`We must save what is left'

The Bosnian war has destroyed hundreds of mosques, books and art works, as well as the national library. But a few souls battle on to save their heritage, writes Burton Bollag
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The Independent Culture
Senada Kreso can remember cowering near Bosnia's National and University Library one hot August day in 1992. She watched helplessly as Serb gunners lobbed shell after shell at Sarajevo's landmark pseudo- Moorish building. "Everyone was crying," says the former Bosnian government official. "The shelling only stopped when the building was ablaze." The memory stayed with Kreso. Today she works for Unesco's recently opened Sarajevo office. Part of her job is to mobilise international help to rescue Bosnia's cultural heritage.

Azra Begic, chief curator of the state Art Gallery of Bosnia and Herzegovina for the past 35 years, shares the same goals. She was put in charge of saving Sarajevo's movable art when the shelling began. Was she successful? "We did what we could, but conditions were horrible. So much was destroyed."

But not everything. During the height of the shelling Begic organised exhibitions of Jewish art and "war art". Now she talks of expanding the gallery's collection with Bosnian art produced between the 16th and 19th centuries, the period of Ottoman domination that is missing from the gallery. But danger has driven many of her colleagues out of the besieged city and there is no one to help choose, catalogue, explain. "We're just a few art historians left."

Kreso and Begic are just two of a handful of specialists struggling to save their country's multi-ethnic cultural heritage. Their task is not easy. With the exception of those fortunate enough to work for an international organisation, most earn the equivalent of about DM1 per month. They survive, like the city's other 380,000 residents, on humanitarian food aid and any savings they may have left.

They have few resources: mostly dedication and much UN plastic sheeting. It's ever present, covering the blown-out windows and holed roofs of museums, mosques and thousands of other buildings in Sarajevo. At night it flaps in the wind.

Begic says that they feel abandoned. While the UN brings in food, it has done little to repair damaged monuments - perhaps understandably, when repairs could be undone in a moment by a single mortar shell. Nevertheless, in its eagerness to avoid confrontation, the UN has given the Serbian forces surrounding the city the final say on what may be brought in. Many badly needed supplies - building materials, computers, even paper - are turned back.

"It's not enough if we get back gas and electricity but not our national patrimony," says Dzenana Golos, director of Sarajevo's Institute for the Protection of the Cultural and Historical Heritage. She sits in her office in a heavy coat. The cold is biting. The lack of heating has forced her staff of 20 - Muslims, Serbs and Croats - to work at home.

Ms Golos cannot understand how the West can let such destruction be visited on hercountry by an enemy bent on carving out an ethnically pure Serbian state.

Ms Kreso is equally incredulous. Why, she asks, has the destruction of a large number of mosques not brought an international outcry? The town of Foca in eastern Bosnia was home to the celebrated Aladza ("Painted") mosque, one of the finest examples of Ottoman architecture in the Balkans. But, Kreso says, Serbian forces controlling the region bulldozed the mosque and turned the site into a parking lot.

The figures make gloomy reading. Seventy of Sarajevo's 74 historic mosques have been damaged by shelling. Several have been demolished. Bosnia's most important mosque, the 16th-century Gazi Husrev Beg, located in Sarajevo's Bascarsija or old town, was hit by more than 80 shells. It was designed by Adzem Esir Ali, later the chief architect of Constantinople. Officials say that more than 1,000 mosques in Bosnia have been damaged or destroyed. "The aggressor wants to destroy our identity." Golos says.

Though there has been a great amount of random mortar fire, Serbian gunners have deliberately targeted buildings of administrative, cultural and historical importance: the massive Austro-Hungarian post office was completely destroyed; the city hall was badly damaged; the Oriental Institute, containing Bosnia's main collection of Islamic manuscripts and books, was burnt down. Its entire collection was lost. And, of course, the National and University Library, a national landmark and the main depository of Bosnia's written history, was obliterated. Works in the languages of all the main cultures that have influenced the country - Old Slavic, Latin, Hebrew, Turkish, Arabic, Persian and Serbo-Croatian - were lost. Gone forever, almost overnight.

Curators say other collections must be rescued quickly. Most - like the modern Yugoslav paintings and old icons from the state Art Gallery, the extensive natural history exhibits from the National museum, the Jewish library and churches treasures - were hastily hidden in cellars when the shelling began in April 1992. "The problem is that most of the movable cultural heritage was put away in a panic," says Alda Cengic, head of the City of Sarajevo Project, funded by the Hungarian-American financier and philanthropist George Soros. "It is being stored in damp, unsafe places. We must save it from further damage."

The project is funding emergency repairs but faces manifold problems. It has, for example, been unable to fix the badly damaged roof of the National Museum, located close to the front line. UN commanders say they cannot protect the workers from Serbian snipers.

Officials say the most heavily damaged historic urban centre is in the town of Mostar. But this year's federation agreement between the Bosnian Muslims and Croats and the appointment of a European Union administrator for the city has brought a semblance of peace and allowed Unesco to concentrate its efforts. The organisation is seeking a political agreement to allow work to begin on reconstructing Mostar's famous 16th-century "Old Bridge" over the Neretva river.

As the past is fitfully rescued, there is a new awareness of symbols that are in danger of disappearing. For the war has awoken a new enthusiasm for religion, particularly Islam.Sarajevo's Muslim-dominated city government recently drew up plans to build an Islamic Centre, with mosque, school and library, to be funded by donations from Islamic countries.

The scheme has been controversival, but as experts point out, besides Sarajevo's state Jewish Museum, the city lacks any major art collection from the Ottoman period, when the Turks converted part of Bosnia's population to Islam. The state Art Gallery, damaged by 14 shells, has Orthodox and Catholic items in its religious art collection, but, again, no Jewish or Muslim pieces.

"Our aim is to start collecting religious art of all four communities," says art professor Seid Hasanefendic, the Gall-ery's new director. "Islamic art and culture was kept down while our country was part of Yugoslavia. You know, we don't have a single specialist in Islamic art. After the war we'll promote this aspect of our domestic culture. We must - if we survive."