Murder of the City

Bogdan Bogdanovic, translated from the Serbian by Michael Henry Heim

Between 1982 and 1986, Bogdan Bogdanović, an architect, was the mayor of Belgrade, where he now lives.

Much as I ponder the abnormalities of our current civil war, I cannot comprehend why military strategy should make the destruction of cities a main—if not the main—goal. Sooner or later the civilized world will dismiss our internecine butchery with a shrug of the shoulders. How else can it react? But it will never forget the way we destroyed our cities. We—we Serbs—shall be remembered as despoilers of cities, latter-day Huns. The horror felt by the West is understandable: for centuries it has linked the concepts “city” and “civilization,” associating them even on an etymological level. It therefore has no choice but to view the destruction of cities as flagrant, wanton opposition to the highest values of civilization.

What makes the situation even more monstrous is that the cities involved are beautiful, magnificent cities: Osijek, Vukovar, Zadar, with Mostar and Sarajevo waiting their turn. The strike on Dubrovnik—I shudder to say it, but say it I must—was intentionally aimed at an object of extraordinary, even symbolic beauty. It was the attack of a madman who throws acid in a beautiful woman’s face and promises her a beautiful face in return. That it was not the work of a savage’s unconscious ravings, however, is clear from the current plan to rebuild Baroque Vukovar in a nonexistent Serbo-Byzantine style, an architectural fraud if there ever was one and a sign of highly questionable motives.

Were our theologians a bit more imaginative I might interpret their vision of a Serbo-Byzantine Vukovar to be the parable of a heavenly city coming to earth as a temporary, tangible sign of the heavenly Serbia to come. But if we take a more prosaic look at the idea of forcing the willfully destroyed Vukovar to change its face, we see it as no more than a wild military fantasy, like the one of razing Warsaw’s Old Town and erecting a new Teutonic Warsaw from the ashes.

For years I had been developing the thesis that one of the moving forces behind the rise and fall of civilizations is the eternal Manichaean—yes, Manichaean—battle between city lovers and city haters, a battle waged in every nation, every culture, every individual. It had become an obsession with me. My students enjoyed hearing me go on about it, but also smiled at one another as if to say, “He’s at it again.” Then came the moment when I realized to my horror that “it” was our day-to-day reality.

Together with ritual murder as such I see the ritual murder of the city. And I see murderers of the city in the flesh. How well they illustrate the tales I told in the lecture hall, tales of the good shepherd and the evil city, of Sodom and Gomorrah, of the walls of Jericho tumbling down and the wiles of Epeios and his Trojan Horse, of the Koran’s curse: that all cities of this world…

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