The obliteration of Balkan history

Author: Adam LeBor
Uploaded: Saturday, 14 June, 2008

Following the arrest near Belgrade last week of Stojan Zupljanin, former security chief for Karadzic in wartime Bosnia, Adam LeBor recalls his role in the attempt to obliterate Banja Luka's Ottoman heritage and argues that his arrest is small recompense for the destruction he wreaked

I still remember resting my hand against the cool stone walls of the Ferhadija mosque in Banja Luka. It felt calm and solid, welcoming and tranquil, its roof soaring to the heavens. Built in the 16th century, the Ferhadija mosque was one of the most beautiful examples of Ottoman Balkan architecture. The Ferhadija was a UNESCO world heritage site.

The tranquility was deceptive. The Ferhadija's thick walls proved no protection, neither for itself nor its worshippers that autumn of 1992. By then, six months into the Bosnian war, Serb ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the region was well under way, much of it, according to his indictment for war crimes, under the command of Stojan Zupljanin, the Bosnian Serb security chief. Zupljanin, who was based in Banja Luka during the war, was arrested on Wednesday near the Serbian capital Belgrade. He will be transferred to the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Zupljanin is charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes, for the deaths of civilians. He is one of the last four indictees still wanted by the tribunal. His bosses, Bosnian Serb military commander General Ratko Mladic, and political leader, Radovan Karadzic, remain free. The fourth man, Goran Hadzic, was a leader of the Croatian Serbs.

The world had expressed its outrage that summer of 1992 when news broke of the network of concentration camps the Bosnian Serbs had set up across northern Bosnia, including the notorious Omarska. But that outrage soon fizzled into nothing. While the United Nations, the US and Europe dithered, Zupljanin and his henchmen organised a reign of terror, expelling and murdering Muslims and Croats in their quest for an ethnically pure Greater Serbia.

As the horror unfolded, the Ferhadija mosque remained a place of refuge for Banja Luka's Muslims. Community leaders handed packets of aid to the few Muslims, mostly women, who dared to stay in the city, and some words of reassurance. But they did not look like they believed what they were saying.

Even Mira Markovic, wife of the late Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, knew that terrible things were happening in and around Banja Luka. Markovic wrote in Duga magazine in May 1993: ‘It is very hard for me to understand how ... a section of that selfsame Serbian nation is doing to another nation the selfsame things that were considered dishonourable and barbaric when happening to them.’

If Markovic wanted to understand what was happening in Banja Luka she need only ask her husband, for the Bosnian Serb forces were merely a section of the Yugoslav army under another name, armed, trained and financed by the Milosevic regime.

The Ferhadija mosque no longer exists. It was demolished with carefully-laid explosives in May 1993. All 16 of Banja Luka's mosques were systematically demolished, and the rubble dumped outside the city. It was not enough to drive the Muslims from Banja Luka - even their history had to be destroyed.

Some have returned. But their sporadic attempts to rebuild the Ferhadija have failed, as Serb opposition remains too strong. It is sad, but perhaps also darkly fitting, that the Ferhadija cannot rise again. Like the multi-ethnic Bosnia that existed before the war, Banja Luka's historic mosques have gone forever. Zupljanin's trial is meagre recompense for a loss, not just for Bosnia, but for all of us.

This article was first published on on 13 June 2008.

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