Erasing the Past:
The Destruction of Libraries 
and Archives in Bosnia-Herzegovina

András Riedlmayer, Harvard University

Reprinted from the Middle East Studies Association Bulletin, July 1995 (with changes in orthography to HTML standards. Since some of the characters in this article - in Turkish, Serbo-Croatian, French and other languages - may not appear on the WWW, or may be rendered incorrectly, readers should consult the print edition.)
Copyright 1995 by the Middle East Studies Association of North America

THREE YEARS have passed since the beginning of the war in Bosnia. Amidst the reports of human suffering and atrocities, another tragic loss has gone largely unnoted the destruction of the written record of Bosnia’s past. On 25 August 1992, Bosnia’s National and University Library, a handsome Moorish-revival building built in the 1890s on the Sarajevo riverfront, was shelled and burned. Before the fire, the library held 1.5 million volumes, including over 155,000 rare books and manuscripts; the country's national archives; deposit copies of newspapers, periodicals and books published in Bosnia; and the collections of the University of Sarajevo. Bombarded with incendiary grenades from Serbian nationalist positions across the river, the library burned for three days; it was reduced to ashes with most of its contents. Braving a hail of sniper fire, librarians and citizen volunteers formed a human chain to pass books out of the burning building. Interviewed by ABC News, one of them said: “We managed to save just a few very precious books. Everything else burned down. And a lot of our heritage, national heritage, lay down there in ashes.” Aida Buturovi, a librarian in the National Library’s exchanges section, was shot to death by a sniper while attempting to rescue books from the flames.

Three months earlier Sarajevo’s Oriental Institute, home to the largest collection of Islamic and Jewish manuscript texts and Ottoman documents in Southeastern Europe, was shelled with phosphorus grenades and burned. Losses included 5,263 bound manuscripts in Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, and Aljamiado (Bosnian Slavic written in Arabic script); 7,000 Ottoman documents, primary source material for five centuries of Bosnia’s history; a collection of 19th-century cadastral registers; and 200,000 other documents of the Ottoman era, including microfilm copies of originals in private hands or obtained on exchange from foreign institutions. The Institute’s collection of printed books, the most comprehensive library on its subject in the region, was also destroyed as was its catalog and all work in progress.

In each case, the library alone was targeted; adjacent buildings stand intact to this day. Serb nationalist leader Radovan Karadic has denied his forces were responsible for the attacks, claiming the National Library had been set ablaze by the Muslims themselves “because they didn't like its ... architecture” (New York Newsday, 30 November 1992).

The 200,000-volume library of Bosnia’s National Museum (est. 1888) was successfully evacuated under shelling and sniper fire during the summer of 1992. Among the books rescued from the Museum was one of Bosnia’s greatest cultural treasures, the 14th-century Sarajevo Haggadah. The work of Jewish calligraphers and illuminators in Islamic Spain, the manuscript was brought to Sarajevo 500years ago by Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. Successfully concealed from the Nazis by a courageous museum curator during World War II, the Sarajevo Haggadah has once again been hidden in a secret location. The National Museum, meanwhile, has been badly hit. Shells have crashed through the roof and the skylights and all of its 300 windows have been shot out, as have the walls of several galleries. Parts of the Museum’s collection that could not be moved to safe stores remain in the building, exposed to further artillery attacks and to decay from exposure to the elements. Dr. Rizo Sijari , the Museum’s director, was killed by a grenade blast on 10 December 1993 while trying to arrange for plastic sheeting from UN relief agencies to cover some of the holes in the building.

In April 1992, Serbian forces began bombarding the historic city of Mostar, the center of the country’s southwestern region, Herzegovina. The Archives of Herzegovina, housing manuscripts and records documenting the region’s past since the medieval period, was repeatedly hit and suffered severe damage. Over 50,000 books were destroyed when the library of Mostar’s Roman Catholic archbishopric was struck by shells fired from artillery positions on the heights overlooking the city. Further tens of thousands of books and documents were exposed to fire and damp when shells smashed through the roof and windows of the Museum of Herzegovina. The University of Mostar Library was also hit and burned, along with a score of other libraries and archives at various locations in the city.

Throughout Bosnia, libraries, archives, museums and cultural institutions have been targeted for destruction, in an attempt to eliminate the material evidence books, documents and works of art that could remind future generations that people of different ethnic and religious traditions once shared a common heritage in Bosnia. In the towns and villages of occupied Bosnia, communal records (cadastral registers, waqf documents, parish records) of more than 800 Muslim and Bosnian Croat (Catholic) communities have been torched by Serb nationalist forces as part of ethnic cleansing campaigns.

While the destruction of a community’s institutions and records is, in the first instance, part of a strategy of intimidation aimed at driving out members of the targeted group, it also serves a long-term goal. These records were proof that non-Serbs once resided and owned property in that place, that they had historical roots there. By burning the documents, by razing mosques and Catholic churches and bulldozing the graveyards, the nationalist forces who have now taken over these towns and villages are trying to insure themselves against any future claims by the people they have driven out and dispossessed.

