The Love of Books: A Sarajevo Story

Ruins of the National Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo

Ruins of the National Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo

The siege of Sarejevo began on 5 April 1992 and lasted for nearly four years, until 29 February 1996.  In that time nearly 12,000 civilians were killed or went missing in the city, including over 1,500 children. An additional 56,000 people were wounded, including nearly 15,000 children.  The siege, by Bosnian Serb forces of the Republika Srpska, whose President was Radovan Karadžić, constituted a crime against humanity as the the International Criminal Tribunal determined:

The siege of Sarajevo, as it came to be popularly known, was an episode of such notoriety in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia that one must go back to World War II to find a parallel in European history. Not since then had a professional army conducted a campaign of unrelenting violence against the inhabitants of a European city so as to reduce them to a state of medieval deprivation in which they were in constant fear of death. In the period covered in this Indictment, there was nowhere safe for a Sarajevan, not at home, at school, in a hospital, from deliberate attack.

As people died, buildings burned and the city was reduced to rubble, a parallel atrocity took place: the total destruction of the irreplaceable National Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the central repository of Bosnian written culture. Among the losses were 700 manuscripts, and a unique collection of Bosnian publications, some from the middle of the 19th century Bosnian cultural revival.

The Love of Books: A Sarajevo Story, broadcast on BBC 2 earlier this week, is an outstanding documentary film that, using interviews, original footage and dramatized scenes, tells the story of how over 10,000 manuscripts and rare books belonging to the Gazi Husrev Beg library were saved during the siege of Sarajevo.

Gazi Husrev Beg, the provincial governor of Ottoman Bosnia in the first half of the 16th century, was the greatest benefactor of Sarajevo. He funded the building of the mosque that bears his name, a madressa and many other buildings. A generous endowment was given to found the library that bears his name. Over time it grew to house thousands of manuscripts and old books.

In this powerful and moving film, directed by Sam Hobkinson, we meet several individuals who worked for the Library during the siege –  including the director, an academic who was translating key texts from Turkish, the Congolese night watchman, and the cleaner.  They tell the story of how they saved the Library’s entire collection from destruction in recent interviews that are intercut with dramatisations of the events they describe, performed by actors.

Dr Mustafa Jahic was Director of the Gazi Husrev-Beg Library, happy to have been appointed to be in charge of a priceless collection of 10,000 hand-written books and Islamic illuminated manuscripts hundreds of years old. He and his co-workers risked death many times over to protect the books.

When the siege of Sarajevo began, the city came under bombardment from shells, and its citizens risked being shot by snipers when they went out into the streets to seek food and water.  Jahic feared for the safety of the library and decided to move its contents to a safer place.  The books were packed into banana boxes and carried box by box through the streets of the city by Jahic and his colleagues. Breaking cover to cross a street, death from a sniper’s bullet could have come at any moment.

The helpers including the library’s cleaner and the night watchman who had come to Sarajevo from the Congo: he could have chosen to flee but his devotion to the library was such that he stayed. The books were moved not once but twice: the second time into the basement of the fire station. But, as the siege dragged on, Dr Jahic still feared for their safety, and so microfilm equipment was smuggled into the besieged city, and the arduous work of copying the manuscripts began.  Often film was destroyed during power failures, and the job had to be done all over again.

The most remarkable part of the story concerns one particular manuscript, A History of Bosnia, hand written in Turkish in the 19th century by Sallih Muvekkit. Shortly before the siege began, Dr. Lamija Hadžiosmanović had borrowed the four volumes and taken them home to begin translating them. In the spring of 1992, warned by her Serbian neighbour in the middle of the night that she was on a death list,  she fled her home, taking with her only a few personal belongings. The manuscript was left in her flat and Grbavica, the part of town where she lived, soon fell to the Serb nationalist army.

