Searching for Bosnia's Lost Cultural Treasures

Story and Photos by Matej Vipotnik
Special Correspondent

Berserkistan Navigator Mak Gallery, Sarajevo The Mak Gallery in Sarajevo may seem an unlikely place to begin a search for the surviving wreckage of Bosnia's multicultural heritage.

But there, on June 12th, Dr. Zlatko Ugljen, architect and professor of architecture at the University of Sarajevo, presented plans for the reconstruction of the church of St. Mark in Plehan and the Hadzi-Alija Hadzhisalihovic Mosque in Stolac. Both structures were destroyed during the war. Intrigued by the exhibits, we ventured into Stolac the following day to investigate the destruction of the city's cultural and historic heritage.

Stolac is located in southern Herzegovina, approximately 40km southeast of Mostar. It is a quasi-mythical town. Nobel laureate Ivo Andric, author of "The Bridge on the Drina," once pointed out that "if God created the world anywhere, then he created it in Stolac". Its municipality was indeed one of the most significant centers of Bosnian culture, and Bosnia and Herzegovina considered proposing Stolac for the UNESCO list of mankind's cultural heritage in the 1980s.

Neolithic sketches, about 5,000 years old, were the first traces of civilization in the area. The Illyrian megalithic fortress Daorson, and subsequently the Roman fortress Diluntum, preceded Stolac. The town and its architecture were a mixture of indigenous, oriental, and Mediterranean culture which created its distinctiveness.

In early 1993, the HVO "Knez Domagoj" brigade and the BiH army "Bregava" brigade fought together against the Serbs. By April, 1993, the HVO turned against the BiH army and occupied one part of Stolac, dividing its territory with the army of Republika Srbska. The town was cleansed of its Muslim inhabitants. Then the HVO, which must have been disturbed by all the eclecticism of the town's architecture, destroyed much of its cultural heritage.

The first impression one gets of Stolac is one of austerity. It is not a hospitable environment, with high, arid hills surrounding the town on three sides, its sole vitality provided by the Bregava river. The town was deserted in the sweltering heat, most locals bathing in the Bregava, apparently the only form of local entertainment. We soon ran into a Spanish foot patrol, who were visibly bored, and rather surprised that anyone would want to visit Stolac. The three told us that the locals had been placid since IFOR arrived: bar brawls were the only excitement the Spaniards had witnessed.

Heading eastwards, the road coasts the Uzinovici section of town on a hillside. The view is one of total destruction. Projectile holes on every roof attest to prolonged shelling, most likely from the initial stages of the war between the HVO and BiH army on one side -- the Serbs on the other.

Yet the destruction was far more systematic. Most houses seem to have been dynamited at the foundations, and whoever did it was thrifty on explosive and not particularly skillful. The structures are damaged beyond repair -- though most still stand -- slanted at awkward angles, giving the impression of imminent collapse. The HVO was also kind enough to leave its initials sprayed on these ruins for posterity.

At the outskirts of Uzinovici, we fell upon two local policemen, manning guard to the road heading east. Suspicious at first, they calmed down once they got the impression that we were wandering tourists, a convenient impression we fostered. A communal bottle of Pepsi was soon making its rounds and eventually the conversation turned to the town:

Berserkistan: "How long since anybody has been here?" (referring to the wrecked Uzinovici section of Stolac)
Police: "Where?" (incredulously)
Berserkistan: "Here, in front of you." (pointing towards the town)
Police: "There are Croats in Stolac."
Berserkistan: "Yes, but how long has this part of Stolac been empty?"
Police: "There are Croats in Stolac." (still puzzled)

Of course there were Croats in Stolac; the Muslims had been cleansed. The Uzinovici part of town we were looking at probably had 40 inhabitants, as compared to several hundreds just a few years back.

We then tried to head east. The police were adamant that it was futile to walk down that road. "Three and a half kilometres down the road there are Serbs." exclaimed one, "There is nothing to see." We insisted but eventually the police chief showed up, recommended that we head back, and enjoy Croatian Stolac. We obliged.

Heading back to the center of Stolac we passed through the Uzinovici section. The old Orthodox cemetery was surprisingly intact. Not a house around it was still standing. Eventually we fell upon the ruins of the Ismail-Kapetan Saric mosque. It was formerly a charming construct built in 1741, adorned with rich flower arabesque. Two years before the war extensive restoration work was initiated for the conservation and revival of the mosque complex. The craftsmen's efforts were in vain. In the summer of 1993, when the HVO took over Stolac, the mosque was set on fire and the roof, together with the minaret, collapsed on itself.

