Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Syrian War- Heritage losses

There seems to be developing quite an industry writing hand-wringing articles about the heritage losses caused by the Syrian war. Michael Jansen adds to the genre with an essay "War consuming heritage" (Gulf Today December 03, 2013). After the obligatory peecee beginning that people are dying etc etc. then follows the de rigeur litany, mention of the 10 UNESCO WHL sites damaged, indiscriminate mortar attacks and shelling, ancient walls "peppered with bullet holes", the burning, destruction of imagery by fundamentalists, the closure and evacuation of the National Museum. After that, we get on to the nitty-gritty. The bit we CAN do something about:
Professional and opportunistic antiquities thieves are also preying on Syria’s 12,000 year-old cultural heritage. A friend in Beirut was offered a rare Roman coin by a rebel Free Army fighter but did not have the $1,000 he was demanding for it.[...] looters pillage treasures at excavations. Some are in a “catastrophic situation. “There are 10,000 sites in Syria so it is impossible to protect all of them,” [Syria’s director of antiquities and museums Maamoun Abdulkarim] said. The antiquities department has only 800 guards and 2,500 employees. “At least 100 sites have been damaged or pillaged. One hundred is a terrible number but a small fraction of 10,000.” At Dura, a third century BC town located on the ancient trade routes, “there is a mafia at work. Four hundred thieves arrive each day” to loot... The Omari Mosque in Deraa in the south is being illegally excavated. [...] Ninety important artefacts and 4,000 of lesser value have been returned but the looting will not stop until Syria’s neighbours tackle smugglers and dealers. Lebanon has done the best job, Jordan is making an effort. “Turkey opened the door for mafias as well as [foreign] fundamentalists. 
Efforts are underway to catch up on the backlog of registration of objects in museum collectons to act as a reference should anything befall them. The lessons of Iraq and Egypt have been learnt here.
Dr Abdulkarim asked, “Can we carry on? We don’t know what the future will bring. We get no aid from the international community. Sanctions form a block between us and [foreign] archaeologists. We get personal e-mails [from colleagues], saying, ‘Hello.’ This is how we are treated after a century of scientific cooperation with Europe and the US. We need expertise to reduce losses.” The US and Europe claim sanctions do not harm efforts to preserve Syria’s historic treasures but “employees and guards hired by foreign missions are not being paid because of sanctions. Some missions have brought cash from Beirut to pay them.”
And UNESCO officials sit and drink tea, occasionally rising to approach the world's press to wring hands and bleat about somebody should take care nothing gets damaged or lost, because "culture is important". Then back to the tea drinking and organizing the next old-boys meeting somewhere nice.

The 1954 Hague Convention and its two protocols speak vaguely of the possibility of calling on UNESCO for technical aid in precisely situations like this in times of conflict. These are at the moment purely empty words. Just what - physically - is UNESCO actually able to do on the ground to help Syrian heritage professionals do their job under these new difficult circumstances? Even when it had funding from the US, UNESCO did not set up anything remotely like a task force that could go and offer - instead of advice and spiritual "support" - concrete physical help in an effective manner and making emergency human and material resources available if asked.

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