HISTORY / The burning of the mosques: David Keys reports on the deliberate destruction of buildings in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WHAT was once one of Europe's most historic towns - Mostar in Bosnia - is now threatened with destruction. Following the demolition last week - by Bosnian- Croat tank fire - of Mostar's famous 16th-century bridge, fears are growing that the Bosnian Croats plan to reduce the town to rubble.

'Mostar is in danger of being destroyed. This would be both a human and cultural tragedy. The town's historic monuments are of international importance,' Colin Kaiser, Cultural Adviser to the Council of Europe, said yesterday.

Unconfirmed reports from Mostar say that all three surviving mosques in the Croat-controlled part of Mostar - including the 16th-century Dervis-Pasha Bajjezidagic mosque - have been deliberately blown up. Information obtained by the London-based charity Bosnia-Herzegovina Heritage Rescue Foundation suggests that the mosques were mined twice.

Nationalist Bosnian Croats now regard the region's partially Muslim heritage as an unwelcome reminder of the 500 years before the late 19th century when Bosnia formed part of the Turkish-run Ottoman empire. Much of the historic heart of Mostar has always been Muslim in character with Turkish-style houses, a 15th-century bazaar, narrow streets and 13 beautiful 16th and 17th-century mosques.

Now Bosnian Muslims fear that the Bosnian Croats, unable and unwilling to take Mostar by hand-to- hand fighting, will increasingly try to reduce the town to rubble by shelling. Mostar's Muslims are expecting a major Croat offensive following recent Croat attempts to evacuate non-Muslims from the beleaguered town.

The reported dynamiting of the mosques in Croat-controlled areas of Mostar, and the destruction of the town's famous 16th-century bridge, shows, say the Muslims, that Muslim historic and cultural buildings are being specifically targetted. 'Deliberate attempts by the Croats to destroy the heritage of an entire people is not only immoral but also a violation of the 1954 Hague Convention and the customary laws of war, as recognised at the Nuremburg trials,' says Dr Marian Wenzel, secretary of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Heritage Rescue Foundation.

The Muslim places of worship in Mostar under threat include the 16th-century Nesuh-Aga Vucijakovic, Hadzi Mehmed Bey Karadzoz and Cejvan Cehaja mosques and the 17th-century Roznamed Ibrahim Efendi, Hadzi- Memija Cernica and Koski Mehmed Pasa mosques. The bazaar has been severely damaged - by both Serb attacks last year and Croat shelling this year.

The old bridge - the Stari Most which was destroyed last week - had been built in 1566 on the orders of the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. It was constructed of limestone blocks, without the use of mortar, and had a single arch span of 95ft. Its soared a full 69ft above the gorge of Mostar's River Neretva.

Council of Europe adviser Dr Kaiser said yesterday: 'Combatants in the conflict in Bosnia are increasingly targetting their emeny's cultural and historic monuments.' Council of Europe, UNESCO and other international organisations are expected to protest over the destruction of the bridge.

Meanwhile in Sarajevo, the Bosnian government is trying to apply to UNESCO to have Mostar added to the World Heritage List of top historic sites. It has a special place in the history of all three peoples of Bosnia-Herzegovina - the Muslims, the Croats and the Serbs.

Elsewhere in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Muslim mosques are also being deliberately blown up. In the towns of Vites and Ljubuski, two mosques were dynamited by the Bosnian Croats in April and June respectively, while in Pocitelj, a 16th-century mosque was deliberately blown up in August.

Both earlier this year and last year dozens of often historic mosques were dynamited by the Bosnian Serbs. Sixteen (including three from the 16th century) were blown up in the town of Banja Luka , and two (built in the early 18th century) were dynamited in Trebinje.

Four 16th-century and two 17- 18th-century mosques were destroyed in similar fashion and two rare 16th-century wooden mosques were deliberately burnt down in Foca last year, including one of the world's most beautiful Muslim places of worship, the Aladza, famous for its magnificent wood and marble carvings.

Up to 20 others were deliberately blown up or burnt in Zvornik, Visegrad, Pale, Bejelina and Nevesinje (Bosnia's oldest Muslim place of worship, built in 1481). At the village of Dobrun a beautiful mosque, with a cylindrical stone minaret was also deliberately destroyed.

Alongside the horrific ethnic cleansing has run this ruthless campaign to destroy the Muslim aspects of Bosnia's history and this year some Muslim forces are alleged to have deliberately destroyed historic buildings - Christian churches and monasteries of their Croat opponents. But the majority of the Bosnian Croat claims of destruction of buildings by Muslims have so far been vague and unconfirmed.

However the Bosnia-Herzegovina Heritage Rescue Foundation and the Courtauld Institute of Art are holding a special conference in London on 25 November, to assess the destruction of Bosnia's historical monuments and the threat to those which still survive.

(Photograph omitted)