Waging war on history: In former Yugoslavia, writes Robert Fisk, whole cultures are being obliterated

Click to follow
JUST off the main square of the old Croatian fortress town of Karlovac lie the remains of the 18th-century Serbian Orthodox Church of St Nicholas. Shelled to pieces by Serb forces, the local Croatians insist. The steeple fell down of its own accord last September, they tell you. But if you prowl through the undergrowth, you quickly find the lie. There, prostrate amid the weeds and rubbish that has collected over the past 12 months, lies the steeple and its flattened bronze onion dome - with a stout, inch-thick steel hawser looped around the top, just below the cross. The Croats deliberately pulled the whole edifice to pieces after a bomb - not shelling - exploded in the centre of the church.

Just as two dynamite charges were detonated by the Croats last December at the Serbian orthodox archbishopric (Eparchy) across the square, bringing the south part of the noble Austro-Hungarian building crashing to the ground. As the engineers who examined the building commented in their official report this year: 'Those who wanted to eliminate from Karlovac the Eparchy and the Serbian Orthodox church have carried out an efficient job.' Efficiency is the right word. The Serbs and Croatians and - most recently - the Muslims have become businesslike as well as competent at their task of 'cultural cleansing', the planned and deliberate destruction of hundreds of churches, mosques, libraries and monuments across Croatia and Bosnia, erasing 500 years of history from the map of former Yugoslavia with an enthusiasm unmatched since Hitler's demolition of Warsaw.

Croatian statistics now put the number of totally destroyed Catholic churches at 63 in Croatia alone, with more than 500 monasteries and churches badly damaged. The Serbs say 243 religious buildings have been damaged or destroyed. The director of the Bosnian Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage has told the Council of Europe's consultant, Dr Colin Kaiser, that 900 mosques have now been destroyed and another 550 seriously damaged; 20 of these mosques dated from the 16th century. All sides have an interest in exaggerating the figures (Kaiser is scathing about the Serb statistics), but the evidence of destruction - of looted libraries and archives, of dynamited chapels and minarets, of pulverised museums and ancient Islamic madressa (schools) - is awesome. In many towns of northern and eastern Bosnia, the Serbs have bulldozed away whole graveyards, smashing the 300-year-old headstones of the Turkish Muslim population. In some parts of former Yugoslavia, history is now dead.

Of course, there are precedents. Henry VIII's orgy of Reformation destruction in England, Turkey's vandalism of Armenia's heritage and the Nazis' liquidation of Jewish monuments - the climax of hundreds of years of attacks on Jewish property - were all intended to crush the soul of religious or ethnic minorities. When German artillery battered the medieval Cloth Hall at Ypres into rubble between 1914 and 1917, the Allies denounced 'Prussian barbarism'. But the Cloth Hall - its belfry used by military observers, its square surrounded by bunkers and British gun-pits - might qualify as a military target. Thus, too, Coventry, whose equally medieval cathedral found itself amid the war production factories of the English Midlands. Yet for Rotterdam, Warsaw and Dresden - and for the planned Nazi destruction of Paris - there is little or no excuse.

But the battlefields of Bosnia and Croatia represent something different; not just a cultural catastrophe for Europe but - in the words of Professor Branka Sulc of the Croatian Museum Documentation Centre in Zagreb - 'culturecide'. Indeed, under the Hague Convention of 1954, the deliberate destruction of cultural monuments is a war crime; which is why, in a neat office in Zagreb, Jan Boeles, head of the Dutch delegation to the European Community Monitor Mission, is using computer records to match up the dates of mosque and church destruction with the names of militia commanders who controlled military units in the area at the time of the destruction. The UN War Crimes Commission can then use these files to prosecute the cultural 'cleansers' as war criminals.

'You have to understand that the cultural identity of a population represents its survival in the future,' Boeles says. 'When the Serbs blow up the mosque of a village and destroy its graveyards and the foundations of the graveyards and mosque and then level them all off with a bulldozer, no one can ever, ever tell this was a Muslim village. This is the murder of a people's cultural identity.

