SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Sarajevo’s City Hall, a building marked by two 20th-century wars, re-opened on Friday, restored to its former glory after being destroyed by Serb shelling of the besieged city in 1992.
The neo-Moorish building, first opened in 1896, has been restored to mark the centenary of the start of World War One, triggered by the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand just after he left a reception there in June 1914.
Converted into the National Library in 1949, it went up in flames in August 1992, destroying almost 2 million books including many rare volumes reflecting its multicultural life under the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.
“Tonight ... we mark the triumph of civilization over barbarism, of light over darkness, of life over death and the triumph of the idea of unity and co-existence over the idea of inhuman and unnatural divisions and clashes,” said Bakir Izetbegovic, the Muslim Bosniak member of Bosnia’s three-man inter-ethnic presidency.
The building, which stands out in the city’s old Turkish quarter with its dark orange and yellow horizontal stripes and Islamic-style arches, will house the national and university libraries, the city council and a museum about its own history.
“Vijecnica (the city hall) is a symbol of Sarajevo ... because the history of Vijecnica is the history of Sarajevo,” Mayor Ivo Komsic said.
But an absence of Bosnian Serb officials at the opening reflected the fact that Bosnia’s three peoples still have conflicting visions of both the country’s future and its past.
Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in Vienna, attended a reception at Vijecnica on June 28, 1914 after surviving an failed assassination attempt. Just after leaving, he and his wife were shot dead in their open car by Serb assassin Gavrilo Princip.
His killing lit the fuse for World War One, in which more than 10 million soldiers died and the map of Europe was redrawn, ending Vienna’s empire and creating the new state of Yugoslavia.
That multinational state began to fall apart in 1991 and war among the Serb, Croat and Muslim populations in Bosnia and Herzegovina began the following year and lasted until late 1995.
Vijecnica faces the Miljacka river and hills from which the Serb artillery set it ablaze, burning most of its books and manuscripts despite efforts by firefighters and volunteers who braved sniper fire to rescue at least part of the collection.
The ceremony was partly overshadowed by a protest of several hundred people, some of whom arrived to Sarajevo on foot from other Bosnian towns to protest against unemployment and corruption.
Vedran Smajlovic, a cellist who gained world recognition after a photograph showed him playing in Vijecnica’s ruins just days after its destruction, was due to play Albinoni’s Adagio again.
“The energy in that building was something sacred,” Smajlovic said of his wartime performance. “The building was still breathing, regardless of the destruction, I felt its power and it made me cry.”
Reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Robin Pomeroy