A bibliophile takes aim at cultural genocide … Sarajevo

A bibliophile takes aim at cultural genocide – Sarajevo

Many Sarajevans made their way to the library, where they began a furious effort to rescue books from the advancing flames and guide survivors out of the building. One staff member, Aida Buturovic, was shot to death by a sniper. Film taken inside the burning library during the fire shows an inferno raging in the spacious main hall, the air filled with smoke and a snow of drifting, charred pages. As firefighters arrived, they came under attack; soldiers in the hills loosed antiaircraft shells and machine-gun fire that did little damage to the building itself, but cut hoses and firefighters to ribbons. Overnight, Bosnian soldiers pulled books from the library under withering fire from Serb nationalist positions. Rescue efforts continued over the next several days; a fire brigade commander later remembered watching books fly through the air above the library. Onlookers described ash and paper from the library fire filling their courtyard. One Sarajevan told Schork that “even on fire the building is very beautiful.” The Bosnian poet Goran Simic gathered bits of burned paper as they fluttered down; he later wrote a poem, “Lament for Vijécnica,” which expresses the tragic absurdity of the library’s destruction. “Set free from the stack,” he wrote, “characters wandered the streets / mingling with passers-by and the souls of dead soldiers.”

I just finished reading Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, 2008.¹  I’d spent the last 30 years in the Serbian diaspora so there was a sense of disloyalty attached to reading it.

I was moved and impressed, but most of all, I was reminded of those moments of cultural genocide that turned my loyalties — the shelling of Dubrovnik, of Mostar, the market, and then this, the National Library in Sarajevo. It was just one of the despicable acts in the siege of Sarajevo, almost unnoticed when wedged between civilians darting through Sniper’s Alley to get bread or water for their families. I’m not sure when it happened — the viscous, senseless, heartless acts piled one on top of the other, but for me, the shelling of Dubrovnik and the burning of the library shut my ears to those constantly telling me how wronged they were, how Russia would defend us, how everyone was out to get us, and how can they believe such lies being told about us. This was also when I began to notice an embarrassed hush falling over these proud people.

Vedran Smajlović, Cellist of Sarajevo, performs in 1992, in partially destroyed Nacionalna biblioteka BiH, Vijećnica
Vedran Smajlović, Cellist of Sarajevo, performs in 1992, in partially destroyed Nacionalna biblioteka BiH, Vijećnica

Throughout history, man’s desire to destroy ‘others’ has manifested itself in the destruction of their cultural touchstones. As Big Brother says: He how destroys the past, owns it.” ²

From The Cellist of Sarajevo,

“It’s all Kenan can do to look up at what remains of the National Library. Though the stone and brick structure still stands, its insides are completely consumed. … the domed glass ceiling that stood proud atop the building for a century has shattered to the floor. The tram once turned a semicircle here, offering a comprehensive view of the iconic building. It was one of his favorite places in the city, though he wasn’t a great reader. It was the most visible manifestation of a society he was proud of. Now the tram tracks serve no purpose and show only what’s been lost.

The men in the hills made the library one of their first targets … He went there when he heard it was burning, without knowing why. He watched, helpless and useless, as this symbol of what the city was and what many still wanted it to be, gave in to the desires of the men in the hills.

For days afterwards, the ash of a million books floated down onto the city like snow.” ³

I am one of a select few given a unique opportunity to absorb a completely different worldview — a first-hand, up-close glimpse into the Serbian culture. I responded with intense interest in this rich, passionate, and centuries-old culture, so different from any I’d ever known. I was welcomed – to  point – into the diaspora, granted pseudo-Serb status. Being an adoptee made me particularly susceptible to ‘the grass is greener on the other side’ thinking — I embraced it and it’s people.

I spent the first part of Yugoslav wars of the 1990s documenting it with the eye of an historian; studying and writing about the history, both medieval and modern of ‘the powderkeg of Europe’; listening intently to the impassioned history and cultural stories of those who lived it, felt it to the core of their hearts, and those who benefited and suffered under Tito’s Yugoslav experiment. As the provinces began to secede one by one, the Yugoslav experiment with multiculturalism died.

