Ethnic cleansing, war crimes and the destruction of cultural heritage: not Syria, but Bosnia twenty years ago

Posted: 23. Februar 2016. in Intervjui

Helen Walasek, 22 February 2016

We seem in danger of forgetting the lessons of the intentional destruction of cultural and religious property in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the 1992-95 war.

 Residents of Banja Luka stare at the remains of the 16th century Ferhadija Mosque deliberately 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

Ethnic cleansing, cultural genocide, the intentional destruction of religious structures and historic monuments, obliterating the built symbols of a group and their heritage, attacks on diversity and pluralism. How familiar this sounds. But this is not the latest news from Syria or Iraq. These describe the now seemingly forgotten destruction that took place in Bosnia-Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995.

As not only famed archaeological sites like Palmyra and Nineveh but mosques, Sufi shrines, Shia hussainiyas, Yazidi temples, Christian churches and ancient monasteries – symbols both of a community’s identity and a now almost vanished ethnoreligious diversity and coexistence in the region – are being intentionally attacked and destroyed across Syria, Iraq and beyond, we should not forget the horrifying similarities and lessons that should have been learned from the same type of destruction that took place in Europe just over twenty years ago.

The destruction of Bosnia’s cultural heritage forgotten

The twentieth anniversary of the end of the Bosnian War and the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement has recently passed. The commemorations have been in full flow, but one would have to search hard for any that marked what was one of the defining features of the conflict, provoking worldwide condemnation at the time: the massive intentional destruction of Bosnia’s cultural and religious heritage – particularly its Ottoman and Islamic inheritance.

Yet, as in Syria and Iraq, this destruction of cultural and religious heritage was rarely collateral, an unfortunate side effect of military action. The overwhelming majority of attacks were pre-meditated, systematic, and almost always took place far from the frontlines – a fundamental part of the ethnic cleansing that characterised the war. Those vicious well-planned campaigns directed at civilians aimed squarely at eradicating any trace of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s historic diversity and traditions of coexistence among different ethnoreligious groups.

The removal of structures from the landscape – particularly minarets – that marked the long historic presence of those groups targeted for elimination (most often Bosnia’s Muslims) went hand in hand with forced expulsion, imprisonment in concentration camps, torture, mass rape, the sexual enslavement of women and mass murder. These were the first steps towards creating a mono-ethnic realm with a fictitious past, where the mayor of Bosnian Serb-held Zvornik could confidently tell journalists in 1993 of the once Muslim-majority town: ‘There were never any mosques in Zvornik.’

From early in the conflict to victims, human rights observers – and the perpetrators themselves – the purpose of this systematic and deliberate destruction of Bosnia’s cultural and religious heritage was clear: to eradicate any signs of the expelled population’s historic existence, and by removing these markers of community identity, discourage those who survived from ever returning.

By autumn 1992, aided by the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and paramilitaries from Milošević’s Serbia and Montenegro, breakaway nationalist Bosnian Serbs held 70% of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s territory. By the war’s end in autumn 1995 (with one notable exception) not a single minaret stood intact on that territory.[1]

In cities like Sarajevo and Mostar, sites of a cosmopolitan life, other structures and institutions were targeted – those that symbolized or held proofs of Bosnia’s historic pluralist identity: libraries, archives, museums and places such as Sarajevo’s Oriental Institute, where Ottoman cadastral registers gave evidence of coexistence over centuries. This was the deliberate destruction of identity and memory and observers began to write of cultural genocide and urbicide.

Ethnic cleansing is genocide

Yet as early as December 1992 a United Nations General Assembly Resolution (A/RES/47/121) had unequivocally called the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina genocide. Furthermore, the reports of the UN Security Council’s Human Rights Special Rapporteur, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, and its Commission of Experts routinely identified the deliberate and methodical targeting of historic, cultural and religious structures as a fundamental aspect of that ethnic cleansing.

Thus more than twenty years ago intentional attacks on and destruction of cultural and religious property were unmistakably classified by international bodies as war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The vast evidence of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and other international humanitarian law collected by the Commission of Experts, including destruction of cultural and religious property, led to the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) by the United Nations in 1993.

Landmark judgements of the ICTY

In the search for justice for the victims of the events of the 1992–1995 Bosnian War, from its base in The Hague, the ICTY became an important testing ground of international humanitarian and human rights law relating to the protection and preservation of cultural and religious property, the right to a people’s enjoyment of their cultural heritage and the development of concepts of cultural heritage and identity.

Its landmark judgements set precedents with regard to the destruction of cultural property not only as a crime in itself, but as a manifestation of persecution and led to a more definitive recognition in international humanitarian law that destruction of a people’s cultural heritage was an aspect of genocide.

