Bosnia’s cultural memory is at stake. This time, not Serb militia are to blame but political neglicience, a dysfunctional government and the commercial interests of Sarajevo’s city government. A reportage that could disturb book lovers and librarians.
“Oh, you can read Cyrillic?” Bedita Islamović beams at me as she shows me a Serbian copy “Madame Bovary” that had just been sitting on one of the book shelves of Bosnia’s National and University Library (NUB) in Sarajevo.
In her eyes, being also able to read Cyrillic is just part of being Bosnian. This coming from a librarian whose library was torched down by Serb militia in 1992 in an attempt to wipe out the cultural memory and thus the cultural existence of the Bosnian nation.
The fire destroyed two million books and unique manuscripts. Employees and passersby saved whatever they could.
„Do you think I counted them?“
“We formed a chain, tossing books to one another until they were out of the building”, Hermin says. Like Bedita, he has been working at NUB for decades.
“We saved around five or ten per cent of what was inside”, Hermin says. When asked whether he has any idea how many books went through his hands he just shrugs. “Do you think I had any time to count in this situation?”
Whatever was saved is now located in the former Tito barracks in Sarajevo, in a building at the very end of the area.
It is the only building on the campus that has not been recently renovated and repainted. Bullet holes from the war have just been patched up with white paint.
The few students and scholars one sees this morning are reading in several small rooms. There is not enough space for a big reading room like most National Libraries have.
“The number of books and documents we have has grown over the past years”, Bedita says. Mainly Bosniaca and international science books. “Libraries from all over the world have helped out donating books and enabled us to start over.”
This is not a match for the unique manuscripts lost in the fire of 1992, many of them several centuries old, such as poems in Bosnian language and Arabic script. But it has made NUB a functional library again.
One with limitations, though, Bedita explains. “We do not get any copies from new publications in Republika Srpska (RS).”
This is Bosnia’s Serb dominated entity. It borders Sarajevo in the South and East. Bosnia’s capital itself is located in Federacija, Bosnia’s Bosnjak and Croat majority entity.
NUB just gets copies of all books and magazines published in Federacija.
„RS does not recognize us as Bosnia’s National Library“, Bedita tells me.
The Powers That Be in RS have established their own National Library in Banja Luka, which is the administrative capital of RS.
Atop of that they send all publications from RS to Serbia’s National Library in Beograd.
It is from there hat NUB occasionally gets some copies from RS publications. Inofficially of course. This allows NUB to at least partly function as the All Bosnian National Library it is supposed to be.
There are no funds to circumvent RS‘s boycott and simply buy copies of RS publications. This is also owed to the nationalist politics in Banja Luka.
As long as RS does not recognize NUB as a national institution, NUB is barred from receiving any funds from Bosnia’s national government.
Or, rather, the institution whose competencies barely extend beyond that of a property management agency and that poses as a national government.
„We don’t have a budget“, Bedita explains NUB’s financial situation. “We just get enough money so we don’t have to close the place.” That is mainly subsidies from Federacija’s government and the City of Sarajevo and some funds for projects.
NUB’s total funds amount to less than a million Euros a year, including the staff’s salaries. Bedita, one of NUB’s senior employees, for instance earns less than 500 Euros a month.
This is shamefully little for an institution one may well call Bosnia’s soul.
National Libraries collect and archive all newspapers, magazines, brochures and posters published in a country. They also study their collections and make them available to the public. A National Library is a society’s cultural memory.
And what, other than culture, defines a society? What, except culture, makes a nation a nation? In this case one that is not defined by ethnicity, as Bedita and many others emphasize.
Where Tito Is Still Tito
Hermin makes NUB some additional money. In his workshop, located in a former shed, he restores books for other libraries and private collectors as well.
He is assisted by young Tito who officially has a Muslim first name. “During the war, officials considered the name Tito inappropriate”, Bedita tells me. “There was massive pressure on his parents to rename him”.
Such nationalist ressentments don’t resonate all that well with NUB’s staff. Here Tito is still called Tito if he chooses so.
The lack of funds also shows in NUB’s infrastructure. The main building isn’t big enough to house all media on the long run. There is no money for additional – and safe – storage space.
