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Healing a wounded culture

Buildings are symbols of national pride. Which is why Croatia has a job on its hands.
In 1992, a poster appeared which distilled something of the complexity of what Croatians must have been suffering at the time. It showed a sculpture of a beautiful young woman smiling, but the smile was a nightmare: half her face had fallen away, and in its place hung the remnants of a grinning skull.

This was an image about destruction, and not just the destruction of human bodies. As a new order is established, we should recall that while human beings are the most important victims of the Balkan wars, the symbolic aim of conflict is the destruction of a political and cultural identity. This poster image was composed from two objects integral to Croatian culture: the first, a Roman portrait sculpture of a woman from Salona; the second, the skull of a Neanderthal. Remember those who have died, the poster appeared to say, but also remember that the dead can live on in works of art, monuments, and archaeological remains. If you are going to wipe out a people, these must go too.

Nobody knows exactly how long it is going to take to rebuild the buildings and monuments in either Serbia or Kosovo, but some indication of the scale and difficulty of the project can be gleaned by examining Croatia's slow recovery from the last war in the region.

According to the International Trust for Croatian Monuments, roughly 2,440 buildings of historic and environmental significance suffered damage. Places such as Dubrovnik, Vukovar, and Osijek endured some of the worst attacks, while several other areas also experienced damage to monuments which had become their defining features. In Valpovo, a medieval fortress that had been reinvented as a museum was one of many cultural centres to suffer a direct hit: in a particularly bizarre attack in a church in Otavice, statues of the evangelists Luke, Matthew and John had their toes and thumbs partially hammered off.

To imagine the emotional impact of the destruction, think of what London would lose if bombs destroyed the British Museum, the BT Tower and Westminster Abbey. For us, these buildings are much more than the sum of their parts: as well as being monuments to the greatness of history, communication and religion, their visual domination of the London landscape has turned them into national symbols beyond words. No surprise, therefore, that St Paul's Cathedral rising above the smoke during the Blitz has proved to be one of the most enduring images of British resistance in the Second World War. It is an appropriate coincidence that today, in the shadow of St Paul's, a Croatian sculptor is learning restoration techniques which he will use in the Balkans to restore war-damaged buildings.

Miroslav Sabolic was at school in Zagreb when the air-raid sirens first sounded on 15 September 1991. Although he and his family were not seriously affected by the war, he knows the key dates that chart the deconstruction of his city. On 7 October 1991, bombs made their impact on the Banski dvori presidential palace. On 2 and 3 May 1995, cluster bombs struck the Roman National Theatre, as well as destroying a children's hospital, a pensioners' home, and several schools.

"Each nation has its own story," Sabolic says, "and buildings are part of this story. If a building is destroyed, then that story is eroded. It's important for people to be able to say my great-grandfather, or my great-great-grandfather was here, or that a certain event happened in this place. It gives them a stronger sense of their roots."

The turbulent history of the region has given the Croatians more varied roots than some. Sabolic illustrates this as he talks about the different regimes that produced the now vastly altered Zagreb skyline. "The oldest buildings are Roman. The National Theatre, which was hit, comes from the Roman empire. Croatia was a transit area, so it was influenced by many outside powers, including the Greeks and Napoleon. Several of its buildings also come from the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire."

Tony Webb, master carver at St Paul's, explains that Sabolic is the second Croatian student to come to the cathedral under a scholarship scheme set up by the International Croatian Monuments Fund. After Sabolic has learnt some of the techniques involved in restoring Grinling Gibbons woodwork and Wren stonework, Webb will enable him to tackle the varied architecture in his country by taking him behind the scenes at other cultural centres such as the Victoria & Albert museum and the London Museum. "The project worked with his predecessor, Mihael Golubic, very successfully," says Webb. "I think once Miroslav gets a broad view of the skills needed in these places, he will be able to put them to important use back in Croatia."

This drive to produce a generation of skilled Croatian restorers (six will have been trained in Britain by the end of this year) is the brainchild of Jadranka Beresford-Peirse. A native Croatian, Lady Beresford-Peirse, who runs the International Trust for Croatian Monuments, now campaigns for the restoration of her country's damaged patrimony. In 1991, she worked with the Museum Documentation Centre in Croatia to appeal for protection of their cultural monuments from the Serbs. As the war progressed, the centre gathered photographs and video footage for the most moving exhibition Croatia will ever see: the presentation of its ruined culture.

Now both Serbs and Kosovars may require similar exhibitions in their own countries. The bombs may have stopped, but psychologically the war isn't over yet: once the bodies have been buried and mourned, there will be evidence for decades of the destruction that took place. Hostages and victims of torture often create buildings inside their heads in order to preserve their individual identities: and now, in the real world, buildings must be restored and rebuilt to reassert national identities. As Lady Beresford-Peirse points out, the violence which itself took so many lives will take more than a lifetime to eradicate.