The ICTY’s 2001 judgement on Radislav Krstić, former Deputy Commander of the Bosnian Serb Army, finding him guilty of genocide, persecutions and murder in connection with the fall of Srebrenica, observed that though physical destruction of a group was the most obvious method of carrying out genocide:

“…one may also conceive of destroying a group through purposeful eradication of its culture and identity resulting in the eventual extinction of the group…”

Recalling the UN’s classification of ethnic cleansing as genocide in 1992, the judgement noted:

“…where there is physical or biological destruction there are often simultaneous attacks on the cultural and religious property and symbols of the targeted group as well, attacks which may legitimately be considered as evidence of an intent to physically destroy the group.”

More than a thousand mosques

As with Palmyra and Nineveh, two structures became iconic in international perceptions of the destruction of cultural heritage in Bosnia-Herzegovina: the National Library (Sarajevo’s Austro-Hungarian era town hall, or Vijećnica) and the graceful sixteenth-century Old Bridge (Stari Most) at Mostar.

The National Library was bombarded with incendiary shells over the night of 25-26 August 1992 by Bosnian Serb Army artillery entrenched on the steep hills surrounding Sarajevo, engulfing it in unquenchable flames. More than a year later, the final obliteration of the Old Bridge on 9 November 1993 was the culmination of months of premeditated assaults on Mostar’s historic Ottoman monuments and Muslim and Orthodox religious structures, archives and museums by breakaway nationalist Bosnian Croat (HVO) forces.

HVO commander Slobodan Praljak famously remarked that he was prepared to destroy hundreds of old bridges for the sake of one of his soldier’s little fingers. But Praljak was found guilty at the ICTY, along with other HVO leaders, for war crimes (including destruction of the Old Bridge) aimed at ethnically cleansing Bosnian Muslims and other non-Croats in their plans to create an ethnically ‘pure’ Croat statelet.

Yet across the Islamic world it was the more than a thousand devastated and demolished mosques which became potent symbols of the attempt to obliterate Bosnia’s Muslims. For all the focus on iconic structures like the National Library and the Old Bridge, the most extensive destruction took place far from the gaze of the international media. As huge swathes of countryside were ethnically cleansed, hundreds of mosques (and not a few churches) were relentlessly destroyed in villages and small towns like Foča.

Site of the Aladža Mosque in 1996. Photograph used as prosecution evidence of war crimes at the ICTY. © Lucas Kello/ ICTY.

‘A closed, dark place’

Deep in Bosnian Serb-held territory, the ethnic cleansing of Foča’s majority Muslim population, against whom some of the worst atrocities of the war were committed, has been the subject of numerous ICTY war crimes prosecutions. Entire Muslim neighbourhoods were methodically devastated, as were all eleven of Foča’s mosques – the majority razed to the ground.

By the beginning of August 1992 only the beautiful Aladža Mosque (1550/1) remained intact. Satellite photographs from October 1991 used as ICTY prosecution evidence clearly show the minaret and dome of the Aladža. In a chilling similarity with recent images of St Elijah’s Monastery in Iraq, when the satellite moved over Foča on 10 August 1992 an empty rubble-strewn space marked where the mosque had stood months earlier.

In January 1994, the devastation complete, the Bosnian Serb parliament officially changed Foča’s name to Srbinje (“Serb-town”).

The ineffectiveness of the international community

As the war went on and the destruction continued, the ineffectiveness of international legal instruments for protecting cultural heritage in times of conflict was laid bare, particularly the 1954 Hague Convention. Despite desperate pleas from the Bosnian government, the inability of international bodies like UNESCO (responsible for implementing The Hague Convention), or even the UN peacekeeping troops based across the country, to stop the attacks on cultural and religious property was plain to see.

Far from being a deterrent and protection for historic monuments the best international humanitarian law appeared to offer was grounds for indictment in some future war crimes prosecution. Not much appears to have changed.

Satellite images of the Aladža Mosque, Foča, taken in October 1991 and August 1992. Pictures used as prosecution evidence in war crimes trials at the ICTY. © United States Reconnaissance Systems/ICTY.

Cultural property after Dayton

After the signing of the Dayton Agreement that ended the war, the intentional destruction of cultural property in Bosnia-Herzegovina, often before the eyes of representatives of international organisations – and their failure to prevent it happening or even be much concerned about it – prompted a period of soul-searching in bodies from NATO to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Under Protocols I and II of the Geneva Conventions the ICRC had unmistakable responsibilities towards the protection of cultural and religious property, yet it is difficult to discover any action it took in this respect during the Bosnian War. And it was a rare UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) official who became involved in efforts to prevent such destruction, despite, like the ICRC, being present across Bosnia-Herzegovina.

At an ICRC conference on protection of cultural property during armed conflict in 2000, Yves Sandoz, an ICRC Legal Advisor, called for cultural property to be placed on the humanitarian law agenda, arguing that deliberate attacks on cultural property were often the precursors of worse outrages. Defending the cultural property of a threatened population, argued Sandoz, should be an integral part of humanitarian operations.

