Remembering Sarajevo Library. World Book Day: April 23

Sarajevo and the strange face of academia

It was on the night of August 25, 1992, that the National Library in the besieged city of Sarajevo went up in flames, its contents continuing to burn and smoulder for two more days.

By the time I walked through the destroyed building in 1994 – the year the war ended leaves of paper, blackened and solitary, were still drifting downwards in the warm September air. In all, some 3 million books were lost as were many of the archives of the Ottoman and Austrian-Hungarian empires. The interior of the library – all its floors long since disappeared – had a strange sense of the medieval to it, a place of shade and light and unmoving shadows. A quiet place full of memories and of bygone glories. A place where scholars came to rest.

 Below is a picture I took of the interior of the library in 1994.


Aleksander Hemon, a Sarejevan now living in the US, has published a book of essays The Book of My Lives, in which he writes about the war. His professor at Sarajevo University, had been Nikola Koljevic.

I knew about Koljevic. He’d been a Shakespeare scholar. When his young son was killed in a skiing accident, he had turned to religion and found solace in the Serbian Orthodox Church.

It was a wrong turn. In no time at all, Koljevic had become a Serb nationalist and taken sides with Radovan Karadjic, standing shoulder to shoulder with him during the terrible siege of Sarajevo.

Scholarship has many faces and Koljevic wore one of its more ugly, destructive aspects for it was during this siege that the National Library was destroyed and with it the recorded history of that great cosmopolitan city.

One evening, that autumn, I went to hear a performance by the city’s much-depleted symphony orchestra. People dressed in their best with one young man resplendent in a white suit, a reminder of the glory days. A woman came and sat beside me: “Please don’t think we do nothing but kill each other,” she whispered desperate for me to understand that this had once been a city tolerant of differences. I smiled and nodded. “I know,” I said for I had been in Sarajevo before and  knew something its history.

And what of Koljevic in this changing city? Sidelined by the Serbian apparatchik, he committed suicide in 1997.

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Alexsander Hemon’s The Book of My Lives, is published by Picador.

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