In honor of the 60th anniversary of the 1954 Hague Convention the Netherlands UNESCO organized “Culture under Attack: Photo exhibition on cultural heritage and armed conflict”. Some of the photos may be seen at http://www.cultureunderattack.
February 6, 2014, 5:00 am
BANGUI, Central African Republic — Bangui has been a looters’ paradise for weeks now. Despite French and African Union peacekeepers, Christians have gone on a rampage burning Muslim homes and businesses in revenge for almost a year of Muslim Seleka rule of scorched earth and terror. Except now, with no rule of law, the looting has crossed religious boundaries and rampaging mobs sack their own neighborhoods.
On Monday midafternoon — peak looting time — on a side street near burned Muslim businesses, the dirt road was littered with 2¼ negatives, prints and opened boxes of photographic paper and chemicals. In front of a house with broken windows and doors, empty of furniture, a terrified woman explained that she was staying put to protect what was left from “a photographer’s house.”
Not that many photographers shoot 2¼ format. Even fewer Africans. I know of exactly one. He lives in Bangui.
I met Samuel last November at the LagosPhoto Festival, where he was showing for the first time his latest series, “The Emperor of Africa,” an allegory of the Chinese presence in Africa where he recreates famous portraits of Mao Zedong (below).Samuel Fosso, Courtesy of Galerie Jean-Marc Patras, ParisFrom “The Emperor of Africa.” Self-portrait as Mao Zedong. 2013.
Mr. Fosso is an internationally renowned photographer, born in Cameroon and living in Bangui for years. He is best known from MoMA to the Pompidou Center for his incredible self-portraits as black icons: Martin Luther King (Slide 2), Malcolm X (Slide 12), Patrice Lumumba (Slide 8). His limited-edition prints fetch thousands of dollars in photographic art circles. He could have offered his latest series to the world’s best museums. But he wanted Africa to see it first.
On Monday, Mr. Fosso’s house was looted by a group of hooligans that 1,500 French soldiers could not keep at bay. Thirty years of work lay scattered in the dust. It reminded me of Serbian militias destroying birth reports from Muslim Kosovars in the early 2000s.
I started to pick up the negatives.
Living in Nigeria with his mother when the Biafra war erupted, Mr. Fosso fled the fighting as a child and found refuge in Bangui. He spent most of his life there in the Central African Republic’s capital. At 13, he opened his own photo studio. It was still running a few months ago. Despite the successive coups and violence, he remained in Bangui till late December 2013, for he is an “Afro-optimist,” says his agent, Jean-Marc Patras. Mr. Fosso has since been in Paris.
Ten minutes after I started to gather up his work, a French patrol drove by, demanding to know why a journalist was frantically putting things in a bag. Once I explained, the captain proposed that he “shoot and send the looters away.”
Jerome Delay/Associated PressBoxes containing thousands of negatives representing over 30 years’ work were scattered in the office of the photographer Samuel Fosso, after his home was looted during sectarian violence in Bangui, Central African Republic. Feb. 4, 2014.
“It is not for me to tell you what to do,” I replied. Seeking the opportunity to counter the flow of bad press for their lack of action, the armored personnel carrier moved into the alley and fired warning shots.
As my helpers left, I entered the house along with some colleagues. Mr. Fosso’s office was littered with more boxes of negatives and prints. Limited-edition, museum-quality prints, some burned on the edges — they must have tried to set the house ablaze — some soiled with water and mud. As we walked out with the most valuable work, an anti-Balaka militiaman toting an AK-47 rushed by firing into the air. He accused us of “having called Sangaris” — the French forces — and ordered us to leave.
Shoving all the prints and negatives into my car, we sped away. I called Mr. Fosso in Paris. He was devastated. But at least some of his legacy has been preserved.
I returned the next day with friends from Human Rights Watch to salvage what was left. Hoping the looters hadn’t beaten me to it. This morning, the looters left us alone. They were busy dismantling the roof of his house.
