30 years ago tonight, the National Library in Sarajevo burned down. ‹ Literary Center

August 25, 2022, 1:09 p.m.

30 years ago tonight, in one of the most infamous acts of cultural genocide in living memory, the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo was razed to the ground.

Situated on the bank of the Miljacka River in the city’s old Turkish quarter, the beautiful pseudo-Moorish structure, known to locals as the Vijećnica (City Hall), was a beloved symbol of Bosnia’s multi-ethnic and multi-cultural capital before the entire building, along with the two million books it housed, went up in flames.

On August 25, Sarajevo suffered the first days of a devastating four-year siege (the longest in the history of modern warfare) by Bosnian Serb forces, which would ultimately claim the lives of more than ten thousand of its inhabitants. Every day, from the hills around the city and the windows of captured buildings within, shells and sniper fire rained down on the trapped people of Sarajevan – a people who, only 8 years ago, had welcomed the 1984 Winter Olympics.

The library itself had no military significance and was deliberately targeted by Bosnian Serb forces (under the command of Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic, who were later convicted of war crimes in The Hague ), who then fired on firefighters as they attempted to put out the blaze.

During the attack, despite sniper fire, civilians and library staff valiantly attempted to salvage as many irreplaceable book manuscripts – many of which reflected the region’s multicultural life under the empires. Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian – that they could.

A brave young woman, a 32-year-old librarian named Aida Buturovic, was killed in the attempt.

In the days following the destruction of Vijećnicain what has become an iconic image of cultural and artistic perseverance in the face of ethnonationalist barbarism, Vedran Smailović, the “cellist of Sarajevo,” came to play music amid the ruins.

The renovated Vijećnica was rebuilt and reopened in July 2014, nearly 22 years after it was burned down, and earlier today the building hosted a ceremony to mark the 30th anniversary of that devastating loss.

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