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Post-conflict reconstruction of cultural heritage

Mattias Legnér and Malin Stengård

Picture of The Mosque of Jusuf Pasha in Maglaj, wikimedia commons.

Wars not only kill people or leave survivors traumatised, but also often destroy the built environment and cultural heritage. Damaged heritage sites not seldom belong to the more visual effects of an armed conflict. To what extent should historically valuable buildings that have suffered from damage be reconstructed after a war? How important are the buildings and their materials in themselves, compared with other aims of reconstruction such as poverty reduction, identity building and professional training? And how important is the reason why a building was damaged in the first place for its subsequent reconstruction?

These are questions addressed in our research on post-war reconstruction of cultural heritage in Southeast Europe (SEE). Focus of the research has been the non-government organisation Cultural Heritage without Borders (CHwB), originally founded in Sweden in 1995 to preserve heritage damaged in areas affected by conflicts or natural disasters. The immediate reason why CHwB was founded was the Yugoslavian Wars and its consequences especially for cultural heritage in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). The organisation found support in a number of Swedish authorities and associations involving cultural heritage and architecture, and soon managed to fund activities in SEE with the help of the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida). Projects were carried out in BiH, Serbia, and after 1999, also in Kosovo that had at that time become a United Nations protectorat. The results of the research have been published in Legnér (2018) and Stengård and Legnér (2019).

The war in BiH (1992–95) has been described as one characterised by ethnic cleansing or even cultural cleansing. (Coward 2009) Cultural cleansing means erasing the entire history and presence of one or more ethnic groups in an area, not just forcing the members of those groups to leave but also destroying every trace of them. In BiH not just mosques were systematically razed but also vernacular buildings of historical importance, archives, libraries, and museums were deliberately targeted to cleanse the territory of any sign of Muslim culture and heritage. Catholic heritage was also attacked. Religious sites and cultural heritage were not just subjected to so called collateral damage, but were also attacked and demolished with intent and scrutiny. (Walasek 2015) The underlying idea was to rinse a geographical area from any sign that it had a history belonging to several ethnicities and not just one, dominant group. The same patterns have been quite evident in the ongoing conflicts in Syria, northern Iraq and southern Turkey.

Following the Yugoslavian Wars important questions were raised about the necessity and possibilities of reinstating the heritage of those ethnic groups who had suffered most from the conflict. Did the international community have a responsibility to assist in this process, and if so, how should it act? As has been described in detail by Helen Walasek (2015) the first step taken by UNESCO was to survey war-induced damage on cultural heritage, in order to understand the extent and nature of the damage, and how it had been inflicted. Herscher and Riedlmayer (2000) collected information to accommodate the legal processes of war crime, but their studies also led to a deeper understanding of the intentions behind the targeting of monuments in BiH. The fact that so much had been destroyed on purpose gave support to the opinion that mosques and other built structures from the Ottoman period should be reconstructed. (Herscher 2010) Similar opinions had been prevalent after World War II, such as when Old Warsaw was rebuilt after having been systematically razed by Nazi Germany.

In the international community it was a common belief that the destruction of cultural heritage should be mitigated by its rebuilding. In the Annex 8 of the Dayton peace agreement it was stated that a commission should be formed to select the future national cultural heritage of BiH (General Framework Agreement 1995). National heritage was meant to unite the former enemies and create a common heritage for the new nation-state. The reconstruction of war-damaged cultural heritage and the protection of it in the future received support from the international community and especially from the EU. In May 1996 the European Council compiled an action plan and also decided on a resolution stating that the protection of cultural heritage was of importance for the social and economic development in BiH.

ChwB started its first SIDA-funded project in BiH in 1996. The purpose was to restore the shelled mosque in Maglaj. They saw their work as an important part of the reconciliation process and believed that as long as physical remnants of the war, as war-damaged buildings, were to be visible, a reconciliation process would not be possible. The traces of the war needed to be erased, it was thought, and were not regarded as part of the heritage itself. This quite idealistic view guided the early work of CHwB in BiH.

After the first project in Maglaj CHwB had proved itself competent and could continue with bigger projects in cities and villages in BiH. CHwB worked with 19 projects in 8 cities and villages between 1996–2008 (Stengård 2017, 56). In the beginning the organisation worked with single buildings such as the mosque and guesthouse in Maglaj, as well as with the Serb Orthodox church at Zavala monastery and the archives at the Franciscan monastery Kraljeva Sutjeska. After being active some years in BiH the foundation started to work with bigger areas instead of just single buildings. In 2001 they restored some bazaar buildings at the bridge abutment in Mostar and started on the historic city core in Jajce. The latter was chosen because comprehensive actions had been carried out by international aid agencies that, according to CHwB, had been damaging to the medieval city centre. The foundation hoped that their way to work with respect for cultural and historical integrity and authenticity would function as guiding principles for other aid agencies and NGO´s. For CHwB education and competence development was equally important as restoring the damaged building/area to ensure the preservation in the future. Local architects, craftsmen and employees at the local preservations institutes would be taught how to work with a Western notion of authenticity.