Jean-Marc Patras, Samuel Fosso’s agent and dealer, said that although the week began with the horrific news of his friend’s loss, he was grateful. “Samuel is cool, calm and collected,” Mr. Patras said by phone from Paris on Wednesday morning. “It’s a bad story, but at the same time we can look at it as the glass half empty or half full. We are positive. His wife and kids are safe since last July in Nigeria. He has been in Paris for a month. If he had been in his house when they destroyed it, they would have killed him.”
At the same time, Mr. Patras said that given how so many others in the Central African Republic have lost everything — including their lives — he was keeping things in perspective.
“He has a career in front of him, as he is one of the most important contemporary artists in Africa,” Mr. Patras said. “His works of art are safe in New York. He is collected by the most important museums in the world, thank God. You keep going on. But it is not easy.”Jerome Delay/Associated PressA damaged print, with other scattered materials, of a self-portrait by Samuel Fosso from 1977.
The ‘Warka Mask,’ a Sumerian artifact from 3100 B.C., was looted from the National Museum of Iraq in the final days of Saddam Hussein’s regime. It was later found buried in someone’s backyard. (Samir Mezban / The Associated Press)
What once served as a national bank looked more like a tomb. And it was, for the enemy soldiers who had recently tried to blast their way into the vault. The reinforced confines and simple physics left little of them.
A new team of unlikely allies pressed deep into the dark recesses. The temperature, already in triple digits, increased with every step. The stench of stagnant sewer water was almost unbearable.
After the painstaking process of cutting locks, the massive vault was opened to reveal the Treasure of Nimrud — 613 pieces of Assyrian gold jewelry, precious stones and sculptures that has been called history’s third-greatest treasure after King Tut’s tomb and the Bactrian Hoard treasure of Afghanistan.
By now, you’ve probably heard of George Clooney’s new film “The Monuments Men,” which is based on the true story of World War II troops who rescued art from the war zone. Well, this isn’t their story. This is the story of a modern-day group with a similar mission.
These “monuments men and women” fought to preserve Iraq’s past while fellow soldiers fought for the country’s future.
Included in their ranks was Maj. Corine Wegener. The now-retired Army Reserve civil affairs officer was a curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts when she volunteered to deploy to help support the National Museum of Iraq. Her expedited orders carried the signature of three generals, and she was on scene in May 2003, weeks after massive looting subsided in Baghdad. As many as 15,000 artifacts were lost in the mayhem.
“This is the cradle of civilization. The collections in the museum represent the finest aspirations of humankind in ancient Mesopo-tamia,” she said. “A lot of the objects that were taken from the museum were in my Art History 101 textbooks. It was so important to me to help recover those objects and get the museum back up and stable.”
Wegener was met by a “traumatized” museum staff. Shattered artifacts littered the floor. File cabinets and computers that kept all records had been stolen. It seemed like the end of an already troubled history for the international museum.
The Treasure of Nimrud was its crown jewel. This 2,800-year-old treasure, discovered in 1988, was placed in the national bank before the first Gulf War. But its fate was a mystery. Besides explosions from within and without, and the looters and floods, there stood another antagonist: Saddam Hussein’s son Qusay, who had stolen billions from the bank and was reported to be after the treasure. “When they opened those boxes, their morale improved 100 percent,” Wegener said. “It was a much-needed boost for the National Museum, and the nation.”
‘Mona Lisa of Mesopotamia’
Reclaiming priceless artifacts is not always as glamorous as movies make it out to be.
One example is the recovery of the Lady of Warka. Known as the “Mona Lisa of Mesopotamia,” this priceless 5,200-year-old sculpture is the earliest known representation of the female face. It had been stolen from the National Museum, and the curators turned to Wegener for help. She educated coalition forces, enlisted the help of military police and put up “wanted” posters throughout Baghdad.
