that is being made physical by the reconstruction, despite international efforts to return people to their homes.

Along with the bridge, the stone houses of the heavily shelled Ottoman quarter are being carefully restored, although without the presence of the Serbian Orthodox Church blown up during the war.

On the west side, below the enormous cross on Hum hill that dominates the city, the Catholic Church has completed one new cathedral and has started on another. The gutted Franciscan church of St Peter and Paul has also been replaced with a steroidal concrete monster whose architecturally illiterate and over-scaled campanile can be seen for miles. It is a giant one-finger gesture to local Muslims, but to the delight of Mostar's moderates it has apparently started to lean and cannot be completed.

Before the war, the 500-year-old bridge was a place that all Mostarians owned (Mostar itself means ‘bridge-keeper’). Its graceful arch was where they ended up on first dates, met friends for a night out and held contests of diving prowess. The day after the bridge fell, Mostarians who had been hiding in basements from the shelling for months risked daylight to look at where the bridge had been and weep. A lot of these Mostarians have yet to return.

To some Bosnians, rebuilding cultural monuments comes a long way behind new homes and jobs. It is an empty gesture, they argue, to rebuild a mosque in a town where there are no Muslims, a Catholic church where there are no Croats. It would be a faked museum piece, a murmur from a dead language.

For others, rebuilding every community's landmarks, churches and mosques is an investment in a living tradition of multiculturalism - and a defiance of genocide and attempts to rewrite history. ‘Do not forget. Remember and warn,’ urges the new plaque fixed to the hollow shell of Sarajevo's National Library.


The Independent (London), 3 September 2001


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