Bosniak Sue Republika Srpska Over Destroyed Heritage

10. April 2008.00:00
Years after several hundred mosques were blown up, the Islamic Community is suing the Republika Srpska for damages in a landmark case.

This post is also available in: Bosnian

Bosnian Muslims hope a landmark trial in the northwestern city of Banja Luka will see justice done to the Serb militants who destroyed the city’s many mosques in the 1992-5 war.

The plaintiff in the trial, due to start between April 14 and April 25 before the Principal Court in Banja Luka, is the Islamic Community. In the dock: the Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb entity in which most of the damage to Muslim sites occurred.

Esad Hrvacic, lawyer for the community’s Vakufska Direkcija, which manages its property, and which filed the suit against the Republika Srpska, said he expected compensation in excess of 60 million euro.

It will be the first trial in which a religious community has sought group reparation for damages, as well as the punishment of persons responsible for the demolition of its buildings.

Muslims in Bosnia suffered immense damage to places of worship in the 1990s, as Serbian forces, backed by Belgrade, swept over the country, at one point seizing more than two-thirds of the former Yugoslav republic.

Everywhere, the Serb takeover was marked by a comprehensive destruction of mosques, as visible signs of the Muslim community’s presence.

Overall, according to available data, some 3,290 religious buildings were destroyed or damaged in Bosnia during the war, though this includes Catholic and Orthodox churches and convents as well as synagogues.

Bosnian Muslims believe of a pre-war total of 1,144 mosques, 614 were destroyed and 307 damaged.

They also say that 557 Mesdzids (small mosques), 954 Mektebs (schools for Koranic readers), 15
Tekkes (Dervishes’ lodges), 90 Turbes (Islamic shrines) and 1,425 other community buildings were destroyed.

Some were priceless cultural and historical monuments whose exact value is hard to estimate.

These include the Ferhat Pasina mosque, known as the Ferhadija mosque, a UNESCO-listed monument built in Banja Luka in 1579 and destroyed in 1993.

Another was the Arnaudija mosque, built in Banja Luka in 1594. This was also on the UNESCO list of protected monuments.

Catholic houses of worship suffered no less grievously in Bosnian Serb territory, and to a lesser extent at the hands of Muslim Bosniaks.

According to Church data, 269 Catholic religious buildings were totally destroyed in the war and 731 were damaged. Demolished structures included chapels, convents and cemeteries.

“More than 90 percent of the churches in Banja Luka diocese were either blown up or devastated, even when no military operations were going on in those areas,” lamented Monsignor Ivo Tomasevic, general secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference.

“The persons who destroyed religious objects in the war knew that they would not be tried for their acts,” he added.

Elsewhere in Bosnia, Serbian churches were destroyed, though in lesser numbers. According to Serbian Orthodox Church data, 125 church buildings and 66 other parochial and other sacral objects were destroyed in the war and 172 churches and 50 other objects damaged.

Most destroyed Orthodox buildings, 69 in total, were located in the Zvornik-Tuzla archbishopric in the north-east. Others included the historic Old Church in the Bascarsija area of Sarajevo and the archbishopric building in central Sarajevo.

The Jewish Community building that suffered the worst damage was the cemetery in Sarajevo, which Danilo Nikolic,of the Jewish Municipality in Sarajevo, said contained monuments that were more than 400 years old.

Amra Hadzimuhamedovic, director of the country’s Commission for Preservation of National Monuments, told Justice Report it was shocking how much cultural and historical heritage was “systematically destroyed” in the war.

“Of 58 of the most valuable mosque sand tekkes listed before the war, 22 were completely destroyed and all the others were damaged,” she noted.

“Out of the 40 most valuable Catholic and Orthodox churches and monasteries built between the 15th and the 19th century, five were destroyed, as well as many cemeteries and tombstones, some of which were the first-category monuments,” Hadzimuhamedovic added.

As the various faith leaders have told Justice Report, places of worship were targets for destruction also because they served as the principal symbols of people’s affiliation to a certain nation.

The Hague Tribunal has determined in several verdicts that the destruction of mosques in Banja Luka formed part of a Serbian ethnic cleansing campaign in Bosnia.

