Bosnia’s Mosques Without Muslims

By Michael Colborne, Maxim EdwardsOctober 24, 2019

Bosnia’s Mosques Without Muslims
ON THE BANKS of the Ćehotina River in eastern Bosnia, a centuries-old minaret has been raised anew from the ruins. On May 4, locals in the sleepy town of Foča celebrated the reopening of the Aladža, or “Coloured” Mosque, built in 1550 when Bosnia was a province of the Ottoman Empire, and destroyed in 1992. After four years of painstaking work, Aladža stands once more; the famed paintings and tiles covering its interior have been restored with the help of Turkish artisans, using traditional pigments.

Foča is now populated by Serbs, who are mostly Orthodox Christian. But like many others in the Drina Valley region, it was predominantly Muslim before war broke out in 1992. Today, Foča’s name is associated with wartime acts of brutality extreme even by the standards of that conflict, which took 100,000 lives. After the Bosnian Serb army seized the town in April 1992, local women were separated from their families, imprisoned, and repeatedly raped by its soldiers. On the evening of August 2, 1992, military engineer Goran Mojović detonated 25 anti-tank mines around the base of the Aladža Mosque, bringing it down in seconds. By 1994, nearly all of the 22,000 original inhabitants had fled, and Foča was triumphantly renamed “Srbinje,” meaning “Place of the Serbs.” In 2004, the town’s old name returned, but few of the old inhabitants did; Muslims make up only five percent of Foča’s population today.

So while the rolling hills of Foča are punctuated by minarets of other reconstructed mosques; they are seldom full. The crimes are in the past, but the sentiments behind them are enjoying a resurgence. Growing numbers of Europeans see mosques and those who attend them as unwelcome interlopers, and decry minarets as proud symbols of the continent’s supposed “Islamisation” through mass immigration. Over 20 years after the war, Bosnians of all ethnic and religious backgrounds aren’t just reticent to return to their ancestral homes; they’re leaving this impoverished country en masse.

Sitting in a riverside garden near the Aladža Mosque, Izet Karović admits that its reconstruction is unlikely to lead to a flourishing Muslim community. The few Muslims left here are more likely to mourn at funerals than celebrate births. According to Karović, who returned to Foča in 2004, the grinding poverty of regional Bosnia hardly makes returning an attractive prospect.

“It was hard to understand why they destroyed it. Why did they want us to disappear?” asked Karović, who heads the Foča Union of Displaced People, an NGO representing the interests of predominantly Muslim returnees. “Why is it so hard to accept the word ‘genocide’? Not just genocide — It was an urbicide, too. The reconstruction means a lot to us; it acknowledges that we have lived on this land for centuries. All the Bosniaks here are eager to hear Aladža’s call to prayer again.”

“We’re lucky that Aladža was so well studied,” said architect Amir Pašić at a café in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital. “Its wall paintings were so rich and so well executed that they attracted a lot of interest, which meant drawings and photographs. It will be easier to restore them.”

Pašić believes that with the restoration of the Aladža Mosque, the reconstruction of Bosnia’s most historic mosques has neared its end. “Not every village mosque can be restored, and sometimes villagers prefer modern structures,” concluded Pašić, a leading specialist in Bosnia’s Islamic architecture, and one of three experts chairing a board to oversee the restoration of architectural heritage destroyed during the war. Many of these painstaking rebuilding projects have been achieved with assistance from TIKA, the Turkish state’s foreign development fund.

The Dayton Accords that brought peace to the region cleft Bosnia into two ethnically based “entities” of roughly equal size; the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, which encompasses much of the country’s North and East (including Foča), and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is populated by Croats and Bosniaks. The three communities in what was once a famously cosmopolitan country now live largely separate lives.

Through massacres, forced migration, and genocide, modern Bosnia has become largely “unmixed.” But there are exceptions, and some Muslim life can still be found in Republika Srpska. The first Muslim woman, and first lawmaker to wear a hijab, entered the regional parliament after elections last October.

Nevertheless, it would be a stretch to say that returning Bosniaks, ethnically cleansed from these parts of the country more than 20 years ago, have always been welcomed with open arms. For example, the new Serb mayor of Srebrenica still denies the infamous genocide of over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys around the town in 1995.

“Don’t put that howling on loudspeakers, that’s not for me,” Republika Srpska’s former prime minister Milorad Dodik said last year in reference to Muslim prayer calls. “It’s become impossible to bear,” declared Dodik, who is now the ethnic Serb representative on Bosnia’s tripartite rotating presidency. “People don’t want any part of it anymore. [They] can’t stand it,” he added, claiming that calls to prayer “traumatize” ethnic Serbs and even drive down real estate prices in Banja Luka, the statelet’s de facto capital.

“Why do loud church bells not bother him as much as the call to prayer?” asked Karović. “He needs to be taken to the heart of Sarajevo to hear all of them sound out together. Who knows? He may even fall in love.”

But at the rebuilt Ferhadija Mosque, the call to prayer (ezan in Bosnian) is barely audible at midday, even while standing on the mosque gardens. “It’s quieter than Sarajevo,” laughs Armin Dzindo, a construction worker who helped with reconstruction efforts on one of Bosnia’s most famous mosques, originally completed in 1579 when Bosnia was part of the Ottoman Empire.

Ferhadija was destroyed by Bosnian Serb forces on the night of May 6, 1993. Its minaret felled, its centuries-old carvings were stolen, crushed, or thrown into rubbish tips. The land on which it had stood for more than 400 years was turned, literally, into a parking lot.

