The Execution of Culture

In the fall of 1995, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger proclaimed that "there is no Bosnian culture." The context for Kissinger's claim was his proposal that Bosnia should be partitioned between Serbia and Croatia and that the Muslims (and presumably anyone else who did not want to be part of ethnically pure Greater Croatia and Greater Serbia) should be placed in a "Muslim state." Partitioning Bosnia and putting the Muslims in a religious ghetto was the original goal of the Serb and Croat nationalists.[4]

Those who have done the most to disprove Kissinger's claim that there is no Bosnian culture are Ratko Mladic and Mate Boban, the Serb and Croat nationalists who devoted such extraordinary energy to destroying the vast testimony to Bosnian culture: the National Library, the Oriental Institute, and the National Museum, all in Sarajevo; the archives of Herzegovina; music schools; local museums; graveyards; ancient bridges and clocktowers; entire historic districts; covered marketplaces; and of course thousands of churches, synagogues, and mosques, from masterworks of South Slavic architecture to the humble, local houses of worship.

One incident, recounted by the Bosnian writer Ivan Lovreno-

vic, captures the frenzy of this campaign of cultural annihilation. A Serb army officer had entered the home of a Sarajevan artist, who happened to be Serb. Among the works of art, he saw a piece that depicted a page from the Qur'an. Infuriated, he had all the artwork taken out into the street, lined up, and shot to pieces with automatic weapons fire.[5]

What is behind such a seemingly lunatic obsession with destroying culture? Why would Croat and Serb nationalists spend almost four years destroying a culture that did not exist in the first place? The four years of destruction were an attempt to eliminate something that does exist and continues to exist. Testimony to that existence is to be found in the people and cultural world that has survived, and in the empty spaces throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina where so many human lives and cultural monuments used to be.

The armies of the Serb and Croat religious nationalists targeted Bosnian culture, monuments, cultural leaders, teachers, and students, so that someday advocates of religious apartheid in Bosnia could declare: "There is no Bosnian culture." People looking at the parking lots where mosques and churches and art museums and music schools and libraries and manuscript collections once stood would say: "I guess Kissinger was right." The argument then becomes plausible. As the mayor of the newly "cleansed" and 100 percent pure Serb Orthodox city of Zvornik said, after all of the city's mosques had been dynamited, "There never were any mosques in Zvornik." If there is no Bosnian culture, why not divide Bosnia between Croatia and Serbia, and herd the Muslims into a central ghetto?

The same reasoning was used by advocates of apartheid in South Africa. There was no African culture, they said, so why

not put Africans on reservations called homelands and institute an apartheid state? The same approach was used during the extermination of the American Indian nations. There was no Native American culture, so why not "cleanse" the American Indians and put the survivors on reservations?

Since the First Crusade in 1096, non-Christian communities in Europe have been subject to annihilation. Throughout the Crusades, Jewish communities were attacked and burned, visited with the kind of atrocities that have occurred in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In 1492, exactly five hundred years before the beginning of the attack on Bosnia, Queen Isabella of Spain ordered her kingdom "cleansed" of its Jewish population. In 1609, those to be "cleansed" were the Moriscos, all those who kept the customs of the Muslims of Spain, whether or not they were practicing Muslims. A new word, "pogrom," came into our vocabulary to explain the fate of Jewish communities in eastern Europe for several centuries. Then there was the Holocaust. To advocate the driving of Bosnian Muslims into a Muslim state surrounded by two heavily armed nationalist armies that have tasted blood is to advocate, if a ruthlessly consistent European history tells us anything, the probable destruction of that people. Those who advocate a ghetto for Bosnian Muslims may suggest that the UN and NATO would give the ghetto security guarantees—like those given to the "safe area" of Srebrenica.

Like culture in the United States, Bosnian culture cannot be defined by the linguistic and religious criteria of nineteenth-century nationalism. Just as Americans share a language with the British and Australians, so Bosnians share a language with Serbs and Croats. Just as the United States has no single, official church, so Bosnia is made up of people of different religious confessions,

and within those confessions, vastly different perspectives. If Bosnia has no culture, then the United States has no culture. If Bosnia should be partitioned into religiously pure apartheid states, then the same logic leads to the idea, proposed by the Christian Identity movement, that the United States should be divided into apartheid states of different races and religions. Creation in the Fire

After recounting her experiences of the destruction of culture in Sarajevo, Aida Musanovic explained the exhibit she was organizing, entitled Expo/Sarajevo 92. It consists of eighteen engravings made by distinguished Sarajevan artists during the worst of the shelling of Sarajevo. The names of the artists (Serb, Croat, and Muslim) and the styles of their art reflect the mosaic of cultures, religions, and influences that comprises Sarajevo. Radoslav Tadic's work, "Echo 92," shows the silhouette of a building in which Catholic, Serbian Orthodox, and Muslim architectural and sacred figures blend into, grow out of, and complement one another. Mustafa Skopljak's "The Cry" offers piercing emotion transmuted through semi-anthropomorphic shapes reminiscent of those of Joan Miro. Sead Cizmic's "Sarajevo Sera" depicts a calm evening with a Mediterranean atmosphere, with a darkness on the horizon. Zoran Bogdanovic's "Homage to Alija Kucukalic" is calm solemnity, a grief too deep for words or movement. Nusret Pasic's "Witnesses to Existence" depicts human figures in elongated shapes partially reminiscent of German expressionism.[6]

The artists decided to use engraving not only because prints

are replaceable and thus not vulnerable to total destruction but also bemuse of the social aspect of engraving. Because of the shelling, the artists were often forced to stay overnight or for several nights at a time in their studio (an old evangelical church). In their catalogue comments the artists trace the line of teachers and traditions that religious nationalists wished to destroy.

Why would people risk their lives to produce a work of art? Why did that doctoral candidate at the University of Sarajevo give her young life to try to carry some small part of the cultural heritage of Bosnia out of the flames of the National Library?[7] Several months after the death of her father at the hands of a sniper, the student's sister in Canada received in the mail some letters from the dead father; because of the siege of Sarajevo they had been delayed en route. At the time of their delivery, she said, she had not been able to open them. I do not know what the letters might have said, whether they discussed the death of his daughter. From the testimony of hundreds of Bosnians, I imagine one theme would be this: It is not tolerable to live as a captive, to sneak along alleys and walls to receive a UN food handout. To live is to create. To create or protect culture is an act of living.

One participant in the discussion of Expo/Sarajevo 92 suggested that the engravings do not represent a cultural reality that could exist independently and prior to them.[8] Rather, it may be that through such art a culture like that of Bosnia—a culture not defined by notions of ethnic and religious purity—can exist. In the act of creating culture, the overlapping boundaries and claims of different languages, religions, and traditions can find a space in which otherwise competing worlds are on common ground.

When Slobodan Milosevic stood at the Kosovo field in 1989, he told the crowd that Serbia "was a fortress defending European culture and religion." The Serbian Orthodox Church leaders and academics in Belgrade speak of a defending wall against the Asiatic aliens. Croat religious nationalists destroyed the Mostar bridge as they "Europeanized" Bosnian Muslims. After the Dayton treaty proposed a unified Sarajevo, Radovan Karadzic demanded a walled Sarajevo patterned on the Berlin of the cold war.

Those who want a wall between Europe and an allegedly alien and inferior "Orient," a wall between Christian and Islamic worlds, face one problem: the stubborn propensity of Bosnians to think in terms of bridges instead of walls and their courageous effort to save or rebuild their bridges. Cultures are hard to kill. Fire meant to destroy them may steel them instead.

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