When people are suffering and dying in a conflict, often in horrible ways, is it wrong to weep for buildings? It's a question that comes up a lot when you talk about Bosnia. Amir Pasic, an architecture professor who made his reputation by reconstructing the subsequently destroyed city of Mostar, came close to answering it the other day when, after showing slides of the 400-year-old Mostar Bridge falling in chunks, he quoted the reaction of a Croatian journalist. "Why do we feel more pain looking at the image of the destroyed bridge than the image of the massacred people?" wrote Ksenija Drakulic, who is based in Zagreb. "Perhaps because we see our own mortality in the collapse of the bridge. ... We expect people to die; we count on our own lives to end. The destruction of a monument to civilization is something else. The bridge, in all its beauty and grace, was built to outlive us; it was an attempt to grasp eternity. It transcended our individual destiny."
What options are there for the protectors of important cultural monuments, like Mostar or the shelled city of Dubrovnik? The United States is expected this month to sign, finally, the 40-year-old Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in Wartime, which maps out the responsibilities of attacking commanders to be aware of safeguarded sites and to avoid unnecessary cultural destruction. Meanwhile, a team under U.N. auspices is weighing whether the destruction of Dubrovnik in Croatia can be prosecuted as a war crime. Both strategies have severe limitations. Dubrovnik was destroyed literally before the eyes of two specially dispatched UNESCO and European Community preservation observers; the Hague Convention, though it offers a framework for responsible commanders, is of little use in the increasingly common situation where an attacker wishes specifically to destroy the other side's cultural identity. Nor does it help when, as happened in the gulf war, the defending commander uses precious monuments as hostages by parking his military installations as close to them as possible. When protection fails, the obvious answer is rebuilding, not to erase the memory of destruction but because, as Pasic argues, recreating the buildings and knowledge that an invading army thought it had destroyed "is at least a way of denying victory to the forces that caused the destruction." Andras Riedlmayer, a Harvard bibliographer affiliated, like Pasic, with the world-famous Aga Khan program for Islamic architecture, talked at a recent symposium here about efforts by the apparent victors to create a "new past," one that would bolster the notion of such leaders as Slobodan Milosevic that different groups cannot cohabit, and in fact never could. This is, of course, the view you advance by destroying literal bridges (the Mostar masterpiece linked the Muslim and Christian sides of town) or by burning 1.5 million volumes of national archives containing such evidence of peaceful pluralism as the 16th-century Ottoman document signed by Mehmet the Conqueror, granting the Catholic Franciscan order of monks privileged status in Sarajevo. Riedlmayer is heading up a desperately quixotic rescue effort for the heap of ashes that was the Sarajevo library -- not of the books themselves (only 20 percent survived the fire, and they mostly thanks to citizen brigades) but of the information that was in them. By luck, there are computer copies of the catalogue. Every foreign scholar who ever visited and copied any part of the collection, every institution that microfilmed the materials for scholarly exchange, is being asked to contribute real or "virtual" copies. Some of the manuscripts were saved by personal bravery: One curator, a friend of Riedlmayer's, was killed by a sniper while passing books out the window of a burning building. The London-based Art Newspaper last fall reported the case of Muslim curator Kemal Bakacic, who risked his life to save the Sarajevo Haggadah. The Haggadah, an ancient illuminated art masterpiece that the 500-year-old Sarajevo Jewish community had brought from Spain in the 1492 expulsions, survived World War II "buried under an apple tree," Riedlmayer says. Its present location is being kept secret. Pasic, for his part, has been traveling the world insisting that "every stone" of the Mostar bridge was mapped during his seven-year reconstruction effort, which means that immediate, complete reconstruction is both possible and desperately necessary. Though the dream is rendered distant by the dim prospects for any kind of pluralist peace settlement, Pasic has one tactical weapon, a slide show that operates as a sort of satire on normal historical reconstruction projects. The sequence, which he offered at the symposium at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, calls to mind the literary trick played by the British novelist Martin Amis in the 1992 novel "Time's Arrow": A man -- once a Nazi doctor, the reader finally learns -- seems to experience his life in perfect reverse, so that people grow younger, food progresses from plate to pot to refrigerator, and dying prisoners lie down on the "examining" tables at Auschwitz and walk away healthy. Pasic's first slides are traditional before-and-after views of the buildings he restored: a decrepit cathedral, then the same cathedral newly cleaned of muck and mold; a gorgeous fresco, shown first in decay, then painted and spruced up. Then comes the second set of before-and after-slides: the spruced-up buildings followed by pictures of the rubble where they stood. There's an astounding series of images of the bridge's actual explosion, ending with its empty, yawning parapets. Finally Pasic presents his after-after-after sequence, hand-drawn mockups of what a rebuilt "Mostar 2004" would look like. In all the drawings, the bridge is back. But it's going to take more than computer copies to put it there, and more than money, and more than dreams. The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.