Twenty years after - the destruction of books in Sarajevo, 1992

Approximately 1,200,000 book items and 600 sets of periodicals were destroyed... the Nazis burned about twenty million books. But in about 45 different places. August 27, 1992 in Sarajevo may have been the biggest book burning in history. In one day, and one night: a million and a quarter books...

April 22, 1992. Again the daily routine of bombardment all across the city. At about 9:30 p.m., an 82mm mortar shell explodes in our garden, shattering the windows of the living room where we sit. Tiny particles of glass fill the air. We feel a warm blast, and smell the intense smell of explosives and melted glass. Are we still alive? For a moment, which seems to last about an hour, we do not know...Then yes. We have survived. The next morning we notice that the blast had knocked a special book off its shelf: the letters of 1926 between Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetayeva and Rainer Maria Rilke. It is the first book I ever gave to my own Marina. Picking it up from the floor, we are terrified to find a large piece of shrapnel embedded in the cover. And yet, we are grateful, because a kind of miracle has occurred. From this morning on, we call this collection of poets’ letters The Book That Saved Our Lives.

Kemal Bakaršić (d. 2006) stands in the ruins of the once fabulous National Library

May 17, 1992. The aggressors have deliberately destroyed the Oriental Institute in Sarajevo. The loss cannot be measured or ever repaired. In less than two hours, 5,000 unique manuscripts, Turkish, Persian and Arabic, over a hundred plat books from Ottoman times (books that can no longer show that Slavs professing Islam have lived in Bosnia for many centuries), other records of the Ottoman rule numbering some 200,000 pages, 300 microfilm files of Bosnian writings from other manuscript libraries, the 10,000 volumes of the Institute's research library, and 300 sets of periodicals ... All lost in flame.

I hate to go on with this, with this bibliometric accounting of the destruction of two years of terrorism in the Sarajevo ghetto. I hate myself, and deeply regret that the figures are not part of a program of recovery. They are, rather, merely history. On August 27, 1992, in the early morning, the National Library was deliberately attacked and burned. Twenty-five mortar shells struck the building, launched from four positions in the surrounding hills. In support of the attack, forty shells were dropped on adjacent streets, preventing the fire brigade from coming into action. The odd thing about this supplementary attack is that the aggressors had cut off the water to the district before the attack, so there was no need to bomb the fire brigade. But they did it anyway.

The attack lasted less than half an hour. The fire lasted into the next day. The sun was obscured by the smoke of books, and all over the city sheets of burned paper, fragile pages of grey ashe, floated down like a dirty black snow. Catching a page you could feel its heat, and for a moment read a fragment of text in a strange kind of black and grey negative, until, as the heat dissipated, the page melted to dust in your hand. Approximately 1,200,000 book items and 600 sets of periodicals were destroyed. Administrative documents and the card catalog, computer equipment, microfilm and photograph laboratories, the rare book and other special collections, and the university library, which was housed in the same building.

It seems the Nazis burned about twenty million books. But not in one place (rather, in about 45 different places). August 27, 1992 in Sarajevo, then, may have been the biggest book burning in history. In one day, and one night: a million and a quarter books. So. We have to deal with these criminals. I don’t know what the best term is. “Aggressors?” But I think the aim of this kind of aggression, against museums, against libraries, is to erase our remembrance of who we are. Why else would someone want to burn books? Simply to create the situation where the people of a society have no memory of their past... 
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About The New Combat: COMBAT was a French newspaper first published underground

by the resistance network Combat during the Nazi occupation. Albert Camus was the chief editor from late 1943 until the newspaper was sold in 1947.

Also see: Burning of Jaffna library, May 31, 1981 (At the time of its destruction, the library was one of the biggest in Asia, containing over 97,000 books and manuscripts):

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