In the Balkans, even culture is a field of battle

March 13, 1995|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

ZAGREB, Croatia -- Within the war fought by artillery and machine guns in the former Yugoslavia, there is a quieter, no less bitter struggle over churches, religious icons and works of art -- a cultural war that might not end long after the guns stop firing.

The scenes from this war-within-a-war are as striking as the art objects that are the targets. Consider, for example, the militiamen who roamed house to house in the Bosnian city of Mostar with an art appraiser in tow, selecting their booty with discriminating taste. The militiamen were Bosnian Croats; the neighborhood was Serbian.

Or, there is the Serbian paramilitary unit that plundered six paintings of Yugoslavia's most respected 20th-century artist, Ivan Mestrovic, from a Croatian museum. There also is the mysterious odyssey of the priceless 14th-century Haggadah of Sarajevo, a gilded Jewish prayer book barely spared from shelling and floodwaters, now awaiting international inspectors in the same bank vault that shelters the Bosnian president.

This battlefield is populated in part by rogues and profiteers working only for themselves. But it is also the province of ethnic zealots, who view the control of culture as a means of solidifying territorial claims.

"We realized at some point that there was a concept of 'culturecide' at work," said Zelomir Koscevic, senior curator of the Zagreb Museum of Contemporary Art. "It was an attempt not to bomb something like the oil refinery, or the rail station even, but to try and destroy our cultural identity."

At first glance, there would appear to be few differences among the warring cultures. Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims are all Slavic peoples. They all speak the same language, Serbo-Croat. Their ancestors all lived under the same conquerors, the Ottoman Turks and then the Austrian-Hungarian empire.

But most Serbs belong to the Eastern Orthodox Church, while most Croats are Roman Catholic. Neither has had much liking for the religion of the other or for Bosnian Muslims. The differences have meant that churches and mosques have taken a beating, along with their holdings of icons and medieval relics.

The Art Loss Register in Zagreb claims that attacks -- most of them by Serbs -- have destroyed 73 Croatian churches and monasteries, while heavily damaging more than 100 others. The organization also lists 46 museums, nine archives, 22 libraries and 60 historic buildings as damaged or destroyed.

Serbian cultural officials counter with a tally sheet citing the "devastation" of 300 Orthodox churches and 50 other ecclesiastical buildings, plus 50 museums and galleries.

The Bosnian Muslims have been too submerged in military defeat to make an assessment.

It can be hazardous taking these claims at face value. The accusations are often distorted by Balkan hatred.

"I've heard tales, and they may be just that, tales," said Dr. Colin Kaiser, who traveled through the war zones of Bosnia and Croatia compiling a report on damaged cultural landmarks for the Council of Europe.

Serbian claims included "striking cases of disinformation," Dr. Kaiser's report says. A wooden 18th-century church in Mali Zdenci was untouched, not destroyed as the Serbs claimed; another 18th-century church, in Grubisno Polje, was indeed closed, as the Serbs reported, but the key was in possession of the Serbs and the possessions were intact.

But even after sorting out the exaggerations, Marian Wenzel has heard and seen enough to be appalled. Ms. Wenzel, director of the London-based Bosnia-Hercegovina Heritage Rescue, heard the story of the roving Mostar militiamen -- the ones accompanied by the art appraiser -- from "a witness who watched this go on at the house next door."

She is also familiar with the Haggadah of Sarajevo, a gilded, leather-paged, hand-painted manuscript worth perhaps $1 million.

The Haggadah was held in the National Museum of Bosnia-Herzegovina, on the Sarajevo thoroughfare known as "Sniper Alley." Looters apparently got the Haggadah as far as the basement, where it was then endangered by floodwaters. Along with other museum pieces, it is now stored in the vault of the Bosnian National Bank. Appraisers are scheduled to get a look within the next few weeks, to evaluate how much restoration work might be needed.

It is impossible to say how much art has been lost to outright plunder, most of which occurred in 1991-1992, when undisciplined paramilitary and irregular units led attacks on virtually defenseless villages.

Notable losses

The most notable such losses are probably the paintings and sculptures by Mr. Mestrovic, stolen from a museum in Drnis, a Croatian town now held by rebel Serbs. Mr. Mestrovic was a Croat who became a U.S. citizen before his death in 1962, and the Drnis museum had 24 of his sculptures and seven of his paintings.

All those items were believed lost until June, when a British journalist happened to ask the Serbian caretaker of the hilltop castle overlooking Serb-held Knin what he knew about them.

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