Other Bosnians, however, remain determined to preserve their country’s historic ideal of a multicultural, tolerant society and the institutions that enshrine its collective memory.

Surviving staff members of the National and University Library Serbs, Croats and Jews as well as Muslims are still at work in Sarajevo. An estimated 10% of the Library’s collection was saved, as were tapes containing computerized records for some of the items that perished in the fire. In temporary quarters, 42 librarians (out of a pre-war staff of 108) are preparing inventories, undertaking what conservation measures are possible under current conditions, keeping track of titles published in Sarajevo since April 1992, and planning for the post-war reconstruction of their institution. They are also trying to serve the needs of 850 faculty members and the 4,500 students still studying at the University of Sarajevo; 70 students have completed work for doctoral degrees since the beginning of the siege.

The librarians and research staff of Sarajevo’s Oriental Institute have also decided to carry on, despite the nearly total loss of their Institute’s collections. In temporary quarters, they have been holding seminars and symposia to share their research, reconstructed from notes kept at home, and making plans for the Institute's future. They have issued a call for moral and material support from their colleagues throughout the world.

Response thus far by international agencies, institutions and professional organizations has been only modestly encouraging. UNESCO has given its endorsement to the rebuilding of the National Library and has sponsored several meetings to discuss the project, but has provided little tangible support thus far.

The Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, a human rights group based in Prague, has called on its affiliates to assist Bosnia’s National Library and has established collection sites for donated materials in Europe (contact: Tony Bloomfield, HCA-UK, 11 Goodwin Street, London N4 3HQ; tel. 44-71-272-9092; fax 44-71-272-3044). A similar effort is underway in France, led by the Association pour la renaissance de la Bibliothèque nationale à Sarajevo, which is collecting both funds and book donations (contact: A.R.B.N.S., 23-25 rue des Petites Ecuries, 75010 Paris, France; tel. 33-14-801-0580; fax 33-14-253-5803). The Turkish National Library has undertaken to locate Bosnia-related materials in its own collections with the goal of making copies available when Bosnia’s National Library is rebuilt and has issued a call to national and academic libraries elsewhere urging them to join the effort (contact: T. C. Millî Kütüphane, 06490 Ankara, Turkey). In June 1994, Iran’s ambassador to Bosnia promised financial support for the reconstruction of the Oriental Institute; the Royal Library in The Hague has also pledged assistance. British academics have established Bosnia-Herzegovina Heritage Rescue U.K., a private foundation, to assist with immediate conservation needs in Bosnia (contact: Dr. Marian Wenzel, 9 Canterbury Mansions, Lymington Road, London NW6 2EW U.K.; tel. 44-71-433-1142). In the United States, tax-deductible contributions to support the reconstruction of Bosnia’s National Library can be sent to the Sarajevo Fund (P.O. Box 1640 Cathedral Station, New York, NY 10025; checks should be made out to Sarajevo Fund/National Library Account book donations cannot be accepted at present).

The American Library Association’s official response, at its 1993 meeting in Denver, was to issue a cautiously-worded statement decrying the loss of access to information by the peoples of the former Yugoslavia. This statement (CD#37) was passed over the vocal objections of some members, who wanted the ALA to avoid involvement in political issues. The full text of the statement was sent to the official addressees (incl. the White House and the U.N.), but it was decided not to give it wider publicity.

The debate in Denver reflects an unfortunate confusion. The burning of libraries and archives cannot be construed as a mere expression of one side's views in a two-sided political dispute where right is assumed to reside somewhere in the middle. It is a crime against humanity and a violation of international laws and conventions. The latter include the 1931 Athens Charter, the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, the 1964 Venice Charter, and the 1977 Protocols I and II Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, all of which were ratified by the government of the former Yugoslavia and remain legally binding upon its successor states.

The loss of access to information also affects those of us who study the history and cultures of the Middle East and the Islamic world. Scholars in fields seemingly remote from the Balkans Persian literature, Islamic science, Sufism have lost resources of which they were only beginning to become aware. Fortunately, not all has been lost and some of what has been destroyed may be recoverable. Sarajevo’s Gazi Husrev Beg Library (est. 1537) was shelled in May1992, but most of its collection has been saved. Of the manuscripts and documents destroyed in the fire that consumed the Oriental Institute, many had been filmed for research and exchange projects. Copies of those microfilms, now dispersed in foreign libraries and research institutes, can be collected with the help of foreign scholars to form the core of a rebuilt Institute. We have at hand some of the means to undo the destruction of memory.*

* Readers who know the whereabouts of such microfilms are asked to contact the author (c/o Fine Arts Library, Harvard University, Cambridge MA 02138; e-mail: riedlmay@fas.harvard.edu).