But after years of reconstruction, the Ferhadija Mosque finally reopened in 2016 — 23 years to the day after it was destroyed. Heartened by the successful reconstruction of Ferhadija, the local Muslim community’s attention is now focused on the nearby Arnaudija Mosque, a smaller Ottoman-era house of worship destroyed during the war. Reconstruction of the Arnaudija commenced last year.

“I was there from the first stone until the last stone,” recalled Muhamed Hamidović, an architect who spearheaded the reconstruction of the Ferhadija Mosque. “It’s more than just symbolism,” said Hamidović. “It was a one of a kind in Europe.”

As an architecture student in 1970s Yugoslavia, he made drawings of its interior used during the reconstruction. Hamidović and his team tracked down as many pieces of masonry from the original mosque as they could; some had ended up in rubbish tips; others ended up at the bottom of a nearby lake. Nearly 70 percent of the mosque’s original bricks were used in the reconstruction, though the force of the explosions during the 1993 demolition “changed the structure” of some of the pieces, necessitating they be glued together to make them strong again.

“It was magnificent to find as much as we did,” concluded Hamidović.

In a war crimes tribunal at The Hague, Bosnian Serb military and political leaders such as Radovan Karadžić firmly denied any systematic destruction of mosques on their watch. Yet some of their subordinates hinted otherwise. Simo Drljača, a powerful police commander in the Prijedor region of Bosnia, spoke of destroying mosques as a technique for “cleansing” undesirables from the area.

“With their mosques, you must not just break the minarets,” he said in a 1992 interview. “You’ve got to shake up the foundations because that means they cannot build another. Do that, and they’ll want to go. They’ll just leave by themselves.”

But some chose to stay, whatever the risks. Just outside Banja Luka is a village called Novoselija, a small village populated mostly by Bosniaks. Rašad Sačno, a 74-year-old former journalist, chose to stay put. “We were left alone to fight for ourselves,” remembered Sačno. “No one here took care of us.”

Wherever they were during the war, mosque reconstruction still matters deeply to the people of Novoselija. When every mosque around the region was being rebuilt, says 80-year-old Harun Tolik, a local resident “you could feel the excitement.” In 2005, the village’s small mosque was rebuilt with help from the Iranian government. A plank of wood of the original mosque, still charred from its destruction in the early 1990s, is kept behind glass as a reminder of what once happened here.

Tolik managed to return to his former home, but not every returnee was as lucky. Kemal Gunić, head of a local association for Bosniak returnees, estimates that the average age of returnees to the region around Banja Luka is about 65. According to his statistics, approximately 47,000 Bosniaks fled the region but only 12,500 returned at some point, and may have left again.

This reality has led figures like former Bosnian president Haris Silajdžić — who was also part of the Bosnian delegation that negotiated the Dayton Accords — to call Republika Srpska an entity founded on ethnic cleansing. But the main threat to Muslim returnees to Republika Srpska, said Silajdžić in an interview in Sarajevo, is not necessarily the over-the-top rhetoric of figures like Milorad Dodik. The worry “is the passage of time.” In that sense, the mosque reconstructions are a message that those who committed genocide did not succeed, and never can.

The architects, builders, the expelled and returnees, the faithful and the irreligious all concede that rebuilding mosques alone will not compel Bosnian Muslims to return to the towns and villages from which they were expelled. A whole country is waiting to be rebuilt; restoring the fabric of a multiethnic and multiconfessional community has proven a much trickier task than rebuilding it through bricks and mortar. Can it ever be restored?

In 2008, the Bosniak artist Azra Akšamija wove that question into a bright red kilim, a traditional Bosnian carpet, with the help of a Sarajevo workshop employing refugee women. The result, titled Monument in Waiting, is a testimony to the devastation of Bosnia’s cultural heritage. Traditional geometric designs give way to grenades and missiles drawn in black thread, bordered by landmines and barbed wire. At its heart stand two symmetrical rows of birds standing on tree branches, a common motif in Balkan kilims symbolizing good fortune and wealth. Their meaning here is more ominous; each of Akšamija’s birds is unique, representing a different story about a different mosque destroyed during the war. In her meticulous research for the project, Akšamija collected a series of interviews with witnesses of nine such acts of destruction. A booklet accompanies the kilim wherever it is exhibited, allowing visitors to identify each bird and the specific tragedy it represents.

Akšamija intends for the kilim to be permanently exhibited at the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague where, this March, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić received an extended sentence of life imprisonment for crimes against humanity.

Fittingly, Akšamija’s kilim and its birds are suspended from threads of cotton; a monument to a story left unfinished. The tree of life motif is fitting, she concludes in the guidebook, as new branches can always be woven anew. Nevertheless, “the completion of this project remains utopian.”


The authors would like to thank the Bosnian journalist Semir Mujkić for his support. Reporting for this story was supported by Reporters in the Field, a Robert Bosch Stiftung program hosted together with n-ost, a media network.


Michael Colborne is a Canadian journalist who covers central and eastern Europe.

Maxim Edwards is a British journalist covering Central and Eastern Europe, and currently Eurasia editor at GlobalVoices.


Featured image: "Foča – Aladža džamija 2018" by Julian Nyča is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

LARB Contributors

Michael Colborne is a Canadian journalist who covers central and eastern Europe. His work has appeared in Haaretz, Foreign Policy, Bellingcat, The New Republic, and others.
Maxim Edwards is a British journalist covering Central and Eastern Europe, and currently Eurasia editor at GlobalVoices. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Haaretz, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera among others. More of his writing can be found here.


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