Colin Kaiser, a historian who appeared as a prosecution witness at the trial of Radoslav Brdjanin, former president of the Crisis Committee of the Krajina Autonomous Region – of which Banja Luka formed part – said: “Minarets were destroyed with the intention of wiping out all Islamic symbols in this region, from which Bosniak population had already been deported.”

Kaiser explained that “following the attacks on mosques and Catholic churches in western Bosnia, more than 85 percent of these buildings were no longer usable”.

The Banja Luka trial is not the first time an indictment has been filed against persons charged with war crimes related to the destruction of religious objects.

The Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina is already charging three persons, including Croats and Muslims, for this offence.

Pasko Ljubicic, a former member of the Croatian Defence Council, HVO, has been charged with taking part in the April 1993 attack on the Bosniak village of Ahmici, in which two mosques were blown up.

Predrag Kujundzic, a Serb, has been charged with blowing up a mosque in June 1992 after his unit of the Republika Srpska Army, VRS, occupied a village in the Doboj area.

Zijad Kurtovic, a Bosniak, faces a different charge. He is not accused of blowing up a religious building but with beating Catholic Croat prisoners held in a Catholic church with crosses and statues and with forcing them to swallow pages of bibles in the second half of 1993.

In its suit filed against Republika Srpska, the Islamic Community seeks material compensation for the 14 mosques destroyed in the Banja Luka area.

Esad Hrvacic, from the Islamic Community’s Vakufska Direkcija, said the Republika Srpska and the city of Banja Luka had “an obligation to admit guilt and undertake a fair compensation for the damage caused to the Islamic Community due to the senseless destruction of our buildings… in the course of the war”.

He recalled that the Islamic Community had filed the suit back in 2000 but the first preparatory hearing was held only last year, after Bosnia’s Constitutional Court ordered the process to start.

Hrvacic said that following the signing of the Dayton Peace Accord in 1995, the Islamic Community had tried in vain to talk to the Republika Srpska, the Bosnian authorities and to representatives of the international community about the reconstruction of religious sites.

“At the time, we did not want to file a suit, because we did not want to increase tensions,” Hrvacic explained.“At the time, the first Bosniak returnees were being exposed to physical attacks owing to their attempts to go back to their homes.”

Muharem effendi Omerdic, head of the religious and educational service of the Islamic Community, said most destroyed mosques “were destroyed in a planned way by putting large quantities of explosives in them. After that, the remnants were transported to other locations”.

He added: “We know the remnants of the Ferhadija mosque were thrown into the river Vrbas… a similar thing happened to the Aladza mosque in Foca [in eastern Bosnia], whose remnants were thrown into the Drina.”

Since the war period, many official institutions in Bosnia have invested money in reconstructing religious buildings. Inthe Federation, for example, the Ministry of Culture provides technical support through its Monument Protection Institute.

The Ministry’s counterpart in the Republika Srpska first became involved in the reconstruction process last year.

But the Bosnian Serb authorities have spent most of the money allocated for this purpose – 500,000 euros – on the rebuilding Serbian Orthodox sites, not mosques or Catholic churches.

The ministry said this was due to the high cost of relocations, such as the cost of relocating a highly controversial Serbian Orthodox church in Konjevic Polje, in eastern Bosnia.

In the course of the war, a Serbian Orthodox church was built in Konjevic Polje near the town of Srebrenica, scene of the worst single massacre in the war when more than 7,000 Muslims were killed.

The church was built on private land whose Bosniak owners then filed a court case, contesting it. As a result, the courts a few years later ordered the relocation of the church (though nothing has yet happened).

Despite the catastrophic level of destruction of religious buildings in Bosnia, Monsignor Tomasevic resists the notion that the conflict that took place in the 1990s was religious.

“I feel deeply hurt when someone says that this was a religious war,” he said, “because the Catholic Church,and, I believe, other religious communities as well, did not gain any benefit from this war, but all suffered great damage”.

Tomasevic added that he saw the war“as a deeply non-religious and anti-religious war”, concluding: “This war was mainly created and led by people who hardly have any links with religion, though unfortunately, they are still in power in most cases.”

Nadzida Cano is a journalist with BIRN –Justice Report online publication.
[email protected]

Nadžida Čano

This post is also available in: Bosnian