The Army’s 812th Military Police Company tracked the sculpture through underground art dealers and found it buried in a backyard. Capt. Vance Kuhner called her with the news.
“I take it this thing is pretty important?” the captain asked her.
“Uh, yeah,” she replied.
“Then I’d better tell the guys to stop tossing it around,” he said. After a few moments of stunned silence, the captain eased her anxiety. “Ma’am, I’m just kidding. It’s locked away in the unit safe and we’ll bring it to you tomorrow.”
In another find, soldiers from Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha were looking for weapons of mass destruction days after coalition forces took control of Baghdad. What they found was the Iraqi Jewish Archive — thousands of Jewish communal and religious books and documents that had been confiscated from synagogues. They were in the basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence building, which was filled with four feet of water.
Wegener worked for three months to salvage the documents from water and mold damage, an effort aided by experts from the National Archives. She served as a courier when the documents were brought to a freeze-drying facility in Dallas and later to the National Archives. The collection has been restored and is on view in New York at the Museum of Jewish Heritage until May. It is scheduled to be returned to Iraq this year.
Wegener now serves as a preservation specialist for cultural heritage at the Smithsonian Institution, and has formed the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield. Called the cultural equivalent of the Red Cross, the agency provides emergency response when cultural property is jeopardized by armed conflict or natural disaster.
The culture mission
While similar exploits in World War II earned a place in history and Hollywood, modern monuments men and women are not as widely known.
Lt. Col. James Ahern was senior observer-controller for civil affairs at the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, La. After 12 mission rehearsal exercises, it was evident the jobs assigned to civil affairs in Iraq were not what soldiers were trained to do in the U.S. This was not lost on Army leadership, which was looking to reconfigure the capability.
Ahern in 2007 was sent to Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force in Balad to get a firsthand look so trainers could adjust accordingly. But the State Department snatched him up soon after arriving. They had the lead in stability operations but didn’t have the people for the job — especially people with expertise in cultural heritage preservation and graduate degrees in history and library information science with archive specialization.
Ahern was assigned to a Provincial Reconstruction Team embedded in 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, out of Ramadi. There, he joined an effort to identify lost books and artifacts, develop a working inventory and help design a new public library.
Ahern had to first defuse a cultural clash. The person in charge of the library was a Sunni woman, who was requesting assistance from a Shiite-led government. To say that she was getting resistance would put it mildly.
The team bridged the gap. They also obtained “democracy funds” to purchase books. They helped salvage history that would have otherwise been lost.
This mission is not new. In fact, it helped propel the Army Reserve from a singular medical mission. This was solidified by the 1954 Hague Convention, which requires all who sign the treaty to provide military specialists who protect cultural property.
In fact, the authors were looking at the Monuments Men of World War II when that rule was penned.
Still, the recent wars have proved many military leaders do not know they are supposed to — or how to — conduct such cultural missions.
“The capability that exists only in the Army Reserve was utilized by them, but largely through serendipity,” Ahern said. “There was no request for forces. I just happened to be there.”
The Army is giving civil affairs concerted consideration, especially in light of regional alignment and the push to ensure soldiers are culturally aware of the lands in which they may serve.
It is possible that soldiers will be trained to identify and mark culturally significant items and locations. Such sites may even be identified on electronic battlefield maps. But the bulk of the responsibility will fall to Army Reserve civil affairs companies attached to brigade combat teams.
“Like other ‘citizen soldiers’ in the Army Reserve, we work in our field in the civilian sector,” Ahern said. “Our job in uniform is our passion in life. So to be able to help at this level, in this way, there really aren’t words to describe how that feels.”
The Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (APSA) has launched a website to gather and publish news about threats and damages to Syrian archaeological and historical heritage and may be found at http://ancientworldonline.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-association-for-protection-of.html.
