Black Butterflies -Infernal Resistance: A Balkan Book Burning In Sarajevo

Words both medieval and modern were floating through the infernal air of a fire lit, late summer day in Sarajevo. These words were not spoken, but written. They lingered as embers and then fell to the pavement. The words rained down in fragmented torrents, the charred remnants of 1.5 million books and invaluable archival documents that told a narrative of the city’s imperial overlords from centuries past. This was the Bosnian National and University Library being consumed by flames. In August 1992, the Siege of Sarajevo had just begun months before. Everything and everyone in the city had become a target.

The Serb forces entrenched on the hillsides surrounding the city targeted any structure that was representative of Bosnian statehood. The library made an inviting target. It was a national treasure filled with proof that Bosnia was an ethnically diverse, relatively harmonious multicultural society and had been so for many centuries. The library’s books and documents held words that helped bind Bosnia together. As such, the Serbian military forces wanted it destroyed in the interests of creating an ethnically homogeneous state. Their aim was nothing less than cultural genocide. And so on August 25, 1992 they aimed their artillery at the Vijecnica, the old Sarajevo Town Hall which held the library. Ironically, this was not the first time the Vijecnica had been involved in controversy or tragedy.

The Bosnian National & University Library - formerly the Sarajevo Town Hall

The Bosnian National & University Library – formerly the Sarajevo Town Hall (Credit: lasserbua)

The Vijecnica – A Nightmare of European Fantasy
The Vijecnica was the brainchild of the Austro-Hungarian administration that governed Bosnia-Herzegovina in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Austro-Hungarians wanted to facilitate the creation of a Bosnian identity to separate it from the Ottoman Empire and pan-Slavic Serbia, in the process creating what one scholar has called “an Islamic architecture of European fantasy”. Constructing a large municipal building in the Old Town area of Sarajevo would also impose Austro-Hungarian civic virtue upon the cityscape. Ideals were the easy part, the reality of construction turned out to be much more difficult. The first architect to work on the building quit after criticisms from the provincial imperial minister. The second architect, Alexander Wittek, modeled the building’s design after a mosque and school he saw in Cairo. In a fantastical twist the building was designed in Moorish revival style. Wittek’s design would last, but he did not. The mental strain of working on the project is thought to have driven him over the edge. Shortly after quitting the project Wittek committed suicide.

Four years after construction started Sarajevo’s town hall finally opened. The building, with its ornate atrium and glass dome, columns and arches, looked as though it had been transported from the Maghreb. On June 28, 1914, the Sarajevo Town Hall played a part in what would turn out to be one of the most tragic episodes in world history, the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand that precipitated World War I. After being nearly blown to bits by a bomb tossed at his motorcade, the Archduke arrived at the town hall for a reception given by the city’s leaders in his honor. The ill-tempered Archduke interrupted the Sarajevo mayor’s speech with an emotional outburst, stating, “Mr. Mayor, I came here on a visit and I am greeted with bombs. It is outrageous.” The archduke’s outrage subsided when his wife, Sophie, calmed him with a few words whispered in his ear. He stayed at the Town Hall for only half an hour, but it would turn out to be the last building he ever visited. Not long after leaving, he was gunned down in the streets of Sarajevo.

Unlike the archduke or his assassin, the Town Hall would survive the First World War. And then survive an even greater conflagration twenty years later with World War II. In the years after the war, Yugoslavia’s communist authorities decided to turn the building into the National and University Library, the ultimate storehouse of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s accumulated history and knowledge. Little could they have known at the time this would eventually make the building and its contents a target. “Black butterflies” flew through the infernal air that engulfed the streets of Sarajevo. These butterflies were not alive, but dead. They did not have wings, only burn marks. “Black butterflies” was what the citizens of Sarajevo took to calling the residue from millions of pages of books that fell from the summer sky, raining down upon the city on August 25th & 26th, 1992.

A man watches the Bosnian National & University Library on fire in August 1992

A man watches the Bosnian National & University Library on fire in August 1992

A Crime Against Culture & A Cry For Recognition
This was a Balkan book burning on an unprecedented scale, a crime against culture that was directed at humanity. The destruction of the Bosnian National and University Library was carried out with extreme prejudice by those who decided to take aim at the heart of a nation. Shot and shell rained down from the heights above the city, the building hardly had a chance and the library inside of it even less of one. There were harrowing scenes as those who worked at the library and book loving citizens dodge sniper fire in an attempt to save whatever they could. Their efforts were largely in vain.

After the fire had been extinguished a remarkably sad, but inspirational act occurred. The master cellist, Vedran Smailovic, sat among the ruins of the library and began to play. This act of cultural defiance was a poignant expression of artistic defiance and sorrow. It was not so much a work of music that emanated from Smailovic’s bowstring as it was a cry for recognition. The destruction of the library was not just the destruction of Bosnia’s heritage, but an act of inhumanity against all citizens of the world. Smailovic’s symbolic act called attention to what had taken place. It would be over twenty years before true restitution occurred.

Vedran Smailović playing cello in the ruins of the Bosnian National & University Library in 1992

Vedran Smailović playing cello in the ruins of the Bosnian National & University Library in 1992 (Credit: (Credit: Mikhail Evstafiev)

Rising From The Ashes – Bound By Books
In the spring of 2014, after years of painstaking work the Library was reopened. Anything that had been saved from the fire was restored. Entire parts of the building were reconstructed. Libraries from around the world helped donate either physical or digital copies of books and documents. The effort resulted in an amazing resurrection of a cherished national institution. Nevertheless, what had been consumed in the infernal fires on those dreadful August days in 1992 can never be replaced. Most of the rare books and manuscripts in the library are lost forever. Despite such irretrievable losses, something much more valuable remained: a sense that the nation of Bosnia is more than a library. It is a diverse group of peoples infused with a rich multicultural identity, full of intellect and ideals that have proven indestructible.

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