Wednesday, 11 February 2015

WSJ: "Monuments Men" in Syria

The Wall Street Journal has a story ostensibly about the proceeds of looting being used to finance militant activity, but the imagination of the three journalists has been drawn by one aspect of this.  Joe Parkinson, Ayla Albayrak and Duncan Mavin refer recent events in the Middle East to a recent George Clooney film  ('Culture Brigade: Syrian ‘Monuments Men’ Race to Protect Antiquities as Looting Bankrolls Terror', WSJ Feb 10th 2015):
a group of unlikely warriors is training to fight on a little-known front of Syria’s civil war: the battle for the country’s cultural heritage. The recruits aren’t grizzled fighters but graying academics, more at home on an archaeological dig than a battlefield. For months, they have journeyed across war-torn regions of Syria, braving shelling, smugglers and the jihadists of Islamic State. Their mission: to save ancient artifacts and imperiled archaeological sites from profiteers, desperate civilians and fundamentalists who have plundered Syria’s rich artistic heritage to fund their war effort. 
There are the buy now familiar tropes from this kind of journalism, particularly coming from the US, "antiquities smuggling by Islamic State..." (OK to be fair, adding "aggravating the pillaging by government forces and opposition factions")... "looting, often with bulldozers...", it "is now the militant group’s second-largest source of finance after oil, Western intelligence officials say" (actually no they don't, the oil bit is rather doubtful now too). And it is the heroic west that is "helping train the Syrian monuments men how to catalog and preserve sites".
In sessions at this secret location, the loose-knit band of academics is being trained how to fight back. They are instructed on how to get to key sites and document both what is there and what is already missing. Another skill: how to hide precious objects that may be at risk of looting and record the GPS locations so they can be retrieved at a later date. The group also uses disguises: posing as antiques dealers to take photographs of looted artifacts. The group is led by a portly, middle-aged archaeologist trained at Damascus University, who with his colleagues operates in secrecy because of the dangerous nature of the work. [...]  “It’s dangerous work. We have to get in and out of a site very quickly,” he said, speaking in a dimly lighted basement room used for the training. “The looting has become systematic, and we can’t keep up.” 
Well, except we know the name of the academic concerned, but no matter.... A group cof archaeologists in Syria is trying to salvage what they can from the destruction:
Formed in 2012 by the Damascus University-trained archaeologist and another Syrian archaeologist colleague, the group started informally cataloging damage to sites in battle-scarred Idlib and Aleppo provinces. The founders enlisted Syrian colleagues and friends from universities, museums and government directorates, and later, European and American specialists joined as advisers. “Many of us knew each other before the war because we worked in the same field,” said the second archaeologist, in an interview. “We started this because we believe so strongly it’s the right thing to do.” The group is now a 200-strong network stretching across rebel-held Syria, the archaeologists said. 
Travelling and communication in the war-torn country is difficult. The men have few resources and are seldom supported by armed units, the travel unarmed through rebel-controlled territory, supported by friends, fixers, informers and sympathetic rebel commanders and even are sometimes aided by smugglers. To investigate reports of damage to the heritage, they have to  move across territory held and contested by the confusing maze of armed groups "including Islamic State; Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s al Qaeda branch; the U.S.-backed opposition; and the Syrian regime". They are not even safe on regime-held territory as they have been exposing looting and destruction by Syrian government loyalists too.
The archaeologists sketch out damage assessments and shoot images with a camera or cellphone. Sometimes they take photos or record video surreptitiously on their phones by pretending to take a call while discreetly circling a damaged area. In some cases they wrap and bury objects at risk of being looted and record the GPS location. [...] “We work as quick as possible. Sometimes there’s a sniper close by, often on hilltops or in tall buildings,” the Damascus archaeologist said. 
Another field of activity has been contacting middlemen with antiquities for sale and passing the information on looted items on to law enforcement agencies.
In November [2014], 30 senior members of the group were invited to travel to Turkey for training and technology after attracting the attention of NGOs and foreign governments. Only eight could make the trip because fighting with Islamic State blocked their route. The three-day training session in a secret location close to the Syria-Turkish border was run by Heritage for Peace, or HfP, a Barcelona-based NGO that sees heritage preservation as a way to bring warring parties to the negotiating table. Leading the instruction was Rene Teijgeler, a Dutch archaeologist and former lieutenant colonel in the Dutch army, who ran heritage preservation operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his partner, Isber Sabrine, a Syrian-born archaeologist based in Barcelona. “We are neutral. We adhere to the Red Cross code of conduct and we are very careful about who we operate with,” said Mr. Teijgeler, pulling on a cigarette in a hotel cafe. “We vet them carefully. You don’t want wild cowboys doing crazy things,” he said. The training, partly funded by the Dutch government, focused on how to uniformly catalog damage at ancient sites [...]  Trainees were given laptops and cameras with powerful zooms to help improve their work. “These guys have to be skilled and quick because of the danger, but they have to be correct, which is hard when the bullets are flying round your ears,” Mr. Teijgeler said.

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