Rebuilding Bosnia

Has Bosnia’s heritage recovered twenty years after the war?

War is always accompanied by trauma, grief and the loss of human life. From 1992 to 1995, Bosnia experienced a genocide, and over 200,000 people died. But the nation’s cities and heritage sites were also decimated by the brutal conflict.

Almost 1,500 historic buildings were destroyed or severely damaged in the capital of Sarajevo alone. Sixty percent of buildings were wrecked by Serbian shelling, and “almost all windows were shattered by shock waves from artillery and had to be replaced with plastic sheeting.”

In the years that followed the war however, Bosnia began to bounce back.

Ravaged by a war that destroyed most of its historic architecture over four years, Bosnia has struggled to recover. Photo: AFP

Many historic buildings and heritage sites were rebuilt or reconstructed from the ground up.

“War is not only about death. It is also about staying strong,” Emira Albayrak, a Bosnian translator who lived through the war says. “Some left while they still could. But those who stayed? They would wake each day as if nothing had happened.”

Bosnia’s architecture embodied 400 years of Ottoman rule, the Austro-Hungarian empire, and Tito-era modernism. Its cities celebrated multiculturalism for decades until the war ravaged the country. Photo: UNHCR/R.LeMoyne, Getty Images, UNHCR/A.Hollmann

“Sarajevans would repair the damage to their houses after every shelling. You can’t let your enemy see you down.”

The iconic Mostar Bridge symbolised ethnic and cultural diversity — it connected Croats, Serbs and Muslim Bosnians for 427 years. It bridged the eastern and western parts of the city until it was destroyed by a heavy shelling by Croat forces in 1993, during the Bosnian war. Photo:Getty Images

Bosnia’s iconic Mostar Bridge — or Stari Most, “Old Bridge” — a graceful 16th century Ottoman arc that imposed itself onto the landscape, was destroyed during the war. Professor Amir Pasic is an award-winning Bosnian architect who oversaw its reconstruction.

“You have a population in Mostar which is 50 percent mixed,” he continued talking about the city where the iconic stone bridge was perceived as a symbol of multiculturalism for centuries. Photos: UNHCR/H.Kralj, UNHCR/Vincent Winter

“Some architects offered to keep the rubble of Mostar Bridge and build a new bridge next to it. Some even offered to build a glass bridge. They are artists— but they aren’t thinking about the social and psychological aspects of rebuilding.”

“The reconstruction of Bosnia was a joint project approved by all sides of war and it was the first joint project after the war. It was organised by a special unit under the supervision of UNESCO and the World Bank,” Pasic says. Photo: Getty Images

“Without reconstructing your environment, you cannot fully recover,” Pasic says of the psychological impact of war.

Some countries donated money directly to the account of the World Bank for this joint project — for example Turkey gave 3.3 million dollars. One of the representatives from Bosnian side in this special unit was Bosnian and the other one was Croat,” Pasic says. Photos: UNHCR/C.Shirley

“Do I want to see traces of war in the buildings now? No. The people who experienced the war wouldn’t want to see those anymore,” Albayrak agrees.

But the reconstruction process is not short — neither for the buildings nor for their inhabitants, who remain scarred. Much of the wartime rubble has been cleared from Bosnian cities. Twenty years after the war, however, traces of conflict still remain.

“It takes a minimum of 15 to 20 years. The construction of Mostar is not over even now. Many buildings have not yet been reconstructed in the city,” Pasic says.

The reconstruction process began after the United States brokered the Dayton deal in 1995 that stopped the war—but planning began much earlier, when war first broke out. “We were talking about the reconstruction while everyone else was still talking about the destruction of the country,” Pasic tells TRT World.

At the time, some architects proposed that new buildings ought to be constructed alongside ruins, in order to retain a link with the past. But this met a great deal of local opposition. “Have people lived inside ruins?” Pasic asks. “Retaining the physical rubble means that you’re not capable of moving on.”

“For me, if you don’t restore [the city] means you are not capable of moving on,” says Pasic. Photos: Getty Images

Attacks on Bosnia’s architecture didn’t just turn buildings into rubble. They were also an attempt intended to destroy a part of Bosnia’s history, identity, and culture, Pasic explains.

The National Library of Sarajevo lost millions of books and documents including arguably the richest collection of Ottoman documents in the entire Balkans during the Serbian shelling in 1992. Some Bosnians formed a human chain to protect the National Library of Sarajevo from Serbian shelling. They did so at great risk of snipers, who were targeting civilians in the city . Bosnians proved that their culture cannot easily be erased. Photo: AP

“The destruction of the Mostar bridge had a special meaning. The bridge connected two river banks. It connected people, different religions, different kinds of people and came to symbolise [our] memory,” he said.

The minarets of historic mosques were felled; to Bosnians, this was tantamount to an attack on their identity. “Destruction is a psychological process,” Pasic says.

“A mosque is proof that you exist, if you are a Muslim. And the symbol of a mosque is its minaret. Your identity is there. War destroyed everything.”

“They attack minarets of mosques in order to destroy the identity. Minarets were targeted during the war, 24 hours of the day by rifles. Because minarets are the symbol of Islam and it is a problem,” said Prof Pasic. Photo: AFP

“Our first reaction when we heard the bomb fall on the street next to the historic Hagi Husrev mosque in Sarajevo was to run towards the mosque,” a Turkish doctor, Bahadir Islam, who volunteered in Bosnia during the Sarajevo siege says. “The mosque could be targeted too — you could be killed anywhere. We knew that, but we didn’t even think about it.”

Islam brought medical aid to Sarajevo with a group of volunteers through a tunnel during the siege in the city.

Isolating the city from help and supplies from the outside world, the Sarajevo siege between 1992 and 1995 became the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare.

The tunnel that allowed Islam to bring aid to Sarajevo was the only link between the airport and the outside world. It brought aid, arms, food — and hope. Sarajevans were under an arms embargo, but the Serbian army had control of the former Yugoslavia’s army. This meant Bosnians were unable to defend themselves, paving the way for the genocide. Photo: Getty Images

“Throughout history, people have tried to protect their property straight after protecting their lives and that of their family’s,” Pasic says. “Because if you don’t have a roof to protect you, you’ll die naturally.”

Emira says residents never stopped going to work. Defiant, Sarajevans tried to live a normal life under the siege. Photos: UNHCR/Vincent Winter
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