Books not Bombs

Posted January 3, 2008

Categories: Articles

The National Library in Sarejevo still stands in ruins, 16 years after Serbian military forces shelled the building and destroyed over 90% of its priceless contents. The European Union and the Austrian government have helped rebuild the roof and the atrium. Last year Spain offered a little over $1 million to finish the reconstruction. But the boarded-up windows and pock-marked walls of the gorgeous late-19th century, Moorish revival building remain a powerful symbol of the international community’s half-hearted approach to Bosnia.

Last week, the European Union signed a pre-membership pact with Serbia that would push the country ahead in the queue for accession, as long as it delivers the remaining war crime suspects to the tribunal in The Hague. The EU’s decision was absolutely right. Anchoring Serbia in the EU is the best strategy for avoiding further instability in the wake of Kosovo’s declared independence. At the same time, Bosnians were justifiably aghast at what they consider yet another injustice visited upon them. Bosnia, after all, is still waiting for its pre-membership agreement.

Meanwhile, poverty and unemployment are rampant in Bosnia. The political situation is paralyzed by the division of the country into two entities, Republika Srpska and the Federation (of Bosniaks and Croats). Ethnic divisions have solidified, particularly in the countryside where homogenous communities have become the norm. Everyone from taxi drivers to academics complain about the “ethnomafias” that dominate the political and economic life of the country. The younger generation, with no memory of pre-war heterogeneity and no opportunity to travel abroad because of restrictive visa requirements, are growing up ever more nationalist in their orientation.

And so, the half-reconstructed National Library serves as a reminder not only of war but of the diminishing attention that the world has paid to Bosnia once the camera crews stopped broadcasting pictures of a besieged Sarajevo. Some countries elect to preserve one or two destroyed buildings as reminders of the devastations of war – the Peace Dome in Hiroshima, the Coventry Cathedral in Britain. It would be a shame if Sarajevo, through lack of funds rather than deliberate decision, had to designate the National Library its monument to destruction.


When Bosnian Nebojsa Seric Soba won a competition to create a monument to the war, the Sarajevo city authorities were so unenthusiastic with the result that they didn’t want to install it at all. Entitled Monument to the International Community, the sculpture is of a huge tin can of beef.

As I write in Postcard from…Sarajevo, “This homage to Andy Warhol’s Pop Art cans of soup, which was erected last year along the river that cuts through Sarajevo, is no simple monument. It doesn’t perform the monument’s conventional function of celebrating the person or object on the pedestal. The cans of food sent to Bosnia were often long past their expiration date. The contents tasted terrible. ‘It was like pet food, except the dogs and the cats would not even eat it,’ says Bosnian curator Dunja Blazevic. Food poisoning was not uncommon.”

During the war, Bosnians put up with take-it-or-leave-it humanitarianism. Now they face take-it-or-leave-it economic and political reforms. It’s no surprise that they are biting the hands that feed them.

And in Iraq

The Serbian military deliberately targeted Sarajevo’s library for destruction. The Iraqi National Library in Baghdad, however, was destroyed through stupidity. After the U.S. invasion, in which soldiers failed to protect major sites of cultural heritage, looters made off with 95% of the rare books, 60% of all archival resources, and 25% of all book collections. After the war, courageous individuals like Saad Eskander, the library’s director, returned to the country to pick up the pieces. But violence has continued to take its toll, with the murder of several library employees, more bombs, and persistent death threats.

So much for “mission accomplished.”

As Erik Leaver writes in Mission Accomplished, Five Years Later, the numbers from the Iraq War are staggering: over 4,000 U.S. soldiers dead, more than a million Iraqi civilians dead, $520 billion squandered, and $100 billion sucked up by private contractors. Leaver writes, “With Bush intent on staying the course until he leaves the White House, Sen. John McCain voicing his approval for the United States to stay in Iraq for another 100 years, the Democratic candidates unwilling to call for a complete withdrawal of all troops and contractors, and Congress ready to approve another $100-200 billion for the war, it is up to the American people to demand an end to the war.”

FPIF May 5, 2008

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