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Out of the ashes

Samir Huseinovic and Zoran Arbutina / kbAugust 25, 2012

Some three million books and countless artifacts were destroyed when Sarajevo's National Library was burned to the ground 20 years ago. It was a clear attack on the cultural identity of a people.

Combo photographs show Sarajevo's National Library burn due to Bosnian Serb shelling in 1992, top, and restored in a photograph made on Thursday Nov. 17, 2005. (Photo: ddp images/AP Photo/Hidajet Delic)
Image: AP

"I rushed to the library to help rescue the treasures, but we only partly managed to do that," remembered Dubravko Lovrenovic, a historian and the culture minister of the district of Sarajevo. "Today, 20 years later, Bosnia-Herzegovina is no longer what it was at that time. With the destruction of the National Library, the country and the city lost an important part of their cultural identity."

It happened in the night from August 25 to 26, 1992. Bosnia-Herzegovina was in the middle of war and the capital city of Sarajevo was under siege by Bosnian Serbs under the command of Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic, who were later charged with war crimes.

The National Library, an impressive building in the middle of Sarajevo, had no military significance. But it was nevertheless targeted in the siege by cannons positioned all around the city. Even the firemen who came to put out the flames were shot at.

Minaret and church tower in Sarajevo (Photo: DW/Mehmed Smajić)
A minaret and church tower testiry to Sarajevo's multiethnic historyImage: DW

A 'triumph of barbarism'

The National Library was completely destroyed in the fire, along with 80 percent of its contents. Some three million books went up in flames, along with hundreds of original documents from the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian monarchy.

The artifacts had been a testimony to Bosnia's centuries-old history and its identity as a multicultural society. The destruction of the National Library at the beginning of the Bosnian War was a symbol for one of the conflict's central objectives - crushing the cultural identity of an entire society. A new word was created to describe the tragedy: culturcide.

The building that housed the library was built by an Austrian architect at the end of the 19th century, when Bosnia-Herzegovina belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was first used as a city hall, or vijecnica, and locals still refer to it by that name.

After World War II, the building was turned into a national and university library. Journalist Mirela Hukovic-Hodzic studied philosophy in Sarajevo and read the works of Aristotle, Hegel and Kant in the library. She vividly remembers the day it was destroyed.

Journalist Mirela Hukovic-Hodzic (Photo: DW/Samir Huseinovic)
Hukovic-Hodzic was shocked by the library's destructionImage: DW

"The war was going on before and that was terrible," she said, "but when I saw vijecnica burning, I was so shocked that I was speechless."

It was in that moment that she understood why the war had started: "To tear forever the threads that link us, and to erase any traces of the life different people and cultures had shared together.

Bosnian theater director Gradimir Gojer calls the destruction of the library a triumph of barbarism and the death of the cohabitation of Muslims, Orthodox, Catholics and Jews that had existed for centuries in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"Destroying the proof of coexistence is an attempt to destroy the civilizing code of a multi-ethnic state," said Gojer.

A burning highrise in Saravejo in June 1995 (Photo: epa/dpa +++(c) dpa)
A burning highrise in Saravejo in June 1995 is just one instance of the terrifying bombardments the city enduredImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Something worth protecting

During the two days the National Library burned, "black birds" flew over the city, wrote author Valerijan Zujo.

They were "the charred pages of the big book about the rise and fall of Bosnia and Sarajevo," he testified.

Even during the war, a certain understanding arose out of the ashes of the National Library that Bosnia's multiethnic legacy is worth protecting.

"People tried to destroy the matrix of coexistence," said Gojer, "But that was only temporarily successful because our history wasn't just written down in documents, but also lives in the people who live here."

Gradimir Gojer, (Photo: Ljiljana Pirolic)
Gojer view the library's destruction as an attack on civilizationImage: DW

Never-ending construction

Today, visitors to Sarajevo wonder why the library hasn't been rebuilt, even 17 years after the end of the war. Following the conflict, big, modern buildings arose practically overnight thanks to funding from abroad. But the library is still a construction site.

Those who dig deeper for an explanation will be told of complicated architectural problems, while others blame inefficient government authorities. Gojer complains that the reconstruction of the National Library is only brought up when it makes a politician look good.

"None of the governments since the war have an appreciation for the importance of the library for the future of our country," he said. He hopes, however, that this will change and that a new building will "testify to Bosnia-Herzegovina's cultural code."

According to the city's official plans, reconstruction should be finished by April 2014.