“This is used to be a horse stable”, Bedita tells me as we enter a small ground floor building in visibly bad shape. “Here we store some of the magazines we collect”.
Paint is peeling off the ceiling and the walls. Light bulbs dangling free without lampshades provide barely enough light to read the backs of the magazines’ covers.
There seems to be mould in the building’s corners.
One can not see any heating, any insulation or any ventilation. As far as technical standards are concerned, not much seems to have changed since the horses have moved out.
If the collection here is to be moved to a safer storage, Hermin will have a lot of work to do.
Unless he is in retirement by then.
Growing Rich Off NUB
Part of this situation is also owed to Sarajevo’s City Administration. It funds the city’s most important library with a couple of thousands Euros a year while depriving it of its most valuable property.
That is Vijećnica. NUB had its headquarters in the landmark building in Neomoorish style located in the outskirts of Sarajevo’s Old Town, until the attack with incendiary grenades in 1992.
The building was restored and reopened 22 years after the devastating fire in which it was heavily damaged. The EU and the governments of Austria, Spain and Hungary funded the restoration with several million Euros.
Ever since then, City Hall refuses to let NUB back into the building. “They simply don’t give us the keys”, Bedita says.
„Smrt fašizmu, sloboda knjigama“
„Vijećnica is the Mayor’s political playground“, a local tour guide tells a group of thirty or so Bosnian tourists he just took here this Saturday. He doesn’t look like he wants to take them inside.
Entry fees are high by Bosnian standards. Five Marks per person, that is 2 Euros 50. For larger parties it’s four Marks per person. The money goes to the City.
The National Library doesn’t get a single cent.
Half a dozen activists have gathered on Vijećnica’s white front steps. The members of the protest group called “Jedan Grad, jedna borba (JGJB)”, “One City, One Struggle” sit down and start reading.
For nine months or so the citizens’ initiative has campaigned for NUB’s return to its former seat Vijećnica.
They meet here every Saturday at 11. Until recently, there were also readins on Tuesdays as the banner shows the activists have mounted between two marble pillars.
„Smrt fašizmu, sloboda knjigama“ activist Selma Asotić tries to get the tourist guide and his group involved in the silent protest. “Death to fascism, freedom to books”.
The guide turns away and leads his group towards Old Town.
“Today we aren’t as many people as usual”, Selma tells me. She works as a translator and English teacher for adults and also is a poet. “We’re here every week so some people needed a break”.
“The building has been empty ever since it was reopened three years ago. City Hall doesn’t even use it anymore. space is being privatized and the people in this city have to pay to enter a building that is already theirs”.
Atop of entry fees, the City makes money by renting out Vijećnica. Whoever has the money can use it as prestigious setting for weddings, balls or car presentations.
That might explain why the City has so far refused to return the building to the Library. Which doesn’t make it necessarily legal.
The situation is bizarre and as Bosnian as it gets.
A public institution refuses to let another public institution use a public building that used to be owned by the latter public institution. This has to with a legal situation at least as bizarre.
Vijećnica was constructed during the Austro-Hungarian period between 1892 and 1894 to serve as Sarajevos City Hall which it did until 1947. The same year, it was awarded to Bosnia’s National Library which moved at that time.
Ever since the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, both insitutions have claimed Vijećnica for themselves.
A Transitional Travesty
The City cites its rights as under the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, i.e. before WWII.
The Library points out it owned the building according to the laws of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia.
There is no agreement whether Vijećnica was among the nationalized properties to be restored to their pre-Communist owners. And whether or not the fact the Sarajevo did get a new City Hall in Socialist times counts as a compensation anyways.
The Library has taken the City to court over the Vijećnica issue.
How to Define Diplomatic Neutrality
It was this disputed building the Austrian Embassy in Sarajevo chose to host its “First Austrian Ball” in recently.
For Sarajli like Dragan, the ball was a huge success. “Finally something grand happened in this town. It was a really great party, I was there myself.”
Coverage by local media was friendly and official Sarajevo liked it was well.
Many at the National Library see the ball as a slap in the face. “The Embassy is siding with the City”, an employee tells under the condition of anonymity. “By renting the building from the City, the Embassy recognizes the City’s control over Vijećnica and even celebrate that.”
