Yugoslavia's civil war is claiming lives -- and also the cultural birthright of Croatia. As many as 116 churches, castles and historic districts have reportedly come under mortar and air attacks by Serbian militias or units of the Yugoslav Army. A respected private group, the World Monuments Fund, says these are calculated assaults on another people's treasures. It is a credible charge that shames the Serbian cause.

Among the cultural casualties are the great dome of St. Jacob's Cathedral in Sibenik, old Baroque buildings in the former capital city of Varazdin, the castle and museum in Vukovar (see photo) and the historic center of Karlovac. On the Dalmatian coast, a magnet for tourists, recent aerial and naval skirmishes near Split airport imperiled the adjacent classical ruins of Salona, known to Croatians as "our Pompeii."

Destruction on this scale has no precedent in Europe since Nazi Germany's vengeful "Baedeker" raids on English cathedral cities in 1942, and the Allied firebombing of Dresden. Yugoslavia itself endured grievous losses in World War II, and the painstaking restoration of damaged ancient monuments has been a proud national achievement. But now, asserts Maja Razovic, an art historian in Zagreb, Yugoslavs "have transformed monuments into enemies, forgetting that palaces, museums and churches belong to all."

To deter such vandalism, civilized nations in 1954 devised the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Yugoslavia became a signatory in 1955, which means the present attacks on monuments affront not only the world's conscience but world law. In one case, mortar shells shattered an 18th-century church in Petrinja whose spire bore the protective flag prescribed by the Hague Convention.

The loss of life in Yugoslavia is tragic. It piles horror upon horror to engage as well in cultural extermination.

Photo of a destroyed building in Croatia. (World Monuments Fund)