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

  • András Riedlmayer (a1)


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 Buturovic, a librarian in the National Library’s exchanges section, was shot to death by a sniper while attempting to rescue books from the flames.



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Algar, Hamid. “Persian Literature in Bosnia-Herzegovina,” Journal of Islamic Studies 5 (1994), pp. 254267.
Arhiv, Hercegovine. Katalog arapskih, turskih i persijskih rukopisa = Catalogue of the Arabic, Turkish and Persian Manuscripts. Ed. Hasandedic, Hivzija. Mostar: Arhiv Hercegovine, 1977. 330 pp.
Bollag, Burton. “Bosnia’s Desperate Campuses,” Chronicle of Higher Education, vol. 41 no. 16 (14 December 1994), pp. A4042.
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 Besiktas-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.
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. 4175. 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. Dobrača, Kasim, Fajić, Zejnil. Sarajevo: Starješinstvo Islamske vjerske zajednice, 1963-[1991]. 3 vols.
Lovrenović, 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, Ribarevic-Nikolic and Zeljko, Juric. Mostar: HVO Opcine Mostar, Društvo 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://; choose “Related Treaties” and then “Hague.”
Sijarić, Rizo. “Update on the Zemaljski Muzej, Sarajevo.” Museum Management and Curator-ship, 12 (1993), pp. 195199. 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 Sijarić, Director of the Zemaljski Muzej, Sarajevo. Killed in Sarajevo, 10 December 1993,” Museum Management and Curatorship, 13 (1994), pp. 7980.

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

  • András Riedlmayer (a1)


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