This period of reflection did not last long, though there was a lingering desire to be more active in preventing such cases in the future. Then came the destruction of the Bamiyan Bhuddas in Afghanistan in 2001 and the 2003 war on Iraq and its impact on archetypal sites like Babylon and the looting of Baghdad’s National Museum. What had happened in Bosnia was pushed to the back of the cupboard. It was not a place anyone knew much about, even at the time.

UNESCO’s short memory

But the global impact of the enormous systematic destruction of cultural and religious heritage in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the worldwide condemnation and passionate public polemic it provoked from world leaders and the heads of the United Nations and UNESCO to the person on the street in London, New York, Istanbul, Cairo and Kuala Lumpur and its relevance to the destruction being enacted in Syria and Iraq today should not be forgotten.

Unfortunately, this appears to be the case – even in the international bodies loudest then in their denunciation. So much so that in 2015 UNESCO expert Édouard Planche could say of the destruction of cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq, inextricably linked as it is (just as in Bosnia) with the expulsion of particular ethnoreligious groups, torture, mass rape and the sexual enslavement of women and mass murder:

“The looting and destruction of heritage is part of the history of humanity; it is something we will never halt….This is an emergency situation which is new for UNESCO, which is not a humanitarian agency and is not designed to respond to emergency crisis situations…”

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova continues to claim that the destruction of cultural heritage aimed at erasing the existence of targeted groups and eliminating cultural diversity is ‘unprecedented’ and issues stirring calls for such destruction to be recognised as war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Yet such ‘cultural cleansing’ was recognised by the United Nations as a war crime and a crime against humanity as far back as 1992 and successful convictions for destruction of cultural and religious property have been made during numerous ICTY prosecutions. Even considering attacks on iconic UNESCO World Heritage sites like Palmyra, in 2004–2005 the ICTY found JNA commanders Miodrag Jokić and Pavle Strugar guilty of war crimes in relation to the 1991 shelling of Dubrovnik’s Old Town – citing its status as a World Heritage site.

Either UNESCO has a remarkably short institutional memory or hopes to forget (and that no-one remembers) its ineffectiveness and inability to act in the face of another such ‘unprecedented’ ‘emergency situation’ just twenty years ago in post-WW2 Europe.

Annex 8 of the Dayton Agreement

Yet those negotiating the final settlement at Dayton did have that destruction in mind when it came to forging the peace in Bosnia. Annex 8 of the Dayton Agreement uniquely attempted to deal with the issue of the cultural property which had been so systematically attacked during the conflict by establishing a Commission to Preserve National Monuments. The international organisation appointed to oversee the Commission for its first five years was UNESCO.

For those communities which had been ethnically cleansed and hoped to return to their homes, Annex 8 soon became intimately tied up with other the annexes of the Dayton Agreement on human rights and return of refugees and became a critical factor in asserting their right to return and rebuild their religious structures and other cultural property.

Returning communities eventually reconstructed scores of religious and other buildings across Bosnia-Herzegovina, usually without external aid and often after a protracted struggle with local authorities, many dominated by indicted war criminals. Nevertheless, more than twenty years after the end of the war a considerable number of intentionally destroyed monuments have yet to be rebuilt – among them the Aladža Mosque in Foča.

The problems of return

This is in part testimony to the problems of return. Thousands have never returned to the places from where they were expelled and never will. Social relations are more difficult to restore than buildings. And there is another dimension to the ethnic cleansing. Testifying at the ICTY, Colin Kaiser, a long-time observer of the destruction in Bosnia-Herzegovina for both the Council of Europe and UNESCO, warned against seeing the destruction of a group’s cultural heritage simply as physically removing the ‘other’ and all traces of their existence. It was, he warned, more complicated than that – ethnic cleansing also meant changing those who remained, creating a new people who did not have the memory and the experience of having lived with communities different from themselves.


[1] Minarets of functioning mosques; a small number survived which were either freestanding or attached to an already ruinous structure. The exception was the village of Baljvine near Mirkonjić Grad where Bosnian Serb villagers actively protected their Muslim neighbours and the mosque.

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About the author

Helen Walasek is the author of Bosnia and the Destruction of Cultural Heritage (Ashgate 2015). Walasek was Deputy Director of Bosnia-Herzegovina Heritage Rescue (BHHR) for which she worked 1994–1998 and an Associate of the Bosnian Institute, London 1998–2007. She was an Expert Consultant reporting on museums in Bosnia-Herzegovina for the Parliamentary Council of Europe in 1995 and 1996 and is a freelance editor, writer and researcher who has lectured widely on cultural heritage in conflict.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. If you have any queries about republishing please contact us. Please check individual images for licensing details.

komentara
  1. Zdravko margic niodkud kaže:

    sve su to isti igraci,

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