For ongoing efforts to recover extant copies of destroyed Bosnian manuscripts, see The Bosnian Manuscripts Ingathering Project home page.


Annotated Bibliography

Algar, Hamid. “Persian Literature in Bosnia-Herzegovina,” Journal of Islamic Studies 5 (1994), pp. 254-267.

Arhiv Hercegovine. Katalog arapskih, turskih i persijskih rukopisa = Catalogue of the Arabic, Turkish and Persian Manuscripts. Ed. Hivzija Hasandedi. Mostar: Arhiv Hercegovine, 1977. 330 pp.

Bollag, Burton. “Bosnia’s Desperate Campuses,” Chronicle of Higher Education, vol. 41 no. 16 (14 December 1994), pp. A40-42.

“Bosnia-Herzegovina: History, Culture, Heritage,” (Special issue) Newsletter / Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture, no. 31 (April 1993). 46 + 14 p.: ill. Lists nearly 500 monuments of Bosnian culture (mosques, churches, libraries) destroyed in the first months of the war. Available from: Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture, P.O. Box 24, 80693 Beikta-Istanbul, Turkey.

Council of Europe, Parliamentary Assembly. Information Report on the Destruction by War of the Cultural Heritage in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Strasbourg, 1993- Reports 1-5 (2 February 1993-12 April 1994) were adopted as Assembly Documents nos. 6756, 6869, 6904, 6989, and 7070. Based on research and site inspections of institutions (libraries, archives, museums) and architectural monuments, carried out by rapporteurs commissioned by the European Parliament. Reports are available from: The Secretary, Committee on Culture and Education, Conseil d’Europe, B.P. 431, Strasbourg Cedex F-67006, France.

Detling, Karen J. “Eternal Silence: The Destruction of Cultural Property in Yugoslavia,” Maryland Journal of International Law and Trade, vol. 17 no. 1 (Spring 1993), pp. 41-75. Examines the legal implications, incl. the applicability of the 1954 Hague Convention and other treaties to Yugoslavia and its successor states.

Fisk, Robert. “Waging War on History: In Former Yugoslavia, Whole Cultures Are Being Obliterated,” The Independent (London), 20 June 1994, p. 18. First of a series of reports on cultural genocide, its ideologists, and efforts to document the destruction and to bring perpetrators to justice; reprinted in the San Francisco Chronicle, 3 July 1994.

Gazi Husrevbegova biblioteka u Sarajevu. Katalog arapskih, turskih i persijskih rukopisa = Catalogue of the Arabic, Turkish and Persian Manuscripts. Ed. Kasim Dobraa, Zejnil Faji. Sarajevo: Starjeinstvo Islamske vjerske zajednice, 1963-[1991]. 3 vols.

Lovrenovi, Ivan. “The Hatred of Memory,” New York Times, 28 May 1994, p. A15. A noted Bosnian scholar describes the destruction of public and private libraries in Sarajevo, including his own.

Malcolm, Noel. Bosnia: A Short History. London: Macmillan; New York: NYU Press, 1994. xxiv, 340 pp. The best history of Bosnia in English; a synthesis of Bosnian and foreign scholarship based on primary source materials now largely destroyed.

Mostar ’92: Urbicid. Ed. Ivanka Ribarevi-Nikoli and eljko Juri. Mostar: HVO Opine Mostar, Drutvo Arhitekata Mostar, 1992. 167 pp. Catalog of an exhibition of photographs documenting the destruction of Mostar’s historic buildings and cultural institutions by Serbian shelling in 1992; incl. English text and captions.

Norris, H. T. Islam in the Balkans: Religion and Society between Europe and the Arab World. London: C. Hurst; Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. xxii, 304 pp.

Schwartz, Amy. “Is It Wrong to Weep for Buildings?” The Washington Post, 10 May 1994. Report on a symposium on the destruction of cultural heritage in Bosnia, held 2 May 1994 at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Transcripts of this symposium were submitted to the U.N. Commission of Experts Investigating War Crimes in the Former Yugoslavia. The transcript is available on the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos) gopher: from the gopher menu, choose “Other Gophers” and then “International Organizations” (on the World Wide Web, type gopher://hpb.hwc.ca:10000/11/.icomos); choose “Related Treaties” and then “Hague.”

Sijari, Rizo. “Update on the Zemaljski Muzej, Sarajevo.” Museum Management and Curatorship, 12 (1993), pp. 195-199. An appeal for help by the director of Bosnia’s National Museum; an appendix details ongoing efforts to preserve rescued library materials and museum objects and to keep cultural life going under siege.

Wenzel, Marian. “Obituary: Dr. Rizo Sijari, Director of the Zemaljski Muzej, Sarajevo. Killed in Sarajevo, 10 December 1993,” Museum Management and Curatorship, 13 (1994), pp. 79-80.