A Building for Us, The People

In Sarajevo, a protest movement has formed to resolve rather grotesque issue that has alienated a lot of Sarajevili. The city administration has taken over Vijećnica, the building that had housed Bosnia’s National Library and that was almost destroyed because of that in 1992. The building has not become the seat of the city administration, though – it is rented out and the city charges an entrance fee.

For Balkan Stories, activist Svjetlana Nedimović has written a commentary that explains why Vijećnica matters to her and why she and other activists from the protest movement „Jedan grad, jedna borba“ (One City, One Struggle) want Vijećnica to be public space again.

Just before the war started in Sarajevo, I visited Narodna i univerzitetska biblioteka as a high school student. I was still not of age legally and a friend’s aunt came with the two of us so we could look at some books for the seminar paper we were preparing. My encounter with the library catalogue, which back in 1992 was a large wooden chest with many drawers, like a house with many little doors, was almost as impressive as walking into the spacious hallway, nothing of the kind I had seen by then. In those very volatile days, some sense of certainty in my life was coming for the sheer presence of the Library – no matter what, I thought, it was there and that is where I shall go when I start university.

This sense was deeply disturbed when the Library was burnt down in August 1992. But even if I did not know it at the time, I could not have known it, the sense did not disappear entirely. As it became clear that the war was really over – which in 1995 no one was quite sure of – and the reconstruction started, the sense reappeared, feeble however and more or less subconscious but there is was: The Library would be reconstructed and there would be THE library again and life could then move on.

As years went by and I could finally leave Sarajevo without worrying what remains behind, to be acquainted with some old libraries abroad, the absence of the Library was felt even more deeply but it was not definite, and I was away anyhow, so it all seemed like a transitory phase.

When in 2007 I settled back in Bosnia, the thought of the Library was still the source of certainty in a place which, other than that, did not quite inspire the feeling of Heimat in me, quite the contrary. Absorbed in my own life as I was, I accepted the official narrative – funding was being raised, all would be well in the end. Here and there, there would be signals that it was not going quite well, but the Library was just so greater than anything else, I could not have thought, in my wildest dreams or nightmares, that anything would go so badly wrong. The Library it was – the Library it would be.

It was almost an ontological axis of my life and myself as someone living in Sarajevo. Until voices grew stronger and until in 2010 a talk with an EU official suggested to me that the reconstruction would happen but it would not be a reconstruction of the Library.

It was clear that the EU was interested only in getting the reconstruction grant finally used up and if it so happened that the local political acrobatics would result in a different use of the building, well, so be it, “We should look towards the future, not dwell on the past.“ And that is indeed what happened in the end. The building was rebuilt only to be usurped by the city administration and commercialized to the point of total trivialization. Clearly, what the EU offers us is a transition from stolen past to profit-making future.

My sense of certainty? Well, it did not recover in the old form. It got updated and upgraded and it comes from fighting for returning the building to us as the people. It is not fighting for simple restoration to the pre-war purpose, restorations are an impossibility really, but for even more open public space, against commercial logic and agenda behind institutional urban politics nowadays.

Svjetlana Nedimović

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