NEW YORK—In 1999, the famous Red Mosque (Xhamia e Kuqe) in Pejë, Kosovo, burned. It wasn’t collateral damage, but “a strategic target,” according to research presented last week at Columbia. Serb forces destroyed the mosque in a systematic attempt to erase Muslims and their culture from the area.

This was not a solitary incident, researcher András Riedlmayer said. From 1991 to 1999, cultural sites—including churches, cathedrals, mosques, archives and libraries—were bombed, shot, burned, razed and erased from communities in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. While some Orthodox cathedrals were destroyed in Bosnia during the war and after the war in Kosovo, Riedlmayer said, Serb forces destroyed most of the structures and texts lost in those years. His presentation took place nearly ten years to the day when the International Court of Justice issued its judgement in Bosnia v. Serbia, in which Bosnia charged the Serbian state with sponsoring genocide in the Bosnian War.

Riedlmayer, who directs the Documentation Center of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard University, discussed his 25 years spent documenting more than 530 damaged or destroyed sites during a presentation at Columbia’s Harriman Institute last Monday. He views these attacks as war crimes and evidence of intent to commit genocide, and has testified on multiple occasions before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

The Xhamia e Kuqe (Red Mosque), built in 18th century, burnt by Serb forces in the spring of 1999. Photo courtesy of András Riedlmayer.

The goal of these demolitions, Riedlmayer stated, is clear: a cleansing of the area, of both culture and citizens alike. The Aladža mosque in Foča, Bosnia-Herzegovina, was built in the mid-16th century and blown up in 1992. “Later,” Riedlmayer said, “rubble from the mosque was found during the excavation of a mass grave at a depth of eight meters.” Rubble from the Sava mosque in Brčko was also used to cover a mass grave: “First you kill the people, then you kill the culture, then you put the rubble on top of them as an insult.”

Destroying the culture and history is as important if not more so than killing the population. “If you’re going to destroy a community and then claim that they had never been there, records are a key target,” Riedlmayer said. Beyond their historical and religious significance, these sites were often the only location of records on births, deaths, marriages and property ownership. With the decimation of these archives, claims of survivors and relatives would lack crucial evidence.

Riedlmayer’s experiences documenting sites made it clear to him that they were part of a concerted effort. “My impression is that these people were working from prepared lists,” Riedlmayer said, noting that only older and more-well known sites and mosques were targeted and destroyed.

The cleansing of regions in the north and east of Bosnia was disturbingly successful. Divided into the two largely autonomous entities of Republika Srpska and the Federacija, Bosnia’s demographics now clearly reflect the ethnic cleansing of the war. Before the war, the territory that now makes up Republika Srpska was just over 50 percent Serbian. Today it is more than 80 percent. While a right of return has been guaranteed for Bosniaks and Croats displaced from their homes in Republika Srpska, few stay longer than required to sell their property. Riedlmayer said a lack of community networks and a fear that their children would be taught “horrible things about people of their faith” prevents more than a symbolic return to renovated mosques on holy days and anniversaries.

Yet many mosques remain rubble. In the Republika Srpska towns of Srebrenica and Bijelina, the sites of former mosques were made into trash heaps, Riedlmayer said. He sees this as yet another deliberate insult to the Muslims who had lived and worshiped in the town.

During the original hearing of the Bosnia v. Serbia case by the International Court of Justice, the prosecution intended to use destruction of cultural heritage as demonstration of intent for genocide. As Riedlmayer reflected, “If you have a large swath of territory where not a single mosque is allowed to remain intact, it says something.” However, Bosnian lawyers chose to abandon this line of evidence when it became clear it was too close to the legally distinct and controversial concept of cultural genocide, Riedlmayer said in an email.

Ten years ago today, the ICJ issued its ruling on the case, clearing the Serbian state of complicity in the genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the war of 1992 to 1995. Yet, issues of the war remain unsettled. Last week, the Bosniak member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, Bakir Izetbegović, officially filed an appeal of the ICJ verdict. This was, unsurprisingly, met with condemnation from both Bosnian Serbs and Serbia. Neither recognizes the Srebrenica massacre as an act of genocide, despite rulings from international courts.

While it’s uncertain whether the ICJ will accept the appeal and whether the verdict will change, it illustrates the tensions and face-offs that dominate interstate relations to this day. With the source of conflict largely unaddressed, the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo are tenuously frozen.

“There are entire generations who have grown up never knowing coexistence,” Riedlmayer said. “Only seeing the terrible stuff in the newspaper and on the television.”

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. A mosque stands in Kosovo.

Posted by Stephanie Sugars

Born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Stephanie Sugars writes about identity politics and human rights. She is a shameless green chile addict, avid reader and habitual goof.

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