The street where the mosque is located obviously had to be renamed after those who liberated the town. In this case the street was renamed in honor of "Knez Demagoj," probably a local nobleman of some century past, and incidentally, the name of the HVO brigade that controlled Stolac (and set the mosque on fire). Our field efforts did not escape public scrutiny. While trudging through the remains of the Saric mosque, a woman from the house across the street, at 144 Ulica Kneza Domagoja (the street signs were the only new thing around), was following our movements.

She was a refugee from Kakanj, which happens to be in government territory, and had the privilege of being one of the few inhabitants of Croatian Stolac. She appeared unhappy with her condition and told us that Uzinovici had been repopulated with Croat refugees. When asked whether the Serbs destroyed the mosque, she replied in a non-committal tone, "Yes, there was a lot of shelling."

Arriving back in town, we ran into Sgt. Scroggins (Special Operations Command, Ft. Bragg, North Carolina) who was handing out copies of the "Herald of Peace," the stimulating journal that IFOR publishes to keep Bosnians informed.

The Sergeant, part of IFOR's Psychological Operations team, was from Los Angeles and usually studies computer engineering in Long Beach. He was called up a month ago as it is cheaper for the Pentagon to send reservists to Bosnia. They are sent here for 179 days, so the army does not have to pay family benefits or issue the coveted low interest VA Loans.

Thus reassured of our safety by this discreet presence of the international community, we ventured to look for the other mosques, of which formerly there were, in Stolac alone, four. Yet the only visible monument in sight was an overturned statue to the victims of the Second World War. Resigned, we inquired with some local kids. They pointed at a grassy knoll next to the river, grinning, seemingly amused by our dismay.

"Who did that?" we inquired. "Why, we Croats did." they replied openly, still grinning. Their candor was shocking as well as sinister. An elderly man confirmed, very casually, that the mosque had indeed been where the grassy knoll is today until the summer of 1993. The mosque of Hadzi-Alija Hadzisalihovic (in the part of town called Cuprija) was built in 1736. There was formerly a well and a fountain in the mosque courtyard and the stone minaret was octagonal and 15 meters high. The mosque was burnt on July 27th 1993, and dynamited on August 2nd 1993. After it was torn down, the construction material was removed. The grass lawn betrayed nothing.

We then set out to find the Orthodox church of Holy Assumption of Christ, which was built in 1870. The top of the bell tower at the entrance had been decorated with a rosette bearing a six-pointed star. A valuable icon from the 17th century had adorned the church. The church had been looted and then set on fire in the summer of 1992 by the HVO. They were courteous enough to overturn only one tombstone.

We failed to find the mosque of Ali-Pasha Rizvanbegovic (built in 1732) and the mosque of Sultan Selim (built in 1519 and considered one of the oldest mosques in BiH). Later we were told that the first one was burnt on the evening of July 28th 1993 and dynamited on August 8th 1993. It was torn to the ground, and the remaining construction material was trucked away. The second was burnt and dynamited by HVO soldiers in the early summer of 1993, causing considerable damage. In early August, 1993, the mosque was dynamited again and torn to the ground. At the same time, all attached facilities were destroyed. The construction material was later removed.

The war in Bosnia was noted not only for out-and-out attacks on the people of the region, but also on the various landmarks that made up their cultural identities. From Mostar to Sarajevo to Banja Luka, religious monuments, libraries and all manner of memorials in between have been the targets of systematic attack by extremists.

"Why do we feel more pain looking at the image of the destroyed bridge (in Mostar) than the image of the massacred people?" asked Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulic in "Falling Down: A Mostar Bridge Elegy," published in The New Republic, December, 1993. "Perhaps because we see our own mortality in the collapse of the bridge... We expect people to die; we count on our own lives to end. The destruction of a monument to civilization is something else. The bridge, in all it's beauty and grace was built to outlive us. It was an attempt to grasp eternity. It transcended our individual destiny."

The only comforting fact on this trip was that the ancient Roman castle above Stolac and the necropolis still stand. This perhaps is because there aren't many Romans around these days and thus pose no apparent ethnic or political threat.


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