The Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group
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Europe Day in Sarajevo

On Europe Day, the Bosnian capital celebrated the opening of its famous Vijećnica city hall and library, as the rebirth of a symbol of confluence between civilizations in the heart of the city. Two decades after the destruction of the Vijećnica, during the Siege of Sarajevo, the synthesis of Austrian and Moorish, nineteenth-century, architectural styles of this distinctive building, once again, colorfully represent the multicultural heritage of the city of Sarajevo. The Vijećnica has been under reconstruction from 1996 until this year, in four phases that were all financed by the European Union and other international donators. Last Friday’s ceremonial opening commenced with a gala reception of European representatives, internationals and Bosnian officials hosted by the mayor of Sarajevo in the Vijećnica. Meanwhile, outside and across the river Miljacka, a mass of protesters cried out to draw international attention towards the socio-economic issues that continuous protests have addressed in Bosnia since February. A cordon of riot police separated the protestors from another crowd that gathered, at the same side of the river, who awaited the festive programme of music and art performances, which were organized to celebrate the opening of the Vijećnica. This day in Bosnia became a three-sided cluster of different worlds that each laid claim to the same symbols and traditions.

Collective memory

On the night of August 25, 1992, Bosnian Serb forces, loyal to Radovan Karadžić, bombed the Vijećnica. The building that, since its construction in 1896, had so well captured the multicultural heritage of Sarajevo, with its unusual mixture of architectural styles, was burned down in one night. A significant part of the rich collection of books and documents housed in the Vijećnica, as the national library, were burned. The destruction of this particular building was a conscious attack on the multicultural heritage of Sarajevo, and an attempt to wipe out Bosnian collective memory. The wartime image of cellist Vedran Smailović playing his cello in the rubble of the Vijećnica is engraved in the memory of many, in and beyond Sarajevo. In the besieged Sarajevo, Vedran Smailović played on the streets, and at funerals to honor fallen victims. He recalled, that while playing in the ruined Vijećnica in 1992 he “could feel that the building was badly wounded but it was still breathing with a powerful spirit.”

Until last Friday, the Vijećnica remained an open wound in the heart of Sarajevo. The reconstruction and reopening of the Vijećnica has healed this wound. Both the multicultural heritage and collective memory are being repaired in Sarajevo. Contemporary collective memory, however, faces the question of how to deal with the painful history of the three-and-a-half year siege. Instead of identifying the Army of Republika Srpska as the perpetrators of the attack, an angry inscription at the entrance of the Vijećnica bears witness to this difficult process by mentioning. “On this place Serbian criminals … set on fire the National and University’s library of Bosnia and Herzegovina.” The sentence “do not forget, remember and warn,” furthermore, puts a bitter taste to the collective memory on the façade of this building that should represent the peaceful confluence of civilizations.

Inside the Vijećnica

While the European representatives, other internationals and Bosnian officials entered the Vijećnica, its red carpet, ceremonial guards and the silk curtains would, probably, have drawn their attention away from the inscription, if it wasn’t for the loud protestors at the other side of the river Miljacka. Did these first official visitors to the Vijećnica have a similar feeling as Franz Ferdinand had when he climbed these same stairs in 1914? When he interrupted the mayor’s welcome with the words, “Herr Bürgermeister, what is the good of your speeches? I come to Sarajevo on a friendly visit and I was welcomed by a bomb. This is outrageous!” Today’s mayor, Ivo Komšić, could start his speech without interruptions. He addressed the symbolic value of Europe Day as a day of freedom, equality, solidarity and democracy. “Today, we primarily return the Vijećnica to the citizens of Sarajevo. They have built the Vijećnica in 1896, they have defended the Vijećnica during the war, and they have saved what could be saved during the fire.”

However, the day before, at the press conference, mayor Ivo Komšić explained, in similar terms, that the Vijećnica would be given back to the citizens of Sarajevo. In following, eager local reporters immediately interrupted him with angry questions about the allocation of 3066 m2 of office space to the city government, while only 2247 m2 is reserved for the library. These reporters stressed the issue that the Vijećnica had exchanged its administrative function, in 1947, to house culture, science and art as the national and university library. Ivo Komšić responded by referring to the reconstruction project, which provided for a multifunctional organization of the Vijećnica, whereby, there would be enough space for both the administrative and cultural institutions, even a museum. In a later conversation, Ivo Komšić said that he did not understand the anger of the reporters, and stated that he considered that “their behavior and their questions had bad intentions. The Vijećnica really belongs to the citizens of Sarajevo. They have built the Vijećnica from the funds of the city of Sarajevo in 1896 as a City Hall. With the opening of the Vijećnica as both city hall and library, a part of the identity of Sarajevo has been finally returned to the city.” When asked for his personal memories of the Vijećnica as a library he said, “Yes, in my days as a student, we searched books and read them in the reading rooms of the Vijećnica, but today that is different. There will be no reading rooms in the Vijećnica, since there are already enough in our faculties throughout the city.”

The allocation of office space, to the city government, in the Vijećnica, however, remains a debatable issue. The dubious policy of housing political and cultural institutions in the same building could be responsible for the unfortunate loss of a portion of the National Archive, on February 7 of this year. On that first day of protests in Sarajevo, an angry mob set fire on the Bosnian Presidency – a massive three-story Austro-Hungarian building that housed a depot of the National Archive next to its entrance door. Neither the National Archive nor the National Library has a building of its own that is suitable for archival storage. The relocation of these cultural institutions, into adequate buildings, could guarantee the professional care and preservation that their treasury of books and documents deserves.

Outside the Vijećnica

Much like February 7, last Friday, May 9, the Bosnian public’s anger stood face to face with an Austrian-Hungarian facade. After three months of continuous protesting, in varying numbers, the protestors were still addressing the people’s deep, economic misery, and they directed their anger towards the country’s self-serving and corrupt political elite. Asim Mujkić, a professor of Political Science, was among the protestors and answered the question of why the protest had gathered on this very day and at this very place:

“I think that the symbolic value of May 9, as the day of victory over fascism, is very important. People in Bosnia are very proud of their anti-fascist tradition, unlike the politicians of this country that have betrayed the anti-fascist tradition with their nationalist politics. The gathering of today is also a message that the protests are not over, and that the spiral of dissatisfaction continues. The protest will regain momentum today. The arrangements of the IMF have failed, the state’s budgets are empty and covered up with debts so we obviously enter an even harder phase of economic crisis. That is a valid reason for a new wave of protests.”

After the official ceremony had ended, the public tempers were softened by musical performances that were organized to celebrate the opening of the Vijećnica, in the park across the river. Vedran Smailović played ‘Adagio in G minor,’ which he played for his fallen fellow citizens during the siege. The evening ended with these sad notes, which seemed to unite the cluster of different worlds in one moment of calmness, in front of a beautiful Vijećnica.

Harm Rudolf Kern

Harm Rudolf Kern is a student in the Master’s Programme of Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz. During his studies of history at Leiden University he developed a strong interest for Southeast Europe. He complemented his BA in Modern and Contemporary History with a Minor in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian language at the University of Amsterdam. He currently lives and studies in Sarajevo for the purpose of researching the development of Bosniak political thought during the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
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