Members of the APSA are primarily volunteers who are eager to contribute to the safeguarding of [their] Syrian heritage. If you are interested in volunteering, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Syria are being used for military purpose and this raises the risk of imminent and irreversible destruction. Photo: UNESCO, UNESCO/Ron Van Oers
“Destroying the inheritance of the past robs future generations of a powerful legacy, deepens hatred and despair and undermines all attempts to foster reconciliation,” said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Director General, Irina Bokova, and UN and League of Arab States Joint Special Representative for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi.12 March 2014 – The rampant destruction of Syria’s cultural heritage – including ancient cities, houses and temples – is deepening hatred in the war-torn country and must stop, United Nations and Arab League officials warned today, stressing that the protection of Syria’s ancient history is inseparable from the protection of its people.
Human representations in art are being destroyed by extremist groups intent on eradicating unique testimonies of Syria’s rich cultural diversity
In a rare joint statement issued as the crisis in Syria enters its fourth year, the senior officials said that as Syrians continue to endure incalculable human suffering and loss, their country’s rich tapestry of cultural heritage is being ripped to shreds in the conflict due to fighting, looting, and pillaging at ancient archaeological sites.
“All layers of Syrian culture are now under attack – including pre-Christian, Christian and Muslim,” they said, placing efforts to save Syrian’s heritage within the wider scope of ending violence in the country.
They noted that the protection of cultural heritage is inseparable from the protection of human lives, and should be an integral part of humanitarian and peacebuilding efforts, adding “now is the time to stop the destruction, build peace and protect our common heritage”.
Four of the country’s six UNESCO World Heritage sites are being used for military purposes or have been transformed into battlefields. These include the Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din, castles constructed during the Crusades between the 11th and 13th centuries.
Other sites being used for military purposes include Palmyra, which contains ruins of what was believed to have been one of the most important cultural centres of the world in the 1st and 2nd centuries; the Saint Simeon Church in the ancient villages of Northern Syria; and Aleppo, including the Aleppo Citadel.
The UN today again drew attention to the systematic looting and illicit trafficking of cultural objects from Syria which have reached “unprecedented levels”.
UNESCO officials have said in the past that some of these sites are being wrecked and looted, compromising their scientific value. Among them, the site of Apamea on the Orontes River has been completely destroyed by thousands of illegal digs.
“We appeal to all countries and professional bodies involved in customs, trade and the art market, as well as individuals and tourists, to be on alert for stolen Syrian artifacts,” the joint statement says, also requesting parties to verify the origin of cultural property in adherence to the UNESCO 1970 Convention on illicit trafficking of cultural property.
The officials also spoke out against reports that Syrian artifacts were being deliberately targeted for ideological reasons.
“Human representations in art are being destroyed by extremist groups intent on eradicating unique testimonies of Syria’s rich cultural diversity,” they said in the joint statement.Aleppo city walls Courtyard of the Great Mosque of Aleppo Umayyad mosque Ablution fountains, Great Mosque of Aleppo
Fake certificates of authenticity and fake “Laissez-passer ICOM-UNESCO”
UNESCO and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) have been alerted to an online scam offering fake certificates of authenticity and a “Laissez-passer ICOM-UNESCO”.
Fraudulent websites, claim to provide certificates of authenticity permitting the unrestricted import and export of African cultural heritage in return for a fee. These falsified certificates supposedly release the bearer from all obligations such as requiring other documents: the title deed, the export certificate, the export license, the certificate of expertise, the certificate of authenticity etc.
This fee is then, according to these websites, shared between UNESCO, ICOM, the national museums and the Ministries of Arts and Culture in the country in question.THIS IS NOT TRUE.
Art collectors and tourists (notably in the West African region) are falling victim in relation to this scam.
UNESCO and ICOM encourage the exercise of vigilance when taking part in transactions involving cultural heritage property, in particular African artifacts.
For further information, please contact:
ICOM: illicit.trafficking(at)icom.museum ; Tel: +33 (0)1 47 34 05 00
CHICAGO (AP) — Survivors of a 1997 terrorist bombing blamed partly on Iran can’t seize thousands of relics from U.S. museums to pay a $412 million judgment against the Iranian government, a federal judge in Chicago ruled Friday.
