When heritage becomes history

February 18, 2000

Can academics help save the historical monuments being targeted in ethnic conflicts? Steve Farrar reports

The fall of the delicate limestone structure that arched over the river Neretva in Mostar was a poignant symbol of the Bosnian war's brutal stupidity.

Over the years, tourists, scholars, lovers and poets had come to gaze upon this wonder of the Ottoman Empire. But in the winter of 1993, Croat gunners turned their attention to the 400-year-old monument.

In response to the international outcry that met the destruction of the world-famous monument, Croat military commanders argued that the Mostar bridge was a legitimate target: the slender span, crossable only on foot, had apparently been used to supply enemy troops.

Few accepted this explanation - it was the monument's cultural and historical significance to the Muslim people of Bosnia that led to its downfall. Indeed, its demolition dealt a deep, psychological blow to the Bosnian cause and removed a symbolic link between the two communities of the divided city.

This was more than a tragic incident in a catastrophic war. It was a demonstration of a worrying trend in post-cold war conflict - the targeting of heritage.

The archives of the postwar reconstruction and development unit at the University of York record a growing number of such incidents. The university's Alpaslan Ozerdem recently returned from a visit to Kosovo to gauge the extent of cultural damage inflicted on the province.

While he was in the medieval town of Prizren he visited a site of particular significance to the Albanian people. In 1878, an assembly of Albanian patriots from across the Balkans gathered to demand autonomy from the Ottoman Empire. The townhouse they met in became a potent symbol of nationalism. Like the bridge at Mostar, it was recorded by Unesco as a world heritage site.

But when Ozerdem arrived in Prizren in September 1999, it was gone, burned to the ground by the Serbs last year - who implausibly blamed a Nato bomb - and then bulldozed to create a public park.

"The Albanians felt that the Serbs, by destroying that building, wanted to destroy their history, their very existence in Kosovo," he says.

Now the vengeful Albanians are in control, and in the historic centre of the town whole streets have been gutted, simply because their last occupants were Serbs.

"The Sh'nm'ria Levishka orthodox church - one of the oldest buildings in Prizren - is today guarded around the clock by Kfor soldiers, to protect it from Albanian extremists," says Ozerdem. "What will happen when the United Nations forces depart?" Targeting historical sites is not new. The Persians torched monuments in Athens, the British and Germans sent bombers to attack historic cities. It has always been a feature of warfare - but in recent years, it appears to have become far more prevalent.

Sultan Barakat, director of the York unit, believes that the shift in international politics, with the end of the cold war and the ignition of various nationalist disputes, can be blamed for the increase.

In particular, the grisly advent of ethnic cleansing as a feature of modern warfare has made the concept of destroying cultural symbols far more attractive to those determined to eradicate a people.

"People are targeting each other's identities and destroying heritage as part of systematic cultural genocide," Barakat says. "If you want to get rid of an entire community, you have to get rid of its historical record."

Few admit to such acts of destruction. In Sri Lanka, no one has claimed responsibility for the partial demolition of the Temple of the Tooth - one of the country's holiest Buddhist shrines, and a world heritage site and the site of a holy relic, a tooth of Buddha. But few doubt where responsibility lies.

Civil war has ravaged the island and well-armed separatists, the Tamil Tigers, have targeted important Sinhalese economic and political sites.

On January 25 1998, a lorry loaded with explosives crashed into the side of the 17th-century temple complex in the city of Kandy. Seventeen people died and much of the ornate temple building was wrecked.

The incident has been studied by Robin Coningham, of the department of archaeological studies, and Nick Lewer, of the department of peace studies, at Bradford University.

"The site was deliberately targeted by the Tamil Tigers because of what it represents to the Buddhist Sinhalese majority," Coningham says. And he fears there is worse to come. "It's a loss to all mankind, not just one nation. Surely, you cannot not be moved by it," Barakat says.

Concerned academics and organisations have set up the Blue Shield Commission in a bid to pool knowledge and resources to try to slow the destruction.

Can the protests by academics make a difference? Hope can be found in unlikely places.

Afghanistan, a country ravaged by war, has lost an enormous amount of its heritage. In fact, its antiquities have sometimes been sold by warring factions in order to buy weapons.

But last year, Taleban leaders ordered their troops not to damage the world's largest Buddhist statues, which tower over the central region of Bamiyan.

Frontline commanders had threatened to blow up the "unholy" icons, and local forces fired rockets at the figures after capturing the area last year.

The international outcry this provoked persuaded the authorities to deploy guards to protect the ancient relics. Abdurrahman Hotak, Taleban culture minister, declared: "Preservation of history is a Taleban duty."


Afghanistan:Buddhist statues damaged, many archaeological sites pillaged for sellable relics to fund war.

Bosnia: Ottoman bridge at Mostar shelled, mosques, churches and monasteries burned by Croat, Serb and Bosnian troops.

Georgia: civil war leads to destruction of monuments across the country, particularly in the northwest province of Abkhazia.

Kosovo: Mosques, monasteries and other historic buildings destroyed by Serb and Albanian forces in 1998.

Iran: Bombing of ancient city of Esfahan with many historic mosques during Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

India: Hindu extremists destroyed the Muslim Babri Masjid shrine in Ayodhya, sparking brutal violence in India and Pakistan.

Lebanon: civil war and Israeli invasion led to many historical monuments across the country being blown up and shelled in the1970s and 1980s.

Sri Lanka: Buddhist temple blown up in 1998 shortly before independence day celebrations.

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