Serbian nationalist general Ratko Mladic faced a massive army, numbering 1.5 million. The army didn’t threaten with bullets of the conventional type. Paper and ink can cut deeper than lead. At 10:30 PM, August 25, 1992 Mladic turned his artillery on the neatly arranged soldiers.
The Bosnian National and University Library burned.
People rushed in to rescue as many books as they could. Firefighters arrived, but General Mladic’s soldiers fired withering volleys from machine guns placed on the hills around the library. Antiaircraft shells rained down on fire hoses and engines. Under the barrage, citizens, soldiers, and firefighters were forced to retreat.
It looked like General Mladic’s assassination of the library succeeded.
The surviving firefighters and citizen book lovers were undaunted. When night fell, rescue efforts resumed. Though the library burned during the day, some books were saved at night. Paper fluttered like snow. This continued for several days, all the while Serbian soldiers threatened from the hills.
The Bosnian National and University Library wasn’t the only library on a hit list. Serbian nationals attacked libraries, museums, and archives throughout Bosnia. Their goal was to erase all evidence that ethnic purity was a myth. Bosnian culture came from a mix of different cultures and ideas, and this threatened the nationalist movement more than soldiers.
Libraries and other knowledge arks are commonly targeted during war. Books and ideas threaten often shaky foundations of revolutions. Nazi’s waged their own war on books and libraries. Even in the United States, libraries face challenges from people who feel threatened by ideas different from their own. Books are weapons and soldiers. Throughout history, institutions marked certain documents for assassination…along with their writers. Martin Luther’s tracts during the Protestant Reformation come to mind. If anything, the intellectual freedom Americans and other Westerners enjoy today is oddly historical.
Battles, Matthew. (2003) Library: An Unquiet History. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.