By Ivan Lovrenovic
The New York Times, OP-ED, Saturday, May 28, 94.
[Ivan Lovrenovic is a writer and historian. This was translated by Midhat Ridjanovic]
Throughout that long summer night, Sarajevo was brilliantly illuminated by the fire raging in the Vijecnica, the 19th-century tawn hall that later became the National Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Black, sooty, still hot butterflies — books and papers aflame, the library’s treasure — were flying around and falling over distant parts of the city. Crowding in from the surrounding streets and alleys in total disregard of danger, half of Sarajevo — starved and misery-stricken people, exhausted by a long and cruel siege — rushed to save the soul of their city.
Nothing could be done. First the roof of the old building was hit by hundreds of incendiary rockets from the Serbian artillery in the hills overlooking the city. As the blaze reached Neronian proportions, every access to the Vijecnica was blocked by constant, maniacal fire from machine guns and mortars. Hundreds of thousands of volumes — rare books, manuscripts, periodicals, precious documents — all had disappeared by daybreak.
Also gone was the Vijecnica itself, Sarajevo’s most emblematic building, an architectural symbol of the bizarre and entangled history of this city. A luxurious imitation of the Moorish-Spanish style the Austro-Hungarian authorities systematically introduced into already picturesque Bosnian towns, it had a strange triangular ground plan and an octagonal atrium supported by monumental marble pillars.
The Vijećnica burned down in August 1992. Another fire, that summer destroyed Sarajevo’s Oriental Institute along with its entire inventory of books. Written over a thousand years in the peace and quiet of God knows what scriptorium in Sarajevo, Samarkand, Córdoba or Cairo, hundreds of unique manuscripts of extraordinary value disappeared there in a single infernal night.
The monastery, the church and the school of the Franciscan Seminary in Nedzarici, a western suburb of Sarajevo, was also home to an irreplaceable collection of scholarly and artistic treasures: thousands of books in the common and the profeasors’ own libraries, sculptures, stained-glass windows, mosaics, paintings by tht best-known modem artists of Bosnia and Croatia – all ardously, patiently and joyfully collected, commissioned or built with the devotion the Franciscans have shown for seven centuries.
The Franciscan collection was public property: everybody was free to use it, and everybody who came was treated as a welcome guest and friend. What no one knew was that work of a different kind had been going on in Nedzarici for years.
The army of the former Yugoslavia, preparing for the crimes it is now committing, had built a fantastic underground system of bunkers, corridors and storage spaces for ammunition and heavy weapons placed on carefully camouflaged hydraulic elevators.
The Serbs put this system in operation and occupied Nedzarici in June 1992, Within 24 hours, the Franciscan Seminary was looted of its priceless works, and the professors and staff brutally expelled. I hear that in Belgrade markets one can now buy precious books, at bargain prices, hearing the stamp of the Franciscan Seminary in Sarajevo.
Today, you can see everywhere in Sarajevo reminders of the public inheritance the city has lost. Yet the fires and bombing raids have also wiped out thousands of private libraries, art studios, arc collections, stocks of invaluable documents, personal files and irreplaceable mementos.
An acquaintance of mine, exiled from Grbavica, a Sarajevo neighborhood under Serbian occupation, told me a story about the paintings of a Serbian artist I will call M. C. The painter, although a Serb, had fled to the unoccupied part of the city, and Serbian soldiers broke into his studio looking to steal money and equipment.
They were incensed to discover an Islamic levha — a calligraphic inscriptlion from the Koran — which the painter had mounted as a wall hanging.
They took it down and, cursing, butchered it. According to witnesses, they then took all of the artist’s paintings, drawings and sketches, lined them up against the front wall of the house and executed them with machine-gun fire until they were in shreds.
In May 1992, when my own family and I were forced to flee Grbavica to save our skin, I could not take with me so much as a single pencil. Books, sketches, photographs, files — every thing that we had cherished for decades had to be surrendered to fate.
Thousands of pages of a diary written over a quarter-century, an unfinished novel, a pile of story outlines, essays, studies, synopses for a number of literary biographies. A Vulgate Bible from 1883, inherited from a grand uncle, a Latin-Croatian dictionary of the same age and provenance, a fragmentary and invaluable copy of a catechism by Friar Matija Divkovic, the first Bosnian publisher and printer, from 1611.
In addition, we had a collection of family documents, legal papers and memorabilia. Throughout all the convulsions and cataclysms we have suffered — from the Turkish wars in the 19th century through two world wars and in spite of the continuous decline of my family under the repressive regimes of the Karadjordjevic monarchy and Marshal Tito in this century we always managed to preserve something: an old book, letters, sepia photographs (such as the one from 1908. showing my grandfather and his brothers, all stiff and dressed up Turkish-style with fezzes on iheir heads, together with grandmother and great-grandmother and some unfamiliar kids, probably later uncles and aunts).
For months after being chased out of Grbavica, as we wandered around Sarajevo staying in other people’s empty apartments, I kept on quietly hoping that the most important things would be miraculously saved. I was wrong. I had underestimated the barbaric hatred of memory, of civilization, the same hatred that had burned down the Vijecnica, that had machino-gunned the paintings. One day we got the news: they have burned your library.
I did everything I could to find out the full truth. I managed to put the pieces together after several months of searching and questioning eyewitnesses. Not only had all our possessions been burned but an entire ritual had been performed for the occasion. Armed men had forced people out of their apartments to „watch the burning of the Ustasha library of Ivan Lovrenovic“, a reference to the Nazi-era Croatian fascists.
The scene of burning books is not unknown in European history. Yet books were last burned under totalitarian regimes, and it was exactly this past decade that saw the collapse of such regimes. This makes Sarajevo’s and Bosnia’s experience even more horrifying: it illuminates post-Commnunist European civilization with the flame of the great Alexandrian Library of Egypt.
Is it possible for anyone who identifies with Western civilisation to remain calm in the face of the hatred that burned down the Vijecnica, that murdered the paintings, that burns private libraries and intimate memories? If permitted, that hatred would burn down the human world.
One chilly evening, at sunset, I walked to the ruins of the Vijecnica. Nothing left but steep, high walls. Up above where the glass dome had been, a clear sky with a few stars in it. Sturdy marble columns grotesquely melted from the flames, crumpled as in Dali’s fantastic visions. Nowhere anything that makes sense.
I jump over torn, entangled pipes, wires, cables, broken pieces of metal shelves — everything ugly, filthy, sodden from recent ruin.
I stop before the half-blocked door of the cellar. I hear voices. I flick on my lighter: some slobbering, crazed children’s faces, slopped in the middle of a snack, are looking at me. The children cling to pieces of bread they have in their hands, as if scared that I might take it away from them. I leave them In their salutary darkness. I am reminded of Saint-Exupéry: „In each of these little heads a Mozart has been murdered“.