Fragile, 500-hundred-year-old pamphlets and vibrant Ottoman-era manuscripts disintegrated into ash as the building holding them, the National Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina, was shelled and burned. It was not the first act of cultural destruction by Serbian forces against other ethnic groups in the Balkans, and it certainly wasn’t the last.
…It was what he later testified to being “cultural heritage destruction”: intentional and unnecessary destruction of sites and records that act as a community’s collective memory.
The crime comes from a desire to not only kill individuals who are part of an ethnic or religious group, Riedlmayer explained, but to erase their existence, “remove any evidence that they were ever there to begin with, and give them no reason to come back.”
…“This is certainly not something I thought I’d be doing in my work as a librarian,” Riedlmayer said. “But if you really want to make a librarian mad, burn down a library.”
…That year, he visited more than 100 religious and cultural sites that had been deliberately destroyed during the conflict. He photographed and catalogued Catholic churches with collapsed steeples and mosques reduced to scattered stones covered with garbage. He collected the charred remains of books and, in one case, pages from a Quran desecrated by Serbian soldiers.
When Riedlmayer first found the ripped, dirty pages in a crumbling mosque, he thought to ask a village elder before taking them as evidence.
“These aren’t books anymore; we can’t use them,” Riedlmayer said the man told him. “Take them and show the world what was done.”