Activist Selma from JGJB pretty much sees it the same way.
In another place, the ball episode would have been banal and long forgotten. Yet, in Bosnia international attention and recognition count for a lot. Even little episodes can stir up passion or at least attention.
In this case, criticism can not be dismissed lightheartedly, either.
The Austrian Embassy did sign a contract with an institution that is one of the parties in a court case over exactly the building the Embassy rented, in which it is to be determined if said insititution has the authority to rent out the building in the first place.
In an e-mail to Balkan Stories, Austrian Ambassador Martin Pammer rejects criticism. According to him, international institutions have used the building for cultural events several times in the past years. By renting Vijećnica the Republic of Austria had in no way taken any sided in the legal confrontation.
“The Republic of Austria has no official stance concerning the future use (of Vijećnica), even though the Republic of Austria, along with Hungary, Spain and the EU, bore the costs of the renovation. The outcome of the trial is to be awaited and the court’s findings to be respected”, Pammer writes.
According to him the conflict between the City and NUB is “a live court case in which both sides promote their (basically financial) interests. Personally, I think the idea of using Vijećnica as a library again, doesn’t make much sense. At any rate, it is the current owner, the City of Sarajevo, with whom events are being coordinated”.
Pammer refutes that the funds for the restoration of the building were ever tied to the condition that the National Library may use it again.
This sounded somewhat different when Vijećnica was reopened three years ago, like in this report describing a conversation between a local journalist and the then Mayor.
„In following, eager local reporters immediately interrupted him with angry questions about the allocation of 3066 m2 of office space to the city government, while only 2247 m2 is reserved for the library. These reporters stressed the issue that the Vijećnica had exchanged its administrative function, in 1947, to house culture, science and art as the national and university library. Ivo Komšić responded by referring to the reconstruction project, which provided for a multifunctional organization of the Vijećnica, whereby, there would be enough space for both the administrative and cultural institutions, even a museum.”
Or like in this piece by Balkan Insight.
“The reconstructed building will house the national library, the city council and a museum. It will also host a showpiece concert by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra on June 28, the centenary of the assassination in Sarajevo of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which helped to spark World War I.”
The news agency Reuters, that has earned a reputation for its accuracy, wrote:
“The building, which stands out in the city’s old Turkish quarter with its dark orange and yellow horizontal stripes and Islamic-style arches, will house the national and university libraries, the city council and a museum about its own history.”
Three years on, no one in City Hall mentions the Library anymore. The international donors don’t give the issue much thought.
Past promises are past promises.
A City Profits from The Boycott
The longer any kind of decision takes, the longer the money from entry fees and renting out Vijećnica keeps pouring into the City’s coffers. And that it largely due to Republika Srpska refusing to recognize NUB as a National Library.
As long as there is no recognition, the legal status of Bosnia’s National Library remains unclear as well as what kind of institution it is.
That makes it difficult for NUB to be even recognized as a party in a court case over Vijećnica.
And time is running out. The former Tito barracks have never been more than a temporary shelter for NUB. “The agreement for our presence here runs out in 2029”, Bedita says. “Until then we’ll have to find a solution”.
That sounds like a lot of time. Yet, this Bosnian tragedy is performed in Bosnian time. This requires a lot of patience – as long as no financial interests are at stake.
Bosnia’s cultural memory certainly does not qualify for that category, whatever Ambassador Pammer may have to say about NUB’s “financial interests”.
The lack of interest in the Library’s fate shown by all government institutions makes it seem unlikely that a sustainable solution will be found in time to adapt a current building or build a new Library.
Remembering Zemaljski Muzej
NUB wouldn’t the first central cultural and scientific institution forced to close.
Bosnia’s National Museum had to close for two years after RS refused to recognize it and contribute to its budget.
It was only after a massive public campaign that Federacija’s government pledged preliminary financing.
That the vast collection remained intact is owed to the staff that guarded and maintained the museum for two years – without salary. They were supported by Akcija and „Ja sam muzej“, two citizens‘ initiatives.
Bosnia‘s soul, the NUB, could fare a similar fate. No one seems to care. No one responsible, that is.