The case targeting the Persian antiquities at the Field Museum of Natural History and the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute was closely watched nationwide by other museum officials, who feared a ruling against the Chicago museums could set an alarming precedent that might put their own collections at risk.
“I am very pleased,” said Matt Stolper, who oversees Persian collections at the Oriental Institute. “I’m happy these (artifacts) don’t need to be surrendered to be turned into money.”
The decade-old case stems from a suicide bomb attack at a Jerusalem mall, where explosives packed with rusty nails, screws and glass killed five people and injured nearly 200 others, some seriously.
In his 23-page decision, Judge Robert Gettleman said he “recognizes the tragic circumstances” of the case but that the plaintiffs hadn’t proven that the Iranian government owned the Field Museum items. And he said the Oriental Institute artifacts were loaned for scholarship, not commercial purposes, and so couldn’t be seized.
Among the artifacts in question are thousands of Persian tablets, many of which are inscribed in an ancient alphabet, which are more than 2,000 years old. They have been kept in the Oriental Institute since the 1930s on the long-term loan agreement with Iranian authorities at the time. The Field Museum collection was far smaller.
Stolper also expressed sympathy for the plaintiffs, who included people badly burned in the bombing.
“They are victims of atrocious crimes and they are desperate for a remedy and for some control,” he said. “I don’t think this was a way to do it.”
A lawyer for the plaintiffs, David Strachman, didn’t immediately respond to a message left Friday. Museum attorneys said they expect the plaintiffs to appeal the ruling to the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.
Both the Field Museum and the University of Chicago fought the bid to seize the artifacts, as did Iran.
In the 1990s, Congress passed a law allowing American victims of terrorism to seek restitution in U.S. courts if a foreign government was seen to be complicit. But actually securing assets after a judgment, as plaintiffs in the Chicago case have discovered, is often difficult.
The Palestinian militant group Hamas took responsibility for the terrorist attack, and a judge in Washington, D.C., later agreed the Iranian government was complicit by providing financial support and training for Hamas, entering the $412 million default judgment.
With limited Iranian assets in the U.S., plaintiffs’ lawyers took the novel step of going after the antiquities. The subsequent battle in the courts involved knotty issues of sovereign immunity and terrorism laws, as well as cultural and scholarly exchanges.
The U.S. and Iran haven’t had diplomatic relations since 1979 when militant students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held its occupants hostage. More recently, the nations have been embroiled in a dispute over Iran’s nuclear program.
As Gettleman noted, U.S. officials also weighed in, opposing the effort to use museum items to pay such judgments.
The Field Museum argued that it legally purchased its pieces in the ’40s, including ceramics made by the world’s earliest farming communities 5,000 years ago. The plaintiffs argued those sales weren’t legal, making Iran the proper owner.
The plaintiffs argued that the around 20,000 items at the University of Chicago could also be viewed as Iranian commercial assets — an argument Judge Gettleman rejected. Over the decades, the university has already returned more than 30,000 to Iran.
“When we finish making records of them, the rest will also go back to Iran,” Stolper said.
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Culture under threat
American University of Rome
Conference on the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and celebrating it’s 60th Anniversary.
A joint meeting of the American University of Rome, Blue Shield, the World Archaeological Congress and Newcastle University.
Program details may be found at http://www.aur.edu/gradschool/graduate-programs/sustainable-cultural-heritage/culture-threat-future-1954-hague-convention/
Disaster and Risk Management – ICCROM’s new website!
International Centre for the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) continues to develop its actions in the field of risk management. ICCROM plays an active role in coordinating the efforts of the international heritage community, in promoting data collection and exchange, and in ensuring that local experience and needs are taken into consideration within the international strategy. Visit ICCROM’s new website at http://www.iccrom.org/