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Burning Books: Sarajevo’s Library Twenty Years on and the Fragility of Cultural Heritage

  • By Heather McRobie
  • 30th August 2012
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Heather McRobie revisits the attack on the Sarajevo library twenty years ago, and considers what cultural and social impact the loss of millions of books has had.

Twenty years ago, wartime Sarajevo was on fire: around twenty-five mortar shells bombarded the city’s National Library, and residents still remember the sight of burned paper blowing across the length of the Bosnian city. In the days after August 25th 1992, as the fires clawed away at the historic building, millions of books were destroyed. The attack on the library was widely regarded as an attempt to siege a culture: to sever the arteries that fed Sarajevo’s cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic existence. Over eighty per cent of the contents of the library were burned to ash: Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Yugoslavian documents alike were lost – including one of the most important collections of Islamic manuscripts in Europe. It has been argued that the building was targeted in part for its architectural form as well as its contents – the entanglement of Islamic and Christian European influences is built into the building’s brick-work.

The long process of restoring the library continues, and is currently due to be completed in 2014. But even as the building is restored, what was lost or damaged in the attack is erased further: the library’s testament to multiplicity and multi-ethnic voices is washed over by the continued exclusivist narratives and identity-lines that play themselves out in post-war discourses and the sectarian education system. The reconstructed library will be reborn into a new Bosnia: one divided by a severing post-war constitution that entrenches compulsory ethnic identity, in some ways crystallising the vision of the ultranationalists to end multi-ethnic coexistence, and freezing Bosnia into a kind of post-war purgatory-state. Maintaining the multiplicity of cultural heritage in such a climate is bleak: this year, both the National Gallery and National Museum faced the threat of indefinite closure, with staff working unpaid for months. And while the war ended, the Dayton constitution’s distillation of division has precipitated a politicisation and parallelisation of cultural space, with the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska establishing museums and galleries, in turn reinforcing the idea that there is no need for national institutions like the National Museum or the restored library.

Remembering the burning of the Sarajevo library also draws us to how literature itself became inflamed with exclusivist ultranationalist narratives, as Tito’s death in 1980 hastened the unravelling of Yugoslavia. The fame of Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, as a poet – his works were still published as he was hiding from the Hague after the war, and are best-sellers in several Balkan countries – raises the troubling question of how to deal with hate speech in art, as the ultranationalist sentiments of his poetry were coded in metaphors of ‘taking the bride of Sarajevo’ and heavily layered allusions to the mythical Greater Serbian past. As PEN Slovakia expressed its concern, in 2009, that a new poem by Karadzic was published in Slovakia, the dilemma of hate speech in literature is left open on the table for those of us concerned with literary freedom, anti-censorship and social justice. Bosnian writers have also written on the potency of the act of Sarajevo’s library-burning: award-winning novelist Aleksandar Hemon has spoken of how his former English professor at the University of Sarajevo, the man who taught Hemon Shakespeare, also wrote himself into the history of a brutal biblioclasm. As Yugoslavia fractured, the professor became Radovan Karadzic’s deputy, and masterminded the bombing of the library. Hemon later reflected on the dissonance that the man who had instilled in him a reverence for words had also orchestrated the destruction of books, and the massacring of civilians.

But the National Library’s destruction has also been reborn, in literature at least. It threads itself into the short stories in Miljenko Jergovic’s tender, flickering Sarajevo Marlboro, his debut that maps out the stories of the streets and scenes of Bosnia’s capital, and signalled that the desire to produce literature, at least, had survived the siege. Similarly, Geraldine Brooks’ 2008 novel The People of the Book reflected on attempts by Sarajevans to protect cultural artefacts from the violence of the war as it fictionalises the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, salvaged in the war by a Muslim librarian and hidden in a bank vault as the siege on the city began – a mirror to its earlier rescue, when the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia, where the Haggadah was hidden in a village mosque. A 2012 documentary also charted the work of those who, during the 1990s siege of Sarajevo, risked their lives to hide rare manuscripts and cultural artefacts.

A biblioclasm or libricide is always totemic of the loss of the better parts of our nature, and the 1992 devastation of Sarajevo’s library was an iconic moment in the devastating war, a symbol of the assault on culture, dialogue, subtlety, multiplicity, and language. The constitutional text that has frozen Bosnia into its compulsory ethnic identity-lines is seen by many as a continuing of this loss – but the plurality of Balkan voices, from the writers who have emerged since the war to the stories of those who struggled to salvage the manuscripts, still speaks to the strength of dialogue, even in book-burning times.

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