Saving Bosnia's past from the ashes

on Samstag, 17 Januar 2015. Posted in General Autograph News

By Guy De Launey, BBC News, Sarajevo

The interior of Sarajevo's Presidency building would make any historian wince. Not the decor itself - but the charred papers, piled against the walls.

This display of damaged documents stretches away down the ground floor corridors of the building, leaving dark smears on the white paint, leading to a heap of burned books, boxes and manuscripts in a stairwell.
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Rioters intentionally burned down the national archive last February

These scorched remains were part of one of Bosnia's most important historical archives. They had somehow survived not only two world wars but also the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s - only to be destroyed in an afternoon of rioting during anti-government protests last February.

The deputy director of the Presidency Archive, Simun Novakovic, grimaces as he offers a guide to the damage, lifting a thin, blue, plastic sheet to reveal more singed papers - some with text still visible, others almost certainly blackened beyond restoration.

"These were materials relating to the Habsburg era and the first and second world wars. There were also hand-written documents from the Ottoman era. It's depressing that in the course of one day people could cause so much damage."

Among the documents confirmed as destroyed were three shelves of boxes and folders from the era of Austro-Hungarian rule in Bosnia, covering "Military, Education, Religion, Informers".

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Bosnia boasts a rich history but there is little support for preserving what remains of its heritage

Military archives from World War One were also incinerated - along with records from the Ustasa Croatian fascist movement, which governed Bosnia during World War Two.

No funds or facilities

Turkey has funded a new, more secure archive facility - but it is unclear what might be placed there.

Mr Novakovic says that he and his colleagues are still classifying the damaged material - but there are no facilities or funds for restoring the documents.

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Skilled operators can digitise 300-400 pages per hour

In fact, for a country boasting such a rich history, Bosnia offers very little support for the preservation and display of its heritage.

Cuts to the culture budget led to the closure of the National Museum in 2012, after its employees had gone for a year without pay. A valuable Jewish manuscript, the Sarajevo Haggadah - a symbol of the city's proud multi-cultural history - remains inside the abandoned building.

Archivists managed to rescue some of the most valuable items from the old City Hall during a fire in 1992. But they have never been returned to dedicated storage facilities.

Historic importance

"They have not been housed in an adequate fashion - something had to be done," says British journalist and historian Chris Bennett.

He launched the Foundation for the Preservation of Historical Heritage, along with three other long-term foreign residents of Sarajevo. They aim to preserve Bosnia's archives in digital form - before any further calamities.

Mr Bennett points out that saving the documents is a matter of more than just local concern, given the importance of events in Bosnia and its neighbours before and during World War One.

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Photographer Jim Marshall is helping to digitise what is left

"We have all the background information here to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The investigations, contemporary press reports and the obituary in the German-language newspaper for Bosnia at that time. The focus usually tends to be on the Western front - but the war started and ended in the Balkans."

Many of the documents salvaged from the 1992 fire are passing through a small room in the National and University Library in Sarajevo, where the Foundation has installed a simple but high-quality rig for digitising the archives.

Share don't touch

"Skilled operators can get through 300-400 pages an hour, digitising a serious amount of material," says British photographer Jim Marshall, another member of the Foundation.

"Delicate documents belong in a safe. The central point is that the image can be viewed and shared without having to touch the documents."

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Nadina Grebovic-Lendo says the National and University Library is looking for international funding

The aim is to make the archive material available online for researchers around the world. Such systems already exist in many other places, but Bosnia remains an extremely unusual country, where completing even a simple project can be a cause for celebration.

"Co-operation is very important to us," says Nadina Grebovic-Lendo, who is overseeing the digitisation project for the National and University Library.

"There was no financial help from the government for the preservation of our collections. So we're finding ways to do it ourselves."

The Foundation members are keen to mention that they could do with some funding themselves, so that they can increase their preservation efforts.

It may be too late for the material which burned last February - but perhaps there could still be a future for Bosnia's unique reminders of the past?

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