Who can protect Bosnia-Hercegovina's cultural heritage?

The Sarajevo Haggadah The 14th century Sarajevo Haggadah has survived two world wars and the siege in the early 1990s

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Some of the most important museums and cultural institutions in Bosnia-Hercegovina face imminent closure due to political wrangling over which government department should finance them.

There are fears that ancient collections and artefacts - which survived the siege of Sarajevo - could be in jeopardy.

The National Museum is one of the key institutions affected.

The building survived the First World War, the Nazi invasion of the Second World War and, most recently, relentless shelling during the siege of Sarajevo.

Workers from the museum dodged sniper bullets and mortar fire to retrieve as many of the precious artefacts as possible.

The building was badly damaged during the four-year onslaught, yet the exhibits were saved and the museum was able to reopen as before.

In spite of its resilience in war-time, Museum Director Adnan Busuladzic fears he could be forced to close the doors within weeks.

Sarajevo building with bullet holes Many of Sarajevo's buildings still bear the scars of the 1992-96 siege

As it is, his staff haven't been paid for six months, many have been forced to take on extra part-time jobs to survive, and he's even struggling to pay the museum's utility bills.

"We will have very big problems with the alarm system, security system, central heating and the conservation of our collections," he says.

He is worried about the effect that turning off the electricity and heating systems will have on the artefacts.

"The process of damage is very possible."

Among the priceless artefacts at the museum is the Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the oldest surviving Jewish texts in the world, thought to originate from Spain in the 1350s.

Fragmented country

  • The 1995 Dayton Agreement that eventually secured peace after the civil war drew up two separate political systems under one state administration
  • Republika Srpska - the Serbian entity - and the Federation of Bosnia-Hercegovina - made up of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Croats
  • The Federation is also then broken down into 10 separate cantons or counties
  • The country has three separate flags, three separate anthems, even two separate alphabets
  • The state anthem is only a melody - no one can agree to the words

The beautifully illustrated book, which depicts the flight of the Jews from Egypt, was one of the artefacts saved from the bombardment during the siege.

Before that, the Sarajevo Haggadah was spared the bonfires of the Nazis (unlike so many other Jewish books and documents) by being smuggled out of the National Museum and stashed under the floorboards of a local mosque throughout World War Two.

Its fate is also uncertain if the museum closes.

Ethnic identity

The crisis in funding cultural institutions highlights the complex nature of modern Bosnian politics.

The fact that there are 13 separate ministries of education shows how fragmented, and vast, the political structure is.

Ethnic identity has become ever more important in politics since the end of the war, and many blame the Dayton peace accords for making that inevitable.

Setting up a national ministry of culture has proved more controversial than establishing a defence ministry - and the central government still doesn't have one.

Musician and political activist, Damir Niksic Musician and activist Damir Niksic says Bosnia needs a national ministry of culture

But musician and political activist Damir Niksic says given the country's violent history, caused by ethnic tension, a national ministry of culture is essential, and so are the museums.

"People refer to different periods as the periods of their identity, like Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian or medieval period.

"So I say let's put all these historical periods in departments of the museum and liberate daily life from the mutated monster of history that was created by quasi- historians."

At the heart of the crisis of cultural institutions in Bosnia-Hercegovina is the very identity crisis of the nation itself.

It is something prime time TV host Aleksandar Hrsum tries to address on his weekly, and hugely popular, live debate show "The Forbidden Forum" on Pink TV.

He is technically a Bosnian Serb, but refuses to describe himself as such - preferring simply "Bosnian" as his identity.

Find out more

Sarajevo old town
  • Rebecca Kesby's documentary Bosnia's Heritage will be broadcast on Assignment on the BBC World Service on 23 February at 0905 GMT

"I believe in Bosnia-Hercegovina and I tell my audience to believe in their country, we can change our country. Separate politics and culture, please."

But the very notion of a national identity is rejected by many on all sides of the cultural divide.

Some don't even recognise the legitimacy of the country they live in.

Serb writer Nedelijko Zelenovic argues it is better to keep everything separate.

"There is no such nationality as Bosnia-Hercegovinan, it's not possible. There is no unified national identity, no one would agree to it."

But maintaining such a fractured system is not just confusing, it's expensive.

Sixty-percent of taxes go towards financing the sprawling government, and that is in a country with an unemployment rate approaching 40%.

Start Quote

We care about the heritage of all the people of Bosnia-Hercegovina”

End Quote Adnan Busuladzic National Museum Director

Many argue it is time to start spending money on bringing the country together, and building the economy, not in maintaining cumbersome separate administrations - in a country with a population smaller than that of Manhattan.

The National Museum and other institutions have managed to get by on ticket sales and grants from the central government for the past few years, but when yet more political wrangling left the country without a central government for most of 2011, the grants stopped arriving and the money ran out.

In the final days of 2011 a deal was reached to agree on a central government and a new prime minister, Vjekoslav Bevanda, was sworn in in January.

The hope is that the central parliament will now be able to agree on a budget to fund the national institutions until a more permanent solution, or even a central ministry of culture, can be set up.

National Museum Director Adnan Busuladzic believes the country's history doesn't have to be a problem.

"We care about the heritage of all the people of Bosnia-Hercegovina: Serb, Bosniak, Croatian, Jewish, Gypsy.

"Our history is mixed, our society is mixed. We have a problem with politics, but not history - history is OK."

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