Kosovo: burned books and blasted shrines


Interview by Cynthia Guttman, UNESCO Courier journalist.

Kosovo’s cultural heritage was deliberately targetted during the 1998-1999 conflict says Harvard University’s András Riedlmayer, co-author of the first survey assessing the damage
András Riedlmayer, Aga Khan Program Bibliographer at Harvard’s Fine Art Library, conducted the Kosovo Cultural Heritage Survey in October 1999 with colleague Andrew Herscher, an architect and architectural historian.

You spent three weeks in Kosovo in October 1999 documenting damage to cultural heritage. What were your main findings?
Kosovo’s 600-year-old Islamic heritage suffered large-scale devastation during the “ethnic cleansing” operations. More than one third of the region’s 600 mosques were destroyed or seriously damaged. A standard technique was to pack the base of the minaret with explosives so that the stone spire would collapse onto the building and smash the dome. We found racist anti-Albanian and anti-Islamic grafitti inside, Korans with pages ripped out and smeared with feces, and crosses carved into the mosques’ mihrabs [prayer niche]. Valuable collections of Islamic manuscripts were burned. The 500-year-old mosque and historic centre of Vucitrn was set afire and completely bulldozed by Serb paramilitaries. Of Kosovo’s four well-preserved Ottoman-era urban centres, only one, Prizren, escaped such devastation.
The other great loss are the kullas —stone mansions typical of Albanian residential architecture. They tended to belong to the more prominent Albanian families and had been in the same hands for 150-200 years. As such they were filled with artifacts and documents and were regarded as symbols of Albanian culture in Kosovo. Barely ten per cent of the region’s 500 kullas survived the war. All this demonstrates that the damage was clearly not collateral. It was very intentional.

There have been allegations that the Serbian heritage also suffered damage.
As soon as the conflict broke out, Belgrade’s Information Ministry and several conservation institutes claimed that NATO was deliberately targetting Serbian patrimonial sites. We visited each one of the sites for which damage was claimed and found these allegations to be unsubstantiated. At the end of the war, KFOR
1 troops were stationed to guard the most famous monasteries and churches. However, many village churches became easy targets for revenge by returning Kosovar villagers. A majority of the attacked buildings were built in the 20th century, and quite a large number during the 1990s. These were seen as political monuments and were especially targetted. Since the end of the war, as far as we can tell, about 40 churches have been badly damaged and 40 vandalized to some extent. While most were modern, about a dozen were genuinely ancient structures.

Where do reconstruction efforts stand?
The buildings being restored are those that can be fixed quickly, which means concrete frame modern buildings. Unfortunately, the UN agencies in charge in Kosovo don’t have much of a budget for reconstruction projects and the fate of cultural heritage has not ranked very high among the international community’s concerns. Our Kosovo Cultural Heritage Project recently obtained funding for the reconstruction of three damaged historical monuments in Kosovo
2. Another initiative enabled the Institute for the Protection of Monuments of Kosovo to clear the rubble, stabilize and cover with plastic sheeting close to 100 of the most endangered historic buildings. In the case of the mosques, Saudi-based Islamic aid agencies are bringing their own sectarian agenda to reconstruction, as it happened in Bosnia. They notably frown on all decorations and consider some practices common elsewhere in the Muslim world to be verging on the idolatrous.

Are the Albanians intent on rebuilding their heritage at this point?
There is a tremendous desire to rebuild their own heritage. People are immensely devoted to it and that’s why it was targetted. But there is a lack of funding, and above all, a lack of expertise. Through our project, we hope to establish methodologies adapted to the local context and foster links between local and foreign professionals.

1. KFOR is a NATO-lead international force responsible for establishing a security presence in Kosovo under a UN mandate.
2. The restoration and training project will be carried out in association with a Boston-based NGO, Friends of Bosnia, and local authorities involved in cultural heritage in Kosovo.


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