Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Bosnia: Sarajevo's Missing Tomes
A lone cellist playing among the rubble of the old town hall became one of the most enduring images of the siege of Sarajevo. The building had housed the National and University library, one of the biggest in the Balkans with over two million books and manuscripts.
On August, 25, 1992, after four months of artillery bombardment and sniper fire, it finally went up in flames, a potent symbol of how the gunmen were targeting an entire history. Almost ten years on, the former deputy director of the library has revealed that much of the collection was in fact saved from the 200 missiles which hit the Hapsburg-era building, only to disappear later through a combination of looting and official indolence.
In his first interview since the war, Dusko Toholj, a librarian for 45 years, has described how he started making plans to evacuate books when war came to seem inevitable at the beginning of 1992. Once the conflict began in April 1992, an operation code-named "Castling" went into action, which included Toholj, his son Ognjen, some other library employees and members of the so-called "Art Brigade" of the Bosnian army.
Priceless books and manuscripts - including the "Bosniaca" collection of works dating from the Ottoman period and gold-plated copies of the Koran - were sealed in heavy metal boxes and moved to the library basements, their place on the higher floors taken by catalogues, newspaper archives and less valuable books. As this operation was underway, the library was pounded daily by snipers and artillery, including incendiary shells, but firefighters had managed to extinguish the fires every day until August 25, when a huge shell sparked an unstoppable fire.
As firefighters, employees and nearby residents braved sniper fire in a last desperate attempt to save as many books as possible, few knew what was inside the metal boxes. Once the flames subsided on the morning of August 26, Toholj and his helpers removed the boxes from the smouldering ruin. "As we removed the boxes, the radio was announcing that all the books were lost," he said. "It took us 43 days to remove them all." When Toholj managed to finally count the rescued books, he realised that some 1.2 million volumes had been saved.
But evacuation from the devastated town hall building marked the beginning of a new ordeal. For security reasons, the books were moved from one place to another, although nowhere in besieged Sarajevo was truly safe. Nihad Cengic, a book restorer and member of the Bosnian army "Art Brigade" who took part in the rescue operation, recalls that the books were first taken to a private basement in downtown Sarajevo, but before long the military ordered the basement to be vacated.
From there, they were transferred to some corridors in the headquarters of the fire department, but that proved such an unsuitable environment that they were moved again, to the basement of the Sarajevo District Court. By then, Cengic said, the windows of the court building had been shattered by artillery and snipers, with dirt and water flooding in. So the books were moved again, to the Bosnian Cultural Centre, where some still remain.
Each time the books were moved, their numbers dwindled, according to Toholj. One of the shelters was broken into and the books looted. As the tomes did not officially exist, no one took responsibility for them. "We were even kicked out of one old nuclear shelter by people who claimed they needed the space for something else," he said.
Today the National and University Library is housed at the Marsal Tito military barracks, part of which has become a university building. The library holds around 600,000 books, most of them donated after the end of war. The director, Enes Kujundzic, has long dismissed the operation "Castling" story. "I've been director since 1994. Our card catalogue was burnt down and nobody knows how many books were there," he told IWPR. Other library employees were reluctant to comment on the fate of the previous collection, but off the record some did say that since Kujundzic's arrival they had been forbidden to give public statements. The official amnesia even extends to the federal ministry of culture, which also denies any knowledge of the rescued books.
Now the story of the books is beginning to circulate around the city, Kujundzic seems to have had a change of heart. Having originally claimed that the thousands of tomes still stored in the damp rooms of the Bosnian Cultural Center are worthless, he now says there are plans to move them to the new National Library site. He is also fighting to have the old town hall building restored, so the books can return to their original home.
Toholj who has now retired, still likes to walk along the banks of Miljacka river and gaze at the destroyed town hall building. "Sometimes I feel that our experience showed that good things cannot be done in bad times," he said. "But I still think that I did what every honest man would do. In any case books - like children - are precious and we should strive to save them."
Sanela Hajdarhodzic is a freelance journalist based in Sarajevo.
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