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Striking at the heart of the heritage dilemma

Posted 15 June 2017 · Add Comment

Current conflict in Yemen is putting important archaeological sites at risk. Jon Lake asks what can be done to preserve the ancient infrastructure.

Since 2015, a Saudi Arabian-led coalition has been involved in a war in neighbouring Yemen, supporting the regime of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi against Houthi rebels, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula insurgents, and forces loyal to the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Though there has been fighting on the ground, the emphasis has been on an intensive air campaign.
Human casualties now exceed 10,000, according to the UN, and damage has been caused to a number of important archaeological and heritage sites. These include the pre-Islamic walled town of Baraqish, the Great Dam of Marib, and the old cities of Sana’ and Zabid (both of which were designated as World Heritage sites).
Yemen is especially rich in important archaeological sites, including ancient walled cities, historic mountaintop villages, prehistoric burial sites and even long rows of trilithons (standing stones) that were linked with the incense trade.
St John Simpson, a senior curator at the British Museum in London, has said that the Arabian Peninsula has “one of the highest densities of archaeological sites and a very long history of urban civilisation, with ancient infrastructure, palaces and temples”. This makes Yemen something of an archaeological jewel.
Some of the sites that have been damaged are alleged to have been of no strategic importance, according to the UK Committee of the Blue Shield, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that seeks to protect cultural property in time of conflict.
It has been suggested that such damage was, thus, sometimes avoidable.
After one attack, Bijan Rouhani, vice-president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites’ risk preparedness committee, noted that: “There was no reason to attack a residential centre that is a World Heritage site as well.”
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) sent a list of World Heritage sites to the coalition when the air campaign began, reminding air commanders of their obligations under the 1954 Hague Convention for the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict. Under its auspices, there can be a criminal liability for some cultural offences.
Experts working for the University of Oxford’s endangered archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA) project have now drawn up a further cultural heritage list. This may increase the legal pressure on the coalition. Experts hope that combatants will use it as a no-strike list when planning their attacks, thereby protecting Yemen’s heritage sites from damage.
EAMENA is documenting ancient sites across the region using Google Earth, which Oxford University’s Robert Bewley described as a “phenomenal source that is transforming how archaeologists do their work”, combined with conventional historical field records and a resource of about 40,000 aerial reconnaissance photographs taken by the British Royal Air Force between the 1950s and 1970s.
The pictures were taken during a period when the UK was the colonial power in Aden (later southern Yemen) and when Britain supported Oman in its long war against Yemen-based insurgents, and (with Saudi Arabia and Jordan) supported the royalist side in the North Yemen civil war.
It is estimated that 400-2,000 sites would make it on to the final cultural heritage list.
Professor Peter Stone, chairman of the UK Committee of the Blue Shield, was optimistic that the EAMENA list would make a difference, explaining that NATO air strikes in Libya in 2011 managed to avoid damaging some important historic sites. “We have got some relatively good evidence that these lists work,” he said.
The Blue Shield is actively encouraging the use of no-strike lists by military planners, and especially targeting experts, who, it says, must be convinced to incorporate the information into their targeting plans. The organisation believes that today’s air forces have an unparalleled ability to spare cultural, historic and archaeological treasures by using precision bombing techniques.
The Saudi-led coalition conducting operations against Yemeni targets is using a very high proportion of precision-guided munitions, and does have a desire to avoid collateral damage, in a way in which Russian and Syrian Government forces conducting air operations against Aleppo, for example, did not. In the latter case, a much higher proportion of ‘dumb’, unguided weapons were used.
 

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