Rebuilding war-torn mosque in Bosnia

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Sharp: There was a time when the Ferhadija mosque was synonymous with Banja Luka. It appeared on picture postcards of the city, its tall minaret soaring over the town. The mosque was built by the Ottomans explains Andras Riedlmayer. He's an expert on Islamic architecture at Harvard.

Riedlmayer: � It was a really magnificient structure rare for this far out in the provinces far from Constantinople. It formed the center of Banja Luka from the time of its building in the 1570s until it was blown up in 1993.�

Sharp:Witnesses say the explosion was huge. Bedrudin Gusic was president of Banja Luka's Islamic Community at the time. He went down to the mosque as soon as he heard the news.

Gusic: "A lot of people were gathering already, crying, watching, being in shock. At that time we knew that was very strong message to us."

Sharp:The message to Muslims from Serb authorities was you no longer have a place here. And it followed months of persecution according to Andras Riedlmayer.

Andras RiedlmayerAndras Riedlmayer

Riedlmayer: "First they were thrown out of their jobs then they were systematically deprived of police protection people could go take their property beat them up kill them and the police wouldn't come. Various other means were found to try to squeeze them out, to force them to flee and the destruction of Banja Luka's mosques was the signal, really, for the massive flight of Muslims from Banja Luka."

Sharp: And flee they did. But the story of the Ferhadija mosque did not end there. Serb authorities ordered city workers to cart away the rubble. They scattered and hid the pieces. Not only was the mosque destroyed, the Serbs went to extraordinary lengths to obliterate any evidence that it had ever existed. The following year a Serb exhibition on Banja Luka's history displayed photographs with the Ferhadija airbrushed out.

Riedlmayer: "So you had history corrected along with the present with the aim of course of having not only an ethnically cleansed future but also an ethnically cleansed past."

Some of the mosque fragments are in this pileSome of the mosque fragments are in this pile

Sharp:But what the mosque's destroyers could never have imagined was just how hard the mosque's defenders would work to reclaim it. Right after the explosion people took great risks just to photograph the debris. When the war ended, muslim leaders and architectural experts began searching for the fragments.

Riedlmayer: "What's truly remarkable is that they have managed despite the best efforts of the destroyers, to recover the material, a very substantial proportion of it."

Sharp:About two thirds in fact. Most of it was buried under tons of garbage at the municipal dump. Big chunks of the minaret were found at the bottom of a reservoir. Divers had to retrieve them. The discoveries made it possible to contemplate restoring the mosque to its old glory.

Sharp: The restoration has been underway for more than a year now and the walls of the mosque are starting to rise again. The man in charge of the project is Muhamed Hamidović, a former professor of architecture from Sarajevo. He loves showing it off.

Hamidović: "This is our entrance..."

Sharp: Hamidović is consumed by the restoration. He seems perfect for the job: part architect, part scholar, part detective. He says piecing together the fragments is like interpreting music written centuries ago.

Hamidović: "We listen to Beethoven for 200 years and we interpret the Beethoven all the notes are being preserved they're all there and everybody plays them. We have all these fragments. These are our notes."

Sharp:The fragments are everywhere: in offices, in storage sheds, on pallets outside. There's a big field off-site where the bulk of them are stored and sorted. Some are recognizable as parts of the mosque, others just look like plain old rocks. Each stone is photographed and scanned into a computer program. Back in Sarajevo, Hamidović stays up nights sorting through digital scans, trying to solve the mystery of which ancient piece goes where. But there are thousands of them. At the outset some people suggested it would be cheaper and easier to rebuild the mosque using new stone. Hamidović wouldn't hear of it.

Hamidović: Look at this stone, I told them. This stone has been listening to the call to prayer, to the text of the Qur'an, five times a day for 500 years. And you want me to throw this stone away and make a new stone?

Sharp: Of course he'll have to use some new stone. But to keep the restoration as authentic as possible, Hamidović has even gone to the trouble of tracking down what he thinks were the original quarries.

On this day, the stonemasons have just laid the slabs that will form the base of the minaret. Hamidović checks out what they've done. He's not happy.

Sharp: My translator explains they've got the placement of a key stone wrong.

Translator: "He said, �I thought I taught you something for the past year. Take that piece of rock put it there, do the first stair, then you have a mark where you're going to put the second one. Just feel it, touch it.�

Sharp: Hamidović tells the crew to dismantle the base and start over. Hours of work have been lost. The professor shrugs it off as part of the process.

Hamidović: "They have a great amount of trust in me. If we do anything wrong, I'm the one who's responsible."

Professor HamidovićProfessor Hamidović

Sharp:It's a huge responsibility. And it's amazing that it's happening at all. Just seven years ago, Serb rioters attacked Muslims who returned to Banja Luka for a cornerstone-laying ceremony. The rioters burned the buses the Muslims traveled in and chased them into the Islamic community building next door. Again, Andras Riedlmayer:

Riedlmayer: "They tore down the muslim religious flag that hangs over the building and replaced it with a Serbian flag, they slaughtered a pig and mounted its head on the building to offend Muslims, they actually stoned the worshippers, one of whom, a man in his 60s, died of his injuries some days later. At the time nobody thought it would be possible just a few years later without a great deal of fuss to start the reconstruction again."

Sharp:Not only are there no riots anymore, but the government of the Bosnian Serb part of the country is backing the project. Bedrudin Gusic the community leader who went to the scene the morning after the mosque was blown up wishes it would go faster. He thinks more Muslims would return to Banja Luka if the Ferhadija were standing again.

Gusic: "Ferhadija is very strong motive for original Banja Luka's people to come back over there but unfortunately the time is going so fast you know and many of them in the meantime passed away."

Bedrudin GusicBedrudin Gusic

Sharp: Gusic himself lives in the U.S. now but he dreams of moving home. A restored Ferhadija would be a huge pull for him and his wife.

Gusic: "If Ferhadija going to be rebuilt that is going to be enough for us to come back over there. That's going to be strong sign for us."

Sharp: Professor Hamidović doesn't dwell much on the meaning of the mosque. His obsession is with the authenticity of the restoration. At the end of a long day, Hamidović takes me to the lake where some of the fragments were found.

Sharp: It's a strange place. The lake is beautiful but the land nearby is strewn with rubble. Hamidović says he's dug for shards in the dirt here with his bare hands. I stop to record some sound. Hamidović wanders away from me, scouring the ground with his eyes, still hunting for fragments. Even now he's hoping for a fresh find, anything to make the mosque whole.

For the World, I'm Jeb Sharp, Banja Luka.