March 14, 2016

Another War's Cultural Cleansing and Rebuilding: Bosnia and the Destruction of Cultural Heritage

By Guest Author, Helen Walasek

With the deliberate attacks on historic monuments, archaeological sites and religious structures from mosques to monasteries now being enacted across Syria and Iraq, we should not forget the premeditated assaults on cultural and religious heritage in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the war of the 1990s, one of the most reported aspects of the conflict. 

Twenty years have passed since the end of the bitter 1992–1995 Bosnian War and the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement. In The Hague two of the principal architects of the conflict, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić, and his military commander, Ratko Mladić, await judgement on war crimes charges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). 

Among those charges are the intentional destruction of cultural and religious heritage, a central element of the aggressive campaigns of ethnic cleansing that sought to create mono-ethnic / mono-religious territories within Bosnia-Herzegovina where once there had been diversity and coexistence. The destruction (usually far from the front-lines) was one of the defining features of a conflict that shocked the world. 

Smoke pours from the Vijećnica, the National Library of Bosnia Herzegovina
in Sarajevo after the shelling on the night of  25-26 August 1992. The photograph was a
prosecution exhibit at the ICTY. © ICTY

While the devastation provoked global condemnation, particularly attacks on iconic structures in cosmopolitan urban settings like the National Library (known also as the Vijećnica) in Sarajevo and Mostar’s Old Bridge (Stari Most), it was in towns and villages across wide swathes of ethnically-cleansed countryside where the destruction was worst, particularly of Bosnia’s Ottoman and Islamic heritage. Here some of the country’s most beautiful historic mosques, like the domed sixteenth-century Aladža Mosque in Foča and the the Ferhadija Mosque in Banja Luka were razed to the ground. 

Aladža Mosque See
Image Caption details
2a, 2b and 3 are found
at end ofthis article.

Orthodox and Catholic churches and monasteries were assaulted, too. The magnificent neo-Baroque Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Mostar was dynamited to rubble, the Franciscan Monastery at Plehan shelled, then blown up by a truck carrying two tons of explosives.

However, early hypotheses of an equivalent and mutual destruction of religious and cultural heritage by all three principal warring parties in the conflict (breakaway nationalist Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats and the Bosnian government – usually labelled ‘Muslim’) have not been supported by later assessments.  These identify Bosnian Serb forces and their allies (which controlled 70% of the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina), and on a lesser scale Bosnian Croat forces, as the principal perpetrators of ethnic cleansing – and thus of the destruction of cultural and religious property. 

The Dayton Peace Agreement ended the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. One overarching aim was to attempt to reverse the effects of ethnic cleansing and restore the country to its prewar diversity. To those drafting the treaty, addressing the devastation to Bosnia’s cultural heritage was considered so essential to the peace process that Annex 8 of the eleven annexes to the Dayton Agreement provided for the formation of a Commission to Preserve National Monuments – a unique feature in any peace agreement.

But the post-conflict restoration of important historic monuments, particularly of iconic sites, were to become settings for the often competing agendas of both international and domestic actors. Meanwhile, surviving refugees and displaced people returning to reconstruct their communities in the places from which they had been violently expelled worked to a different dynamic. Here post-conflict restoration became closely bound up with ‘restoring’ feelings of security, a psychological yet literal ‘rebuilding’ of communities, yet which also came to encompass ‘hard law’ issues as obstacles to the right to reconstruct were challenged through legal remedies. 

Residents of Banja Luka stare at the remains of the 16th century Ferhadija Mosque
eliberately dynamited by the Bosnian Serb authorities in May 1993, more than a
year after the Bosnian War began. There had been no fighting in Banja Luka.
© Estate of Aleksander Aco Ravlić

The case of post-conflict Bosnia shows how, regardless of the aims of the peace process and the framework of the Dayton Peace Agreement (and the reasons that lay behind the destruction of cultural and religious property), when it came to reconstruction, the international community focused its attention almost entirely on restoring iconic sites like the Old Bridge at Mostar, predictably linking ‘restoration’ and ‘reconciliation’. Meanwhile, while in another domain, with frequently no help from international actors, returning communities attempting to rebuild and restore focused rather on human rights and freedom of religion.

What happened in Bosnia was to become a seminal marker and a paradigm of intentional cultural property destruction, not only among heritage professionals, but across disciplines from the military to humanitarian aid organisations in the years following the end of the war as they struggled to find answers to the questions raised by the inability of the international community in all its varied embodiments to prevent the destruction and where its representatives were frequently left as passive onlookers. 

The destruction in Bosnia-Herzegovina was to have a major impact in many spheres of heritage protection, not least the drafting and adoption of the Second Protocol to The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, and was the prompt for the formation of the Blue Shield movement.

At the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the court’s prosecutions led to groundbreaking judgements that crystallized a more definitive recognition in international humanitarian law that intentional destruction of cultural property was not only a war crime in itself, but a manifestation of persecution and – crucially – that destruction of a people’s cultural heritage was an aspect of genocide.

Typical uses for the levelled site of a destroyed mosque: as a parking lot and space
for communal garbage containers and small kiosks. This site of the now
reconstructed Krpića Mosque in Bijeljina in 2001. © Richard Carlton

Yet despite all this, the literature on the destruction of cultural and religious property in Bosnia-Herzegovina and its worldwide impact has been remarkably slight. An exception is the glut of publications on Mostar and the reconstruction of the Old Bridge – itself symptomatic of the focus of the international community post-conflict restoration efforts. 

Bosnia and the Destruction of Cultural Heritage gives the first comprehensive overview and analysis of the destruction of the cultural heritage in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the 1992–1995 war. A case study and source book on the first significant destruction of European cultural heritage during conflict since World War Two, it seeks to assess questions which have moved to the foreground with the inclusion of cultural heritage preservation and protection as an important aspect of international post-conflict and development aid.

Examining responses to the destruction (including from bodies like UNESCO and the Council of Europe), the book discusses what intervention the international community took (if any) to protect Bosnia’s heritage during the war, as well as surveying the post-conflict scene. Assessing implementation of Annex 8 of the Dayton Peace Agreement and the use of other legal remedies, it looks also at the treatment of war crimes involving cultural property at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. 


With contributions by: 

Routledge (Ashgate), 17 April 2015, 
hardback, 430 pages, 
126 black and white illustrations and 1 map


Image Captions:
2.a The 16th century Aladža Mosque in Foča, one of the most important Ottoman monuments in South East Europe, pictured before its destruction in 1992.

2.b Site of the Aladža Mosque in 1996. Both photographs were used as prosecution evidence of war crimes at the ICTY. © ICTY

3. Satellite images of the Aladža Mosque, Foča, taken in October 1991 where its minaret and dome can be clearly seen and the same site in August 1992 showing a rubble strewn space where the mosque had once stood. The pictures were used as prosecution evidence in war crimes trials at the ICTY. © ICTY


1] Final report of the United Nations Commission of Experts, Annex IV The policy of ethnic cleansing. S/1994/674/Add.2 (Vol. I), 28 December 1994, Introduction; Sanitized [   ] Version of Ethnic Cleansing Paper, dated 5 January 1995. See also Ethnic Cleansing and Atrocities in Bosnia, Statement by CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence John Gannon, Joint SSCI SFRC Open Hearing, 9 August 1995, and numerous ICTY prosecutions While Bosnian government forces did commit grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, these assessments found that they had no policy of ethnic cleansing and did not engage in such operations.


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