The effect of the War on this community consisted of good Five Act comitragedy — disbelief; restored nationalist pride; mastery of the secessionists; creeping doubt masked by ferocious volleys of lies, misdirection and denial as atrocities came to light; and, defeat, division, and implosion.

started out infusing the immigrant community so far from their home and their hearts with pride. Then, one event after another forced doubt down their throats even as they sang nationalistic chants, danced kolos with a fervour that was at once good-natured and desperate — a live today, die tomorrow frenzy.Their throats became so choked with lies that the singing became quieter, the dancing less feverish, the numbers gathered fewer and fewer. This was about the same time that the first refugees began to show up in the established communities. The passion of the original immigrants was fueled by cherished memories of a special time in the past; the surliness, suspicious, and elitism of this younger generation of refugees was fueled by the harsh, tired realities of the modern system that allowed for no cherished memories, stoked by a rage of seeing brothers, sisters, classmates, colleagues killed as a result of senseless, sadistic and self-serving motives of the old men. Nationalism restored one group for a time; it destroyed another forever.

The events that refused to succumb to the propaganda machine was the annihilation of culture. The ancient strategy of ‘damnatio memoriae’ (memory erasure) was carried out with devastating results. Historic structures, ones etched in people’s minds as ‘theirs’ — partially or entirely gone. Millions of books were destroyed, an entire people devastated. Libraries, museums, monasteries, bridges, schools, Sarajevo, Vukovar, Zadar, Dubrovnik, Osijek, Vinkovci, Kosovo. Books (rare and regular), incunabula, manuscripts, parchments, musical scores, photos. The flames can’t read, and like so many of us, they don’t care about history, so it roars through the centuries of shared pasts and experiences that create something people can identify as their own — 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th century, all gone.

in 2012, during an annual Serbian picnic on the grounds of the monastery outside Milton, I was singled out to be shown the new library. Upon entering, I was met with a tidy, rustic and solemn combination of granite, glass and oak, and like all things with a touch of the bishopric, hushed respect was expected. Outside, the raucous music, costumed and choreographed dancing groups from near and far took centre stage. The perimeters were populated by the usual bi-polar clutches of friendly and suspicious, standoffish and welcoming friends and families, In the hastily constructed booths that littered the edges of the field you could buy the gaudy and the folkloric pieces of their shared cultural past – wooden flasks, leather dancing shoes (papuchka), hand-crafted table cloths, Chetnik caps, homemade videotapes, cassettes and CDs that would magically transport you back the old country and bring a tear to your eyes, but you could also rev up the kids with a dazzling array of toy guns, testament to a shared past and present

The National Library burned for three days last August … Set free from the stacks, characters wandered the streets, mingling with passers-by and the souls of dead soldiers. – Lament for Vijecnica, Simic, Goran, 1993 p. 252

The attack lasted less than half and hour.

The fire lasted into the next day. The sun was obscured by the smoke of books, and all over the city sheets of burned paper, fragile pages of grey ash, floated down like a dirty black snow. – Kemal Bakarsic, chief librarian, National Museum of Bosnia-Herzegovina. – Lament for Vijecnica, 253

When asked by journalists why he risked his life for a library, volunteer fireman Kenan Slinic said,

I was born in this land, and what burned was part of me. – Lament for Vijecnica, 252

Note: Add in something from the Putin book about the Hotel Metropole being torn down …

¹ Voted The One Book by Toronto Public Library for 2014.
² 1984 quote
³ The Cellist of Sarajevo, pp. 111-13

Suggested reading,
The Cellist of Sarajevo / Galloway, Steven, 2008
Battles, Matthew, “Knowledge on Fire” in  American Scholar, 00030937, Summer 2003, Vol. 72, Issue 3
Merrill, Christopher, “Everybody Was Innocent: On Writing and War” in American Poetry Review, 03603709, Jan/Feb 96, Vol. 25, Issue 1
Burning Books / Matthew Fishburn, 2008
Riedlmayer, András J., “Crimes of War, Crimes of Peace: Destruction of Libraries during and after the Balkan Wars of the 1990s”  in Library Trends, Jun 01, 2007; Vol. 56, No. 1, p. 107-132
Bollag, Burton, “Barely Salvaged in Sarajevo” in Chronicle of Higher Education, 00095982, 8/15/2003, Vol. 49, Issue 49
Charlton, John, “Bringing Researchers Back to the Library” in  Information Today, 87556286, Nov 2012, Vol. 29, Issue 10
Reading, Publishing and the Formation of Literary Taste in England, 1880-1914 / Mary Hammond, 2006
A Universal History of the Destruction of Books / Baez, Fernando, 2008


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