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Two Decades After Being Shelled, Sarajevo's Vijecnica Is Reborn

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SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina - It witnessed two of the darkest chapters in modern history but with help from the United States and the cellist who made it famous Sarajevo’s City Hall and library is reopening Friday.

The distinctive Vijecnica was the last site visited by Archduke Franz Ferdinand moments before his assassination almost a century ago - an event that triggered the outbreak of World War One.

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 Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Czech Countess Sophie Chotek, leave the reception at City Hall on June 28, 1914. A short time later the couple were assassinated by a Serb nationalist. AP, file

Its notoriety was cemented when it was badly damaged during the ethnic conflict that tore apart Yugoslavia following the collapse of the Berlin Wall. A 1992 picture of Vedran Smajlovic - the so-called cellist of Sarajevo - playing his instrument amid the blackened ruins in tie and tail became a symbol of the tragedy of conflict.

"This is long overdue but I am very happy that our city symbol is back"

Smajlovic, a local orchestral performer whose determination to keep making music even as the city was in the grip of a four-year siege inspired a book about everyday life under the threat of sniper fire, will be among those on stage at a concert celebrating Vijecnica’s restoration.

“Vijecnica was wounded but its spirit never went away,” Smajlovic told NBC News on Thursday as he prepared for the public performance. “This is long overdue but I am very happy that our city symbol is back.”

It opened in 1896 at the height of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and its pseudo-Moorish style - inspired by the Cairo’s Mosque of Sultan Hasan II - was a sign of the city’s mixture of Ottoman and Western influences. It housed Bosnia’s national library and part of the book collection of the city’s university.

 The restored Vijecnica building is seen in this image taken last month. FEHIIM DEMIR / EPA

The $16 million, 18-year restoration was funded half by the European Union with the remaining support provided by other heritage groups and government bodies including USAID.

David Barth, USAID’s mission director for Bosnia-Herzegovina, declined to put a figure on his organization’s contribution, describing it as "mostly logistical." However, he explained that the U.S. was keen to assist Bosnia’s slow recovery from the dark decade of the 1990s.

“Sarajevo has enormous potential for tourism that could bring economic benefits and Vijecnica is one of the important sights,” he told NBC News. “It is in our strategic interest that this country should have a better economy, more stability and far better governance.”

That could remain a distant dream in country that remains impoverished - angry workers rioted in the streets earlier this year in protest at factory closures - and whose ambitions to join the European Union and NATO have stalled.

 An interior view of the restored Vijecnica. The 19th century pseudo-Moorish-style building was damaged by Serb shelling in 1992, along with its almost 2 million books and manuscripts. Reconstruction has taken 18 years. Amel Emric / AP, file

Progress on Vijecnica was slowed by painstaking efforts to recreate the original design - including the year-long repainting of 21,500 square feet of artwork on the walls and ceilings - and by local politics. Some Bosnians are unhappy at the amount of space in the "new" building allocated to the corruption-plagued city government and its politicians instead of books.

Sarajevo Mayor Ivo Komsic told a news conference on Thursday that the Vijecnica was “being given back to its citizens,” a remark that brought a chorus of jeers and laughter from local reporters.

The building’s return to glory is part of a year long program of exhibitions, conferences and concerts in Sarajevo marking the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One. On June 28, the date of Ferdinand’s assassination, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra will perform in Vijecnica.

A pivotal role in two wars might seem an unlikely basis for celebration, but in acknowledging the city’s history Sarajevo’s leaders are promoting a message of reconciliation. Conferences on international peace and the lessons from the region’s troubled history are taking place next month.

More than 10,000 people died during the city's three-and-a-half year siege in which Bosnian Serbs took control of the hills surrounding Sarajevo, bombarding it with shells and killing civilians with snipers as they sought food and water.

The Vijecnica was struck on Aug 25, 1992, starting a fire that reduced the building to rubble. Most of the two million books inside it were also destroyed.

While the West dithered over military intervention, Sarajevo’s wearied inhabitants fought for survival - even digging a tunnel from the U.N.-controlled airport in order to bring supplies into the city. As the world looked on, Smajlovic, a performer with the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra, regularly played his cello at the funerals of sniper victims and in the ruins of shell-damaged buildings.

He was also among the first on the scene as the building burned. The 57-year-old recalled Thursday how he and other inhabitants tried to rescue books from the flames. “The [attackers] did their jobs, the firefighters did their jobs and we did ours,” he said.

 Vedran Smajlovic plays on a Sarajevo street on June 8, 1992. For 22 consecutive days, Smailovic played Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor at 4 p.m. sharp to honor 22 civilians who were killed on this spot while lining up for bread. GEORGES GOBET / AFP - Getty Images, file

Every chapter in Sarajevo’s history is contentious, viewed from different religious and national perspectives: Ferdinand’s 19-year-old assassin, Gavrilo Princip, is still viewed by many Orthodox Serbs as a hero and by Bosnian Muslims as a murderer.

"A great part of the rich collection of books and documents that the Vijecnica housed got burned in an attempt to wipe out Bosnian collective memory"

Despite the reconciliation that followed the 1990s conflict, the inscription on the wall of the restored building underlines the anger still felt in Bosnia at its destruction.

“On this place Serbian criminals … set on fire national and university’s library of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” it reads. “Do not forget. Remember and warn!”

That choice of words was described as “unfortunate” by Harm Kern, a researcher in Southeast European studies at Graz University, noting that the attack was in fact carried out by the Serbian army rather than civilians.

 Sarajevo residents working to save books from the basement of the burned building on August 29, 1992. MANOOCHER DEGHATI / AFP - Getty Images, file

“A great part of the rich collection of books and documents that the Vijecnica housed got burned in an attempt to wipe out Bosnian collective memory,” he said, adding that the warning “gives a bit of a bitter taste to collective memory on the facade of a building that represents the peaceful encounter between civilizations.”

The lingering aftermath of the conflict is one of the reasons that Smajlovic no longer lives in Sarajevo; he moved to Northern Ireland after the war ended.

“I went from a place of war to a place that has neither war nor peace,” he joked on Thursday. Would he consider returning to the city?

“No. There is nothing here for many people. Young people are leaving to get work and to live their lives in other places. There is nothing here for me, either. Besides, the war taught me never to go back, only to go forward.”

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