This week at the ICC the trial of Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi began. He stands accused of directing the destruction of medieval tombs and a mosque, all world heritage sites, and all a part of Timbuktu’s 15th century heritage. Owen Bowcott reports for the Gaurdian that:
No Taliban or al-Qaida leader was charged with the destruction of Afghanistan’s sixth-century Bamiyan Buddhas, which were dynamited in 2001. Khmer Rouge genocide trials did not deal with the looting of Cambodia’s Hindu temples. Nor have Islamic State leaders been indicted for destroying Assyrian statues from Nineveh or razing Roman ruins in Palmyra.
The damage inflicted on Timbuktu, known as “the city of 333 saints”, followed the rebellion of al-Qaida-inspired Tuareg militias, armed with weapons from Libya, in the central African state in 2012.
Faqi, a local ethnic Tuareg, is said to have been a member of Ansar Dine and the head of Hesbah, known as the Manners’ Brigade, which considered the mausoleums – built to pay homage to deceased saints – to be blasphemous.
He is accused of directing attacks on 10 ancient mud-brick buildings in June 2012 and July 2012. One of the desecrated sites was the Sidi Yahya mosque, built in 1440 when Timbuktu was a regional centre for learning. It contained Prof Sidi Yahya’s mausoleum.
There has been a series of reports which shows self-declared Islamic State militants causing severe damage to antiquities and heritage sites in Iraq and Syria: at the museum in Mosul, perhaps causing destruction at sites such as the Nergal gate in Ninevah, perhaps destruction at Hatra, and maybe even damage to the ancient city of Ninevah as well. The volume of reporting is hard to digest fully, but the news is almost all very very bad.
Reporting on these events is exceedingly difficult as these areas are controlled by the so-called Islamic State. When we consider that foreign reporters and aid workers have been kidnapped and killed in public executions when their ransoms are not paid, we can see how precarious and difficult it will be, and how patient we all must be in waiting for confirmation of destruction.
In an op-ed for the IHT UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova discusses the damage done to cultural sites in northern Mali, Syria and elsewhere. She argues that “Culture stands on the frontline of conflicts, deliberately targeted to fuel hatred and block reconciliation.” That’s exactly right I think. The challenge will be what the rest of the world can do to prevent and repair this destruction.
She outlines the concrete steps UNESCO is taking: crafting an international legal framework, building stronger culture coalitions, and use culture to prevent conflicts:
Unesco works across the globe to harness the power of culture to bring people together and foster reconciliation. I saw this personally when Unesco helped restore the Old Bridge in Mostar, Bosnia Herzegovina, destroyed during the war in the 1990s. We saw the same power during the restoration of the Koguryio Tombs complex in North Korea, undertaken with the financial support of South Korea. This might sound high-minded compared to the terrible news we hear every day from conflict zones. And it is true that culture alone is not enough to build peace. But without culture, peace cannot be lasting. The world thought big when the convention was adopted in 1972. We need to think big once again, to protect culture under attack. We often hear that protecting culture is a luxury better left for another day, that people must come first. The fact is, protecting culture is protecting people — it is about protecting their way of life and providing them with essential resources to rebuild when war ends. This is why, for culture also, there is a responsibility to protect.
Intentional destruction of an ancient shrine in Timbuktu in July
Destruction in Mali appears to be ongoing:
In the searing summer heat, and against a stifling climate of fear, the Ansar Eddine is ratcheting up the pressure. In late July the group gave the order for the city’s centuries-old Sufi mausoleums to be leveled, declaring them to be at odds with their own hardline blend of Islamic faith. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Timbuktu has for centuries been associated with Sufis, a mystical and spiritual fraternity, themselves closely connected with Islam. More than 200 Sufi saints are buried in free-standing mausoleums and within the compounds of mosques, tombs that have become the latest target of the Defenders of the Faith. Regarding them as idolatrous, the Islamist militia has taken hammers and shovels to their baked-mud adobe walls. They even destroyed a pair of ancient tombs set in the compound of the city’s celebrated Djingareyber mosque.
This image taken from a video shows armed men smashing a 15th century mosque in Timbuktu on Monday
Members of an armed group in Northern Mali have committed a number of acts of destruction in Timbuktu and the surrounding areas. They have smashed the “sacred door” of one of three ancient mosques. As many as six other mausoleums have been intentionally destroyed. Intentional destruction during armed conflict presents difficult problems, and Mali has asked the international community for concrete assistance.
The first step is a threat by the ICC. The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Fatou Bensouda has described this destruction as a war crime: “My message to those involved in these criminal acts is clear: stop the destruction of the religious buildings now. This is a war crime which my office has authority to fully investigate”. Her claims may have an impact, but more other concrete steps may be needed to halt this intentional destruction.
The destruction mimics that which took place in 2001 when the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed. Extremist groups in Mali are systematically destroying sites. Perhaps urgent action by the ICC, or better yet the United Nations Security Council can halt this systematic destruction.
From Al Jazeera, here is a report showing the destruction:
There are increasing reports of destruction in Syria. Sites like Krak des Chavaliers, Palmyra, Elba, and historic buildings in Homs are all at risk. Government forces in some cases are shelling civilian areas—the Citadel of Al Madeeq has been shelled, with a tragic result for the site and for the inhabitants.
The AP describes the damage: “shells thudded into the walls of the 12th century al-Madeeq Citadel, raising flames and columns of smoke as regime forces battled with rebels in March. The bombardment punched holes in the walls, according to online footage of the fighting.”
There are reports of looting, including some by government forces and others. Rodrigo Martin, an archaeologist who has worked in Syria describes some of the destruction:
We have facts showing that the government is acting directly against the country’s historical heritage,. . . What we know . . . Syrian heritage has already provided a huge quantity of information, but we can safely say that the part that has not yet been studied is even bigger,. . . [the destruction] is like burning a page in the book of history of mankind.
This kind of damage, which approaches intentional destruction similar to the destruction of the Buddhas at Bamiyan will be difficult to prevent. With respect to the looting and damage being done, sadly there are not a whole lot of good options the heritage community can call for, apart from a peaceful resolution of the conflict, and renewed vigilance in the marketplace to watch out for the kinds of objects which looters may be taking from Syria.