Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Tearing Down the Past

Expert witness chronicles Serb destruction of mosques and Catholic churches.
By Stacy Sullivan

For once, there wasn't much Slobodan Milosevic could say to contest the evidence presented in court this week that Bosnian Serb forces attempted to eradicate mosques and Catholic churches during the war.


"Virtually every mosque in Republika Srpska, well over 90 per cent, was destroyed," said Andras Riedlmayer, director of Harvard University's Documentation Centre of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture. "Many are now being used as parking lots, garbage dumps and junkyards"


He said about three-quarters of the Catholic churches in the areas he surveyed were damaged.


The prosecution called Riedlmayer - a highly respected authority on the cultural heritage of the Ottoman-era Balkans - as an expert witness on how the Bosnian-Serb leadership went about systematically destroying Muslim and Catholic monuments and houses of worship as part of their ethnic cleansing campaign.


Riedlmayer presented a report entitled "Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1992-1996," in which he chronicled the damage in 19 of the municipalities that the Bosnian Serbs controlled during the war.


In his testimony, he said that the authorities in Republika Srpska, RS, not only destroyed most of the mosques in the territory they controlled by blowing them up or burning them down, they even attempted to bulldoze over the foundations.


As evidence, he showed a series of "before and after" photographs of mosques and Catholic churches in Bosnian Serb towns.


Riedlmayer said the campaign of destruction was intended not to raze buildings, but also to destroy the connections Muslims and Croats had to the areas. Because civic records were relatively new in many communities in Bosnia, the mosques and Catholic churches contained the vast majority of Muslim and Croat property deeds, family histories, and birth, marriage and death certificates.


In some cases there was a direct link between the destruction of buildings and lives. Serb forces set fire to a mosque just outside of Kotor Varos as local residents were sheltering inside, burning them alive, he said.


In Brcko, he said, Serb forces destroyed the town’s three mosques in the summer of 1992. They subsequently dug up the foundation and buried the rubble - together with some of the town's Muslim and Croat inhabitants. Just outside of Brcko, in the town of Gorice, residents of the town told him that they saw Yugoslav army aircraft bomb the Catholic church.


Riedlmayer listed cases which indicated a desire to eradicate all signs that a religious building had existed. In Kozluk, the mosque and its foundations were destroyed and the site was turned into a parking lot and rubbish dump. In Nevesinje, which was taken over by Serb nationalists before the outbreak of war, they destroyed and then bulldozed the foundations of a Catholic church from the Austro-Hungarian era. In Bratunac, it was almost impossible to detect that there had once been a mosque, except for fragments of gravestones found at the site.


When Bosnian Serb forces took control of Srebrenica in July 1995, they blew up the mosque. By contrast, Riedlmayer said, the Serbian Orthodox church remained standing throughout the three and half years the town was held by Bosnian forces.


Riedlmayer went on to describe attacks on Bosnia's cultural heritage. He said Bosnian Serb forces shelled the Institute of Oriental Studies in Sarajevo, which contained some 200,000 documents chronicling 500 years of Muslim cultural history. "Virtually none of the collection was saved. There had been plans to move the documents to an alternative location, but it never happened," Riedlmayer said.


Serb units also targeted the city's National Library, bombarding it with 40 incendiary shells on August 25, 1992. According to Riedlmayer, the Sarajevo fire brigade didn't have much chance of extinguishing the flames because Serb forces had cut off the city's water supply before the shelling. They tried anyway, using water from the river, but they were fired on by Serb gunners.


The library burned for three days, and 90 per cent of its collection - some 1.5 million books - was destroyed.


In cross-examination, Milosevic could not argue that the destruction didn't happen, so he took his usual line of defence - arguing first that Serbia had nothing to do with what happened in Bosnia and second that all sides in the Bosnian war were guilty of destroying the others' religious monuments.


"Could you please tell me, Mr. Riedlmayer, during those wars, were any mosques or cultural buildings of Muslims or Croats damaged or destroyed in the Republic of Serbia?" he asked.


When Riedlmayer said he was not aware of any, Milosevic retorted, "So what does this report have to do with Serbia?"


The presiding judge, Richard May, grew agitated, "The report might not have anything to do with Serbia. It's a report about destruction in Bosnia-Herzegovina. If you have any questions about it, please ask them."


Milosevic went on to question the methodology used in the report. "All three sides destroyed each others' monuments in this war. Why is your report limited to Roman Catholic and Islamic structures?" he asked. "How many Catholic sites were destroyed by the Muslims? How many mosques were destroyed by the Croats?"


Riedlmayer explained that he had been commissioned only to write a report about the destruction of religious and cultural monuments in territory held by the Bosnian Serbs, but that he was aware that some Serbian Orthodox monuments in Bosnia-Herzegovina had been destroyed. However, he said, in all major centres that remained under Bosnian government control, Serbian Orthodox monuments mostly remained intact.


"It is wrong to assume that there was some equality of destruction," Riedlmayer said.


Milosevic then produced a book chronicling the destruction of Orthodox religious structures - one of which showed a burnt-out Serbian Orthodox church in Trnovo, a town just outside Sarajevo.


Riedlmayer said he was familiar with the book, but pointed out that it did not differentiate between destruction of monuments in the Second World War and the wars of the Nineties. Nonetheless, he said he was aware that the war had impacted some Orthodox monuments during the war, but he said that the number was "not very large" and that it happened mainly in rural areas or towards the end of the war. The church at Trnovo was an "isolated incident".


By contrast, the vast majority of the destruction of mosques and Catholic churches happened during the first year and a half of the war, at the same time as the non-Serb population was being expelled, he said. Very often, there was no fighting in the area at the time. "In many towns the mosques were destroyed after Serb authorities were in control," Riedlmayer said.


He added that the destruction of Serb churches was largely the work of Croat militia who were not under the Bosnian government's control. The most significant, he said, was when the Bosnian Croat army destroyed an Orthodox monastery and several other monuments.


In an effort to prove that Serb forces had not planned the total destruction of Muslim and Croat monuments in Bosnia, Milosevic produced an order to the Bosnian Serb interior ministry signed by President Radovan Karadzic in May 1993, ordering patrols around religious sites to be strengthened to spare them from "terrorist attacks."


As Riedlmayer pointed out under questioning from one of the judges on the panel, some mosques were still standing in Banja Luka at the time, but by December 1993, they had all been destroyed.


When Milosevic resumed his questioning, he tried to discredit the witness, asking whether or not Harvard University's Islamic Architectural Documentation Center received money from Islamic countries. Judge May again interrupted and told Milosevic that the question was irrelevant.


Milosevic then asked Riedlmayer whether it was true that he had written a letter to US President Bill Clinton in 1995 urging him to lift the arms embargo against the Bosnian government. Riedlmayer acknowledged that he had.


When the prosecution was given the opportunity to question Riedlmayer once more, it asked what destroying mosques and Catholic churches meant to the Muslims and Croats of Bosnia.


"For the people who did this, it was very clear what the destruction meant," Riedlmayer said. He quoted from an August 1992 New York Times article in which the Bosnian Serb police chief in Prijedor, Simo Drljaca, said, "With their mosques, you must not just break the minarets. You've got to shake up the foundations because that means they cannot build another. Do that, and they'll want to go. They'll just leave by themselves."


Stacy Sullivan is IWPR project manager in The Hague.