A page from the manuscript of A History of Bosnia

When the war ended,  Jahic had succeeded in bringing the whole collection safely through the war – except for the History of Bosnia.  With the siege over, Dr. Hadžiosmanović returned to her home to find it had been wrecked by Serbian soldiers. Her favourite dress was riddled with bullet holes. Almost nothing remained intact. And yet, in a heap of books, she found the manuscript. The very next day she returned it to the library. When the Director saw it he cried.

A manuscript from the Gazi Husrav Beg collection

Here I will note some of the events which have taken place in the city of Sarajevo. For as they say, what has been written endures and what has been remembered fades.

Those are the opening words of Sarajevo Diary (1746) by Mustafa Baseskija, one of the irreplaceable books saved by the library workers during the siege.

The Love of Books: A Sarajevo Story can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube.  I recommend it highly.

But – not far from the now-restored Gazi Husrev Beg library, stands a building that tells another, sadder story.  On the night of 24 August 1992,during shelling by the besieging forces from the hills surrounding Sarajevo,  Bosnia’s National Library – a repository of 1.5 million volumes, including over 155,000 rare books and manuscripts, the country’s national archives, copies of all newspapers, periodicals and books published in Bosnia, and the collections of the University of Sarajevo – was set ablaze.

Low water pressure made extinguishing the flames impossible, but braving a hail of sniper fire, librarians and citizen volunteers formed a human chain to pass books out of the burning building.  Though they carried some 100,000 books from the burning building, almost 2 million publications – 90% of the library’s archives – were lost, including more than 150,000 manuscripts and rare books.

Bombarded with incendiary grenades from Serbian nationalist positions across the river, the library burned for three days.  It was reduced to ashes, along with of its contents.

Among the books rescued from the Museum was one of Bosnia’s greatest cultural treasures, the 14th century Sarajevo Haggadah. The work of Jewish calligraphers and illuminators in Islamic Spain, the manuscript was brought to Sarajevo 500 years ago by Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. It had been concealed from the Nazis by a courageous museum curator during World War II.

Vedran Smajlović playing in the ruins of the National Library in 1992

The destruction of the National Library was not an isolated casualty of war. All over Bosnia, books became the target of nationalist armies. In Sarajevo, 15,000 manuscripts from the Oriental Institute were destroyed, along with 50,000 books in the Franciscan Theological Seminary Library. In each case, the library alone was targeted; adjacent buildings stand intact to this day. Serb nationalist leader Radovan Karadic denied his forces were responsible for the attacks, claiming the National Library had been set ablaze by the Muslims themselves, ‘because they didn’t like its architecture’.

A student in the reading room at the Gazi Husrav Beg Library

Here is an irony: Gazi Husrev-Beg, who built the mosque which houses the library bearing his name that is featured in the film, also built the Hüsreviye Mosque in Aleppo, Syria, between 1531 and 1534.  I wonder what state that building is in at the moment?

Another irony: some of the money which financed the restoration of the Gazi Husrev-Beg library came from Syria.

In his last will and testament, Gazi Husrev-Beg said:

Good deeds drive away evil, and one of the most worthy of good deeds is the act of charity, and the most worthy act of charity is one which lasts forever. Of all charitable deeds, the most beautiful is one that continually renews itself.

The restored Gazi Husrav Beg mosque

See also

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11 thoughts on “The Love of Books: A Sarajevo Story

  1. Thanks, Tom. The photos suggest a really impressive restoration of the National Library building. I know that many libraries around the world offered books or facsimiles to replace some of the two million destroyed items. Do you know how much of the original collection will be there when the building reopens in May 2014?

  2. great post!. I remember watching the BBC documentary and how informative it was. Very moving and difficult to watch how these people risked their lives to save the books and manuscripts from the horrors of war and risk of burning.

  3. Thanks you so very much for this post. It is such a powerful story of modern day heroes. I would have wanted to show this film to my students here in Krakow, but I think it isn’t available at all. But your post along with Guardian pictures and the 1 minute trailer is much already.

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