Destruction of Islamic Heritage in the Kosovo War, 1998-1999
More than two-thirds of the 560 active mosques in Kosovo on the eve of the 1998-1999 war were buildings dating from the Ottoman era. Many of these were monuments of historical and architectural significance. However, this part of Kosovo’s cultural and religious heritage received relatively little attention from the state authorities charged with the protection of monuments. Between 1947 and 1990, a total of 425 monuments and sites in Kosovo were officially designated for state protection. These included 96 archaeological sites, 16 cemeteries, 116 secular buildings and monuments, and 174 religious sites. Of the last category, 139 were Orthodox churches or monasteries, while only 32 Islamic religious monuments had been listed for protection. Since listed sites received priority in attention and in conservation funding from state agencies, this meant that by the 1990s much of Kosovo’s Islamic built heritage was in a dilapidated state, after decades of neglect. In practice, the authorities not only failed to provide the funds and expertise needed for the preservation of these historic houses of worship, they allowed even listed Islamic monuments to be altered or demolished without intervening. The years of peacetime neglect were followed by the massive wartime destruction of Kosovo’s Islamic religious heritage in 1998-1999. As has been documented in this book, roughly 40 percent of Kosovo’s 560 mosques were damaged or destroyed during the war.
The damage in most cases was clearly the result of deliberate attacks directed against the mosques. There is evidence of explosives planted in the mosque or inside the minaret, of artillery projectiles aimed at the minaret, and of mosques set ablaze. In some places, the mosque was the only building in the vicinity that had been singled out for attack. More often, the destruction of a mosque was accompanied by the burning of the surrounding homes of the local Albanian residents. The devastation of Islamic sacral sites was widespread and systematic, with few areas of Kosovo left untouched. Among the worst hit was the northwestern region of Peja/Peć, where every one of 49 Islamic sites was attacked in 1998 and 1999. Among the sites targeted were the region’s 36 mosques (half of them dating from the 15th-18th centuries), the offices, archives and library of the Islamic Community Council of Peja, a historic medresa, a 15th-century hamam (Turkish baths), 9 schools for Qur’an readers (mekteb), a dervish lodge (tekke), and several mosque libraries
In some places, those responsible for these attacks had left behind their “signatures”— in the form of anti-Albanian and anti-Islamic graffiti in Serbian scrawled on mosque walls, or in the deliberate desecration of Islamic sacred scriptures, torn apart by hand, defiled and burned. Examples of this sort could be seen in the Gjylfatyn Mosque in Peja, the Mosque of Carraleva/Crnoljevo, the Mosque of Livoç i Poshtëm/Donji Livoč, and the Mosque of Stanofc i Poshtëm, and in a number of other mosques. Of the 218 mosques and 11 tekkes in Kosovo that were destroyed or damaged during the war, 22 mosques and 8 tekkes were in the most severe damage categories. Among these, 13 mosques and 5 tekkes were completely razed, the ruins levelled by bulldozer; 9 mosques and 3 tekkes were reduced to rubble, but the ruins were not bulldozed. Among examples of completely levelled Islamic houses of worship are the Bazaar Mosque (built 1761-62; renewed 1878) in Vushtrria/Vučitrn, the Ibër Mosque (built 1878) in Mitrovica, the Mosque of Halil Efendi in Dobërçan/Dobrčane (1526), the Mosque of Loxha (1900), and the historic Bektashi tekke in Gjakova/Đakovica (1790).
An additional 95 mosques suffered lesser degrees of damage, ranging from shell holes in the walls, through the roof or in the shaft of the minaret, to vandalism, including fires set inside the mosque, smashed-up interior furnishings, and the desecration of sacred scriptures. A total of 31 mosques and 2 tekkes (dervish lodges) were attacked by Serb forces during the first year of the war, in the spring and summer of 1998. Two-thirds of these religious buildings were burned down, blown up or otherwise destroyed or seriously damaged. Ten of the mosques that were damaged during 1998 were subjected to repeat attacks and further damage during the spring of 1999. During the second year of the war in 1999, a total of 197 mosques and 9 tekkes in Kosovo were damaged or destroyed by Serb forces. One mosque, in the village of Jabllanica (Prizren region), had its roof partly destroyed by a NATO air strike in the spring of 1999. Otherwise, the destruction of mosques and of other Islamic heritage in Kosovo during the war was entirely attributable to attacks from the ground, carried out by Serbian troops, police and paramilitaries, and in some cases by Serb civilians.
The destruction also encompassed the written record of Islamic religious and cultural life in Kosovo. The Central Historical Archives of the Islamic Community of Kosovo were burned by Serbian police in June 1999, hours before the arrival of the first NATO troops in Prishtina. Six of the regional archives of the Islamic Community were also attacked and wholly or partially destroyed, among them the archives of the Islamic Community Councils in Peja/Peć, Gjakova/Đakovica, Gllogoc/Glogovac, Lipjan, Peja/Peć, Skenderaj/Srbica, and Suhareka. Kosovo’s Islamic religious libraries were also singled out for destruction. Notable losses include the manuscripts and old books of the library of Hadum Syleiman Efendi in Gjakova/Đakovica, founded in 1595 and burned in 1999, as well as the libraries of dervish lodges in Gjakova/Đakovica, Mitrovica and Peja/Peć, also destroyed in 1999. However, the losses go far beyond this. Many old mosques in Kosovo had been endowed with collections of Qur’an manuscripts and Islamic religious books that were destroyed or damaged in 1998-1999Remarkably, not a single Serb Orthodox church or monastery in Kosovo was damaged or destroyed by Albanians during the 1998-1999 conflict. Unfortunately that changed after the end of the war, as thousands of Albanian refugees who had been forced out of Kosovo during the war returned to their burned-out home towns and villages. Following the end of hostilities in June 1999, dozens of Serb Orthodox churches and monasteries were damaged in revenge attacks. Some 40 Serb Orthodox sites were vandalized, while another 40 suffered serious structural damage or were destroyed completely. Many of these buildings were village churches, some of them built during the previous decade. But about 15 to 20 of the destroyed churches dated from the medieval period.By the end of the summer of 1999, as a result of the efforts of KFOR and the UN administration to restore order, and in response to public appeals by Kosovo Albanian political and religious leaders, attacks on Serb Orthodox religious sites largely ceased.
“This book is an attempt to document, to the extent possible, the Islamic sacral heritage of Kosovo that was lost during the 1998-1999 war. As Kosovo and its people come to terms with the painful memories of the recent past and work towards a common future it is well to recall that, for most of Kosovo’s long history, houses of worship were protected by all communities and had traditionally been held immune from personal and communal vendettas. The rich cultural heritage that remains in Kosovo, despite the ravages of time and the destruction of war, is the common patrimony of all of Kosovo’s people. It is up to them, as it was up to their forefathers, to jointly value and preserve it for future generations.“ - Destruction of Islamic Heritage in the Kosovo War, 1998-1999, by Sabri Bajgora
1. Mitrovica. Tekke (dervish lodge) of Sheh Fejzullah. Destroyed in spring 1999.
2. Vushtrria. Gazi Ali Beg Mosque, its minaret blown away by tank cannon
3. Peja/Peć. The Market Mosque (1471), torched by Serbian policemen, June 1999.
4. Mushtisht/Mušutište. Mosque of Hasan Pasha (1702). Blown up in April 1999.
5. Deçan. Mosque, built like a kulla; the mosque was burned in the 1999 war.
6. Carraleva/Crnoljevo. Torn-up and desecrated Qur’ans in the village mosque.