'In many religions, destroying a cemetery is about the worst thing you can do. The graveyard marks the death of people who have been living in a particular place for many generations - it proves that this piece of land has been in this people's possession for generations.'

The world long ago learnt of the heavy damage to the baroque Eltz castle at Vukovar, built in 1749, to the walls of Dubrovnik and the destruction of the 16th-century Stari Most bridge at Mostar. Serbs and Croatians still argue over the legitimacy of the Serb bombardment of the Vukovar castle, the Croatians claiming it was protected by a metal Hague convention flag - which still hangs on the walls of the ruins today - and that a hospital was installed in the basement. The Serbs have shown videotape of sandbag machinegun positions in the castle.

When I asked a Croatian army officer who fought at Vukovar if the castle had been used by the army, his reply was unsatisfactory. 'We were fighting in practically all the buildings, but the Croatian army didn't want the Serbs to destroy the castle,' he said. 'I'm not claiming there were no soldiers there - just that it wasn't a major defensive position.'

A report by the International Council on Museums says that the most terrible losses to Croatian museums and galleries occurred in Vukovar where Serb shells smashed into the buildings used to hold the Bauer collection (containing 1,357 Croatian paintings from the 19th and 20th centuries), the Vukovar Municipal Museum (containing 32,513 items from prehistoric times to the early 20th century) and the History Museum where many original Yugoslav Communist party files were stored. The Bauer collection - or what was left of it - had been stored elsewhere and appears to have been taken to Serbia.

If much of this destruction was incidental - the old Yugoslav army were taught to shell everything in front of it to rubble - the same cannot be said of the loss of the Institute for Oriental Studies in Sarajevo with its priceless collection - now apparently totally burnt - of 5,263 Arabic, Turkish, Persian and Bosnian encyclopaedias, works of Islamic philosophy and Ottoman poets. The archives alone contained 207,000 manuscripts - including the edicts of 16th-century sultans and land deeds for all Bosnia-Herzegovina, many of them works of art. Already, in August 1992, the Serb bombardment of the Sarajevo National Library had destroyed around 600,000 books.

Nor has the destruction ended. In April, Croat gunmen destroyed the mosque at Livno. Last month, Croatian Bosnian forces demolished the minaret of the Busovaca mosque; six days later, British UN troops reported that the Catholic church at Drvetine had been set on fire by Muslims. Only three tiny, decorated stones 4ft in height now remain of the 16th-century Ferhad Pasha mosque in Banja Luka, stored in a smashed Muslim house next to the bulldozed graveyard. In Serb-held Croatian Baranja, local Croats are too frightened to protect the old wooden statues that are rotting in the fields where the Serbs threw them in 1991.

It is sometimes a shock to find something that has survived. After all the destruction in Mostar, including the Stari Most bridge, I discovered that the greatest treasure of the badly damaged 16th-century Karadjoz-Bey mosque - a handwritten Koran, illuminated in gold in 14th-century Baghdad - had survived in a tiny outhouse near the minaret. The imam, Fadil Hassanovic, scurried round the little room and brought me another ancient book, small and leather-bound. 'It was handwritten in Iraq in the 1600s,' he said. I turned the pages. They were damp and flaking, in need of care, but the Arabic script was clear, written so long ago in a far away and hot country whose Ottoman masters had come to Mostar to build the Stari Most bridge.

At least these books had not been burnt. In the margins of the second Koran, I found small emendations in another hand, some Safavid or Mamluk proprietor perhaps, whose only remaining wordly act was now preserved in the ruins of Mostar. But looking at the rubble around me - at dozens of historic buildings pummelled into a kind of lumpy, grey dust that cruelly contained the ghosts of their earlier shapes - I could only reflect on their limited expectation of survival.

(Photograph omitted)