Not war but vamdalism

by Simon Jenkins, The Times, May 7, 1999

On the night of September 10, 1991, Serb forces in the hills overlooking Dubrovnik began firing their mortars into the old walled city. The assault was sustained for almost three months as thousands of shells rained down on "the fairest gem in the Venetian crown". The attack was intended to terrify the citizens, drive away tourists and destroy what the Serbs regarded as Croatian culture. The outside world was horrified that a European army could commit such vandalism at the end of the 20th century, and appealed to the Serbs to stop.

Dubrovnik symbolised a Renaissance civilisation that transcended war and should have stood as a monument of European unity, not discord. The Serbs disagreed. By the end of 1992, over half the churches, palaces and houses of Dubrovnik were in ruins or badly damaged.

The boot is now on the other foot. In frustration at the refusal of Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw from Kosovo, Nato in mid-April altered its bombing strategy. Its original pledge, given on March 24, was that targets would be exclusively military. "We have no quarrel with the Yugoslav people," said Tony Blair. Three weeks later he changed his mind. Nato freed General Wesley Clark to attack non-military targets. British ministers justified this extension as political. With the Kosovo clearances almost complete, the bombing of non-military buildings would demoralise Serb citizens and thus drive Milosevic into a retrospective capitulation. Whatever the outcome of yesterday's breakthrough, that capitulation has yet to appear.

While the human casualties have been well-publicised, this is not true of the damage to Yugoslavia's historic buildings. People may be more important than buildings, but that does not justify the needless destruction of cultural heritage. Shortly after the shift in targeting policy, on the night of April 18, a Nato missile penetrated the atrium of the Banovina Palace in the city centre of Novi Sad. It exploded with an almighty roar and destroyed perhaps the finest work of Art Deco architecture in the Balkans. The palace was empty at the time and appears to have been hit because it housed the local Vojvodina assembly. Nato's hope that the Vojvodinans might blame Milosevic for this outrage and rise against him has proved in vain. Information on the attrition of Yugoslav monuments comes from the lengthening daily toll posted by the reputable Belgrade Institute for the Protection and Preservation of Monuments. I have cross-checked each entry with material from other local sources, including church authorities. Already Nato bombing has comprehensively destroyed the heart of the old city of Pec. This was one of Kosovo's most picturesque places, the "oriental" centre a warren of Ottoman markets, workshops and Turkish fortified houses or kulas. Bombing of the neighbouring Djakovica has reduced its Old Trade Centre to ruins, a market neighbourhood as historic as that of Pec. Djakovica's 16th-century Hadum Mosque was also damaged by a bomb on April 15, at the same time as a missile scored a direct hit on the 18th-century Tabacki Bridge, of great historic but little military importance. Nato's targeting seems to have embraced any building unlucky enough to have a military name. Last Friday the medieval Vrsac Tower near the Romanian border was bombed and ruined. The old Belgrade Fort has been hit and part of its 15th-century rampart collapsed. The Austrian Petrovaradin Fortress on the hill opposite Novi Sad, housing civic museums and restaurants, has been badly damaged. The flurry of million-dollar missiles which last week poured into the defence headquarters in Belgrade destroyed the best work of Yugoslavia's most distinguished postwar architect, Nikola Dobrovic. Like most "military buildings" in Serbia, this had long been vacated. The objective of such costly demolition can only be to impoverish and terrorise the population.

The most worrying damage so far has been to some 40 listed Yugoslav churches and monasteries. The medieval church of Gracanica, six miles from Pristina, is the treasure of the Balkans, under consideration as a Unesco World Heritage Site. The interior walls are entirely covered in 14th and 15th-century frescoes in remarkable condition. I find it inconceivable that their location is not known to Nato's targeting group. Yet Gracanica's custodians have counted more than 50 bombs detonated in the past three weeks within 500 yards of its walls, some as close as 50 yards, presumably aimed at some adjacent target. Yesterday deep fissures were reported in its frescoes, some of which are detaching from the walls and are in imminent danger of collapse. Gracanica cannot rely on British supporters, like those who are depicted saving the Florentine frescoes in the film Tea with Mussolini. The celebrated 1830s Topcider Church in Belgrade has been repeatedly damaged, most recently by a bomb last Thursday. Belgrade's 16th-century Rakovica Monastery has taken a direct hit through its roof and on Tuesday an unexploded missile lodged in its residential wing. The 4th-century Byzantine basilica in the town of Nis has been damaged. The churches of the Virgin and St Nicholas in Kursumlija, dating from the 12th century, have also been hit, as has St Procopius's 9th-century church in Prokuplje. These buildings date from the earliest years of Christianity in eastern Europe. Extensive destruction is also reported and confirmed to historic churches in Krusevac, Pancevo and Vranje. The centre of the Kosovan capital of Pristina is bombed almost every night. As for the splendid Art Deco factory in Nis, that was flattened for impertinently making "military" cigarettes. It is simply untrue that Nato is avoiding civilian targets.

Nato's explanation is that when you drop a lot of bombs, you inevitably cause collateral damage. Ask a spokesman about detailed targets and he warns that "we don't want to get caught in the weeds". The irony is that the worst losses have been in Kosovo, supposed beneficiary of the bombing campaign. I am aware that some Kosovan mosques listed as destroyed may well have been victims of Serb attack, but it is inconceivable that Serbs would desecrate such Orthodox shrines as Pec or Gracanica. The collapse of the Gracanica frescoes would be a cultural disaster, ranking with the recent loss of those at Assisi. It may seem bizarre that in 1999 we must plead with British ministers (who must be held responsible) not to permit the destruction of these masterpieces, depicting the forgiving love of the God of Peace. At present, all they say is that it serves Milosevic right. Instead of dumbed-down politics we now have dumbed-down war.

Britain has declared that it is not fighting against the Serbian people. It is fighting to uphold Western values against a brutal barbarism. Yet the destruction of cultural artefacts is barbarism. Nor is this damage truly accidental: the chief cause is the aversion of Nato's leaders to "fighting" either on the ground or in the air below a height of 15,000 feet. Pilots are flying too high for proper visual identification of their targets, and seem unaware of the sheer explosive power of modern projectiles in crowded city neighbourhoods. Milosevic has been permitted to have his way in Kosovo. All Nato can do is destroy what he has vacated. The relentless bombing of the historic centres of Pristina and Pec is an awful reprise of Dresden.

There cannot be any moral equivalence between Nato's conduct of this war and that of Milosevic. It should be unthinkable to counter a crime against humanity with a crime against civilisation. The damage by bombing now being inflicted on Yugoslavia's historic monuments has nothing to do with Milosevic, only with the recklessness of war. The man is now dragging Nato down into the same moral morass as led him seven years ago to shell Dubrovnik. Whatever the merits of Nato's case, this cannot be right.

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