In 2003 BiH was acknowledged as a potential candidate for EU membership. This meant that all focus of international aid shifted facilitating the process of BiH becoming a member of EU. At the same time the idea that cultural heritage is a human right was gaining ground in Europe and in 2005 the ministers of the Council of Europe adopted The Faro Convention that emphasized the importance of cultural heritage to community life and democracy. In BiH cultural heritage became an asset that could be used to reach other goals like economic development. This change also affected how CHwB worked. The organisation began looking at itself as having more of a facilitating and counselling role than one of applied conservation. It was not up to the foundation to force people to reconcile. This had to come from the people in BiH. This shift in focus resulted in less work with actual restorations and more work with initiating different kinds of networks to connect people across ethnicity and religious borders.

CHwB became part of a huge process to transform the former communist society to a market economy. The foundation started to call itself a “development NGO” working with cultural heritage, but its goal was to stimulate economic growth and to develop cultural heritage as an asset to profit from. Making cultural heritage into an instrument for social change and economic growth reflected a much broader trend in the early twenty-first century. Višnja Kisić (Kisić 2013) describes it as the EU had turned away from dealing with troubling questions of guilt, justice and peace in favour of growth within the frames of a liberal market economy because it was much easier to comprehend and speak about. In BiH cultural heritage was filled with symbolic values connected to ethnic cleansing, war, exclusion and destruction. In the first years both CHwB and Sida believed that these dark connotations could be replaced by positive ones building on the notion of a shared cultural heritage. This, in turn, would be a path to reconciliation. This was however much more difficult to achieve than had been expected, and as a consequence CHwB gradually ceased working with this issue, focussing instead on using cultural heritage for job creation and economic development.

The situation in Kosovo after 1999 was different from the situation in BiH in several ways. Kosovo had been devastated first by Serb militia who had besieged and burned many villages. When NATO intervened there was massive aerial bombing against Serbian positions, including a good amount of collateral damage to the built environment. It has been estimated that between 50 and 70 per cent of the housing stock was damaged in the short but extremely violent war. A large part of the population was displaced and fled Kosovo in order to seek refuge in neighbouring countries. As soon as the war was over and the United Nations had assumed control of the territory from Serbia, many Kosovars returned, in many cases to find their home burned or badly damaged. The mission of UNMIK from 2000 and 2002 was characterised as consolidation following emergency relief. Except for the UN the EU (represented by European Agency of Reconstruction, EAR) offered vast resources for the reconstruction of infrastructure and housing. Heritage was largely ignored in this process, which meant that the destruction of historical and artistic values continued long after the war had ended.

The explanation of why this happened is complex and varies depending on who is explaining. At the time of UNMIK seizing control there was no functioning administration in Kosovo, and thus no legal system. The government officials, all Serb, had fled. Even when working the legal system had not included much of the Kosovo Albanian heritage, focusing almost exclusively on the Serbian Orthodox heritage of churches and monasteries. Many years of neglect of cultural heritage under Communist rule had preceded the war. Furthermore, the knowledge of Kosovo heritage was extremely limited within the international UNMIK staff, preventing it from developing an independent view on the history of Kosovo. In order to counter this ignorance CHwB was invited in 2000 to suggest how to go about preserving crucial parts of Kosovo heritage.

Kosovo became a playground of powerful donors who had liberty to choose what to preserve. Concerned about the religious dimensions of the past war, EU did not want to support the reconstruction of mosques. In BiH there had been some reconstruction of religious sites, Maglaj being the first, but in Kosovo Western donors were more reluctant. The mosque in Gjakova, damaged by a rocket launcher assault, was an exception and was restored for its artistic values. Later many mosques have been reconstructed with funds from Turkey or Saudi Arabia, but then often guided by religious principles rather than the secular, modernist idea of authenticity.

