States urged to protect culture in war

Palmyra's Monumental Arch, built in the 3rd century during the reign of emperor Septimius Severus, were destroyed by Daesh in 2015. Wikicommons

LONDON: More must be done to prevent the destruction of cultural property during conflicts, from museums to libraries, in order to preserve communities, artists and academics told a weekend symposium called “Culture Under Attack.” From the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra partly destroyed by Daesh (ISIS) militants in 2015 to the Bamiyan Buddha statues blown up by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, cultural sites were often a casualty, the event at the United Kingdom’s Imperial War Museum was reminded.

British poet Lemn Sissay, who is of Ethiopian descent, said once physical property was destroyed, culture and identity often followed.

“If you destroy culture, you destroy people - you destroy the heart of people,” said Sissay, who was the official poet of the 2012 London Olympics.

Award-winning Turkish-British novelist and women’s rights activist Elif Shafak said “memory is a responsibility” and “turbulent” political times called for extra protection of physical property and cultural heritage.

“Cultural artifacts have been very deliberately targeted and ancient cities and monuments have been reduced to ruins and rubble,” Shafak said.

“People who carry out such atrocities, they deliberately target memory, past and culture,” the novelist added.

One such attack was carried out by Daesh militants who leveled sacred sites of the Yazidi minority in their Mount Sinjar heartland of northern Iraq in 2014.

The militants shot, beheaded, burned alive or kidnapped more than 9,000 members of the Yazidi minority group, in what the United Nations has called a genocidal campaign against them.

“The temples and the cultural sites are so important for the Yazidis because they don’t have a country, they don’t have a place where they can say, ‘It’s ours,’” Yazidi documentation manager Natia Navrouzov of the charity Yazda told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“For them it was not conceivable to come back and live again in that area without having their temples,” she added.

Better military planning and training of troops could prevent cultural property damage, looting and vandalism during fighting, said academic Peter Stone, the first ever UNESCO chair for cultural property protection and peace.

He said the British army recently established a cultural property protection unit and that interest in safeguarding property during war was being shown by NATO as well as Italy and Austria.

“Lots of armies have damaged and pillaged ... but the military are beginning to take this far more seriously,” Stone said.

“You can’t protect people without protecting their heritage ... the two are completely indivisibly linked.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 10, 2019, on page 8.




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