Community as heterogeneous ensemble: Mostar and multiculturalism.

Author:Coward, Martin

Aida Musanovic ... had visited the hospital in Sarajevo and had seen the carnage brought by the war. Yet the burning of the library struck her with a special horror. In the fire of the National Library, she realised that what she was experiencing was not only war but also something else. The centuries of culture that fell back in ash onto the besieged city revealed a secret.

Micchael A. Sells in The Bridge Betrayed

There is no more Old Bridge.

UN Relief Agency spokeswoman


At around 10:15 A.M. on November 9, 1993, the Old Bridge, or Stari Most, at Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, collapsed into the River Neretva. The bridge had spanned the Neretva for more than four hundred years, linking east Mostar (and the Bosnian hinterlands) to west Mostar (and routes to the Adriatic coast). Having survived natural disasters and wars, including shelling by the Bosnian Serb army in 1992, the bridge had finally been destroyed by Bosnian Groat forces intent on separating "Muslim" east Mostar from "Croat" west Mostar. Despite having previously worked to protect the Stari Most from Bosnian Serb shells, the Croatian Defence Council (HVO, the Bosnian Croat army) subjected the bridge to a sustained bombardment. Beginning on November 8, the HVO relentlessly shelled the bridge. Sarajevo newspapers reported that by the time the Stari Most collapsed, it had been hit by more than sixty shells. (1)

The siege and destruction of the Stari Most became an exemplary event in the 1992-1995 Bosnian war. The destruction of this Ottoman bridge epitomized the violence that was consuming the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Images of the siege and destruction of the Stan Most captured the imaginations of observers of the conflict. Pictures of the bridge prior to destruction, clad in rubber tires and a makeshift wooden roof, served as a metaphor for "ethnic division." (2) The notion that the former Yugoslavia was being forcibly "unmade" found graphic representation in such images of the assault on a bridge literally linking East and West, Muslim and Croat. (3) The final collapse of the single-span stone bridge into the river it had spanned for more than four hundred years was captured on video by local news media and broadcast around the world. The fleeting image of the end of this outstanding example of cultural heritage became an icon of the savagery and tragedy of the 1992-1995 Bosnian war. The f ootage of crumbling stone represented in a concise and vivid manner both the failure of Western negotiations to maintain a "multiethnic" Bosnia, and the violence with which the division of Bosnia was being accomplished.

The destruction of a structure as prominent and photogenic as the Stan Most served to highlight the campaign against the urban fabric of Bosnia that had seemingly become a feature of "ethnic cleansing." In Sarajevo, the National Library and the Oriental Institute were destroyed by Serbian shells. The shells set the National Library alight, and as the collections burned, the people of Sarajevo attempted to save the books by hand. These events became landmarks in the siege of Sarajevo. Concerned observers mourned the loss of valuable collections of manuscripts, at a loss to understand the mentality of those who could, at the end of the twentieth century, burn books. In both cases, the buildings were targeted deliberately, nearby buildings being left relatively untouched. (4) This deliberate targeting of landmark buildings was confirmed even by those who were shelling Sarajevo:

In September 1992, BBC reporter Kate Adie interviewed Serbian gunners on the hillsides overlooking Sarajevo and asked them why they had been shelling the Holiday Inn, the hotel where all of the foreign correspondents were known to stay. The officer commanding the guns apologised profusely, explaining they had not meant to hit the hotel, but had been aiming at the roof of the National Museum behind it. (5)

Though its collections survived, the National Museum was badly damaged, and the apologies of the Serbian gunners highlighted the manner in which buildings themselves had become the targets of the ethnic cleansers.