CHwB demanded that its reconstruction projects were based on authenticity in the choice of materials and methods. Authenticity in its Western interpretation rests on the notion that a damaged or destroyed structure can be brought back to a more original (and thus more true state) by using documentation as well as traditional materials and methods. In the case of CHwB its restoration ideology rested on the ideas of the restorer Ove Hidemark, who had trained all of the Swedish architects employed by the organisation. They had all internalised his ideas, which rarely were expressed in print. In one of his publications, however, Hidemark explained his view of authenticity:

The ageing processes of materia become the key to our experience of time, an experience that also must be safeguarded in maintenance and repair. /…/ The replacement of material demands reconstruction with the same material. /…/ Restoration is never historical cosmetics in face of the superficially presentable, but an issue of recognising integrity, that is ageing of the stature, the skeleton, as well as skin and muscle. This is basically a demand for an ethics of materials/…/ (Hidemark quoted in Legnér 2018, author’s transl.)

This idea of authenticity as “an ethics of materials”, following the Venice Charter of 1964, collided with the views of Kosovar architects, who had been trained in a Yugoslavian tradition that rested on ideas developed within the Soviet conservation movement. In recent decades the use of reinforced concrete and modern building techniques had become common in restoration work taking place in the Eastern Bloc states. A struggle between two different approaches to restoration followed in Kosovo. The approach of the donors was to encourage the construction of a new, imagined national community resting on a secular Kosovar heritage most visible in the architecture of kulla, fortified masonry towers present on many farmsteads in the western part of the territory. The notion of authenticity was applied in order to support the establishment of this imagined community. A few kulla, many of which had been neglected for decades or burned by Serb milita in the conflict, were rebuilt using traditional craftsmanship and local building materials. In the course of the project young Kosovar architects were taught to internalise the idea of authenticity and how to apply it in practice.

Picture of a Kulla, wikimedia commons.

Our research shows that the preservation of cultural heritage to a large extent depends on the engagement of the community itself, and not on one-time conservation projects carried out by professionals. If there is insufficient involvement from the local community buildings and other heritage resources will decay and finally vanish. Furthermore, wars and other disasters change our perception of the past, which means that conservation cannot undo history. The material traces of a conflict, then, will in some ways remain visible for a very long time to come. Wars and the processes that follow them change the landscape indefinitely. Finally, donors and other agents that influence processes of reconstruction have agendas of their own, whether these aim at building new cultural identities using heritage or at denying certain aspects of the past. Reconstruction of heritage inevitably means that a large number of monuments and sites are allowed to decay, since it demands substantial resources. In these ways reconstruction of heritage after wars means that intervening actors make crucial decisions on what to do and why, based on moral positions.


Coward, M. (2009) Urbicide. The politics of urban destruction. Routledge: London.

General Framework Agreement 1995, Annex 8.

Herscher, A. (2010) Violence Taking Place. The Architecture of the Kosovo Conflict.

Herscher, A., Riedlmayer, A. (2000), “Monument and Crime: The Destruction of Historic Architecture in Kosovo”, Grey Room 1.

Kisić, Višnja. (2013). Governing Heritage Dissonance. Promises and Realities of Selected Cultural Policies. European Cultural Foundation: Amsterdam.

Legnér, M. (2018) “Post-conflict reconstruction and the heritage process” Journal of Architectural Conservation 24:2, 78–90

Stengård, Malin (2017) Påverkare och påverkade. En diskursanalys av relationen mellan Sida och Kulturarv utan Gränser utifrån deras arbete i Bosnien och Hercegovina 1996-2008. Magisteruppsats. Institutionen för konstvetenskap, Avdelningen för kulturvård, Uppsala Universitet.

Stengård, M., Legnér, M. (2019) “Funder and facilitator: Swedish development aid aimed at cultural heritage in Bosnia and Herzegovina 1995–2008” International Journal of Cultural Policy, 1–13.

Walasek, H. (2015) Bosnia and the Destruction of Cultural Heritage. Routledge: London.


1. Picture of The Mosque of Jusuf Pasha in Maglaj, wikimedia commons.

2. Picture of a Kulla, wikimedia commons.

About the authors

Mattias Legnér is Professor in Conservation at Uppsala Universitet – Campus Gotland. In 2016–2018 he led the cross-disciplinary project Kulturarvsnoden (Research Node Cultural Heritage) at the Faculty of Arts. He has researched worldwide targeting of heritage sites and post-conflict reconstruction of cultural heritage in Kosovo. He is currently working on a book about cultural property protection and heritage in Scandinavia during World War II.

Malin Stengård is MA of Arts in Conservation and BA of Arts in Art History and Conservation. Her research interests are post-conflict reconstruction of cultural heritage.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on the Heritage in War blog are those of the post author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of members of the Heritage in War project, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Open University or Stockholm University

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