Crimes against Culture

By Kaiser, Colin | UNESCO Courier, September 2000 | Go to article overview
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Crimes against Culture

Kaiser, Colin, UNESCO Courier

In the former Yugoslavia, the destruction of cultural heritage erased a common identity in cities and fulfilled an archaic dream in the countryside

In 1991, in the early days of the Cold War's end, Western Europeans were shaken by television images of a downpour of explosives falling upon the sleepy little Danube town of Vukovar, and plumes of smoke snaking their way over Dubrovnik, "the jewel of the Adriatic" and a World Heritage site. From 1991 to 1999, countries of the former Yugoslavia were subjected to war. While moderate commentators referred to a campaign of "ethnic cleansing," those targeted by the violence spoke of "genocide." It is precisely on this count and for crimes against humanity that generals and politicians are being prosecuted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Other terms emerged during these wars: "urbicide" to describe the bombing of cities such as Mostar and Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and "cultural cleansing" or "cultural genocide" to indicate the fate of mosques, churches, museums, archives, libraries, schools, and so on. Inevitably, these terms were part of a propaganda war, but all too often, they reflected the new landscapes of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and more recently, of Kosovo.

The deliberate destruction in wartime of cultural heritage is no historical novelty. Sometimes destruction has been an affair of pillaging for profit, at others it has been part of the widely recognized right to annihilate the enemy. During World War I, churches and old town centres were reduced to rubble out of military necessity. During World War II, large German urban centres disappeared as part of strategic "area bombing" by Commonwealth airforces.

But there are other reasons. The physical genocide of Europe's Jews by the Nazis was accompanied by a cultural genocide--the destruction of synagogues, cemeteries and other landmarks and treasures.

In the case of the former Yugoslavia, the heritage sites destroyed for purely military reasons were few and far between. History reminds us that sacral buildings have been destroyed time and time again in the Balkans. The longstanding belief that the Ottoman armies, in the 15th century, were gentle with Christian heritage might well be a myth. Later, in the 19th century, the conquering Hapsburg armies and Catholic administrators in Croatia turned a handful of mosques into churches and destroyed the rest. More recently, during World War II, massive destruction of Serbian Orthodox churches was carried out in Croatia and parts of Bosnia and Heizegovina by the fascist Ustasha forces. Ruins in Eastern Slavonia and Krajina, prominently Serb areas of Croatia, stand as tangible reminders of this period.

But the more recent events are of a singularly different nature. We are not referring to foreign powers invading a territory and sweeping aside everything in their wake. We are in the presence of old societies which were to some extent integrated, but in the process of breaking up. The Serbian inhabitants of Croatian Krajina were not newcomers to the region in 1991. Croats, Muslims and Serbs have lived together in Bosnia and Herzegovina since the 16th century. And more recently, in the 20th century mixed marriages in cities and towns played a significant role in weaving the social fabric. In the countryside, where people often settled by ethnic belonging, the situation was different. Accordingly, during the war, when Muslims, Croats, Serbs or Kosovar Albanians were chased out of their villages while their mosques and churches were mined or burned, it was the "other"--"the foreigner"--who was being removed from the region. The public dream of the nationalists (and sometimes the unavowed secret dream of the vi llagers) was thus fulfilled: to be finally at peace, alone among our own people. The mythical pure rural world was created.

In the cities and towns of Bosnia and Herzegovina, destruction had a different significance.

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