Across Bosnia, mosques were destroyed by both Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat forces. Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches were also attacked, though with less vigor. A pattern emerged in the destruction of mosques. Typically, a mosque--despite its lack of strategic significance--would be targeted for shelling; then after occupation of the town it would be dynamited, and in some cases the rubble was removed. In this way the urban environment was ethnically cleansed. The physical traces of a multicultural history were removed, creating green fields, or car parks, in their wake. (6)

However, it was not only symbolic buildings or significant elements of Bosnian cultural heritage that were targeted for destruction. The urban fabric of Bosnia came under a relentless assault. As Nicholas Adams notes, along with "mosques, churches [and] synagogues," "markets, museums, libraries, cafes, in short, the places where people gather to live out their collective life, have been the focus of... attacks." (7) In Sarajevo, the list of targeted buildings includes the central post office, apartment buildings, office buildings, and markets. In Mostar, the old town, or Stan Grad, was shelled continuously following the beginning of ethnic cleansing by the HVO in summer 1992. Moreover, in Mostar the Stari Most was merely the most famous (and the last) of all the bridges to be destroyed. The bridges across the Neretva, as elsewhere, were not simply rendered impassable but razed to the ground. Throughout Bosnia, entire villages were reduced to rubble by either burning or dynamite.

The 1992-1995 Bosnian war was, however, characterized by what many observers have argued to be genocide carried out by the Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat armies against the so-called Bosnian Muslims, or "Bosniacs." (8) The violent logics of ethnic cleansing dominated the political imaginaries of those who sought either to intervene in or understand the conflict. The problematics that shaped both understandings of the war itself and concomitant attempts to provide humanitarian assistance or negotiate settlements were predicated upon images and events concerning the destruction of human life, the displacement of individuals or groups or the misery that human hatred can bring about. Thus news reports and academic accounts of the Bosnian war have concerned themselves largely with key events such as the bread queue or market massacres that highlighted the desperate situation of the people of Sarajevo and the failures of Western interventions to bring about an end to the siege of the city. Reports such as ITN's fr om the concentration camps of Omarska and Trnopolje became iconic of the suffering of the people of Bosnia--images of starved Bosniac men staring out at the camera from behind barbed wire resonated with representations of the Holocaust. (9) The dominance of human miseries in our political imaginary meant that understandings of, and interventions into, the Bosnian war were refracted through an anthropocentric political imaginary.

The rubble of Bosnia has been similarly seen through the lens of anthropocentrism. The destruction of the urban fabric of Bosnia has been interpreted as a phenomenon contingent to, and thus dependent upon, the violence perpetrated against the people of Bosnia. Thus the rubble of Bosnia is seen as an element of genocide or war, rather than a phenomenon in its own right. And yet, as Kate Adie's interview with the Serb gunners shows, we should be wary of "thinking in terms of 'collateral damage,' incidental to the general mayhem of warfare." (10) The urban fabric of Bosnia was targeted deliberately, a fact attested to by the manner in which the violence against the architecture of Bosnia was disproportionate to the task of killing the people of Bosnia.

"It is the expected thing to say that people come first," notes Nicholas Adams. "And they do, but the survival of architecture and urban life are important to the survival of people." (11) The destruction of the urban fabric of Bosnia poses questions equally as fundamental as those posed by the destruction of human life in Bosnia. Our political imaginaries are dominated by images of politics as the preserve of powerful elites and violent militias. We perceive the political problems of Bosnia to lie in the negotiations between the representatives of governments, in war-crimes prosecutions, and attempts to encourage the people of Bosnia to enter into a multicultural state. And yet the fundamental question for Bosnia is that of sharing a common space. Insofar as this is the demand made upon all those who observe, intervene in, or live in Bosnia, it can be achieved only if such a common space exists. The destruction of urban fabric is the destruction of precisely this common space and the attendant possibility o f sharing such space. This is the logic of the destruction that is most dramatically highlighted in the collapse of the Stari Most, the "secret" that Aida Musanovic saw revealed in the ashes that fell from the burning National Library.

In the destruction of the Stari Most can be seen the central problematic of the political: the constitution of community. The sharing of common space is precisely that which underpins, or provides the condition of possibility for, the agonistic coexistence, or community, that marks our experience of the political. (12) In other words, the destruction of the urban fabric of Bosnia poses the fundamental question of how "we" (whoever that may be) are to live together, and what it is that constitutes the possibility of such a living-together. It is precisely this fundamental question that I intend to address in the following argument. I hope that through an examination of the "secret" revealed in the destruction of the urban fabric of Bosnia, and the Stan Most in...

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