Cultural Casualties of War

Casualties of war are always thought of in terms of human lives. These are of course of paramount importance, but the oft not thought of cultural losses are staggering as well. It’s shocking with all the media buzz about the recent lawsuits surrounding Nazi confiscated art, that looting would be an ever present threat in the art world at this very moment.

Culturally significant pieces and places are legally protected under international law through UNESCO’s Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.  The issue with this is that the state is required to identify and have a plan in case of conflict.  It would appear that this plan is either lacking presently in Syria, or it’s not being put into place for some reason.  The International Council of Museums has identified types of objects that were at risk of being looted or illegally exported (“The Red List”), however the extent of their ability to combat the actions is somewhat limited.

Throughout the conflict in Syria, Mosques and Crusader Castles alike have taken fire from unconcerned weapons.  None of the parties seem to care whether centuries of religious and secular artifacts are blown to pieces.  The Krak des Chevaliers, previously the world’s best preserved Crusader Castle was used as a rebel base and was subsequently shelled and all but destroyed.

Syria houses six World Heritage sites, and it’s questionable whether any of these can or will be adequately protected.  Concerned affected parties have stepped forward, from UNESCO to local citizens groups.  The Association for Protection of Syrian Archaeology (APSA) have come together to attempt to document the travesties taking place, and to safeguard the country’s heritage.  This risky endeavor has cost some their lives, as being in the way of live fire is often required to document the goings on.  They have cleverly taken a page out of a spy movie and began taking photos with cameras hidden inside ball point pens, so as to not attract attention.  An index of stolen objects and illegal excavation on the APSA website shows a frighteningly long list of culturally significant art and artifacts that have been looted or exported illegally.  The members of the APSA fully recognize the dangers they are putting themselves in, but persist nevertheless in order to keep these cultural casualties of war to a minimum.  Ominously the “About Us” section of their page lists a handful of names, but makes note that there are names left off for “safety reasons.”

At the end of the day, Syria signed the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict – there is no reason their citizens ought to become casualties or even targeted in trying to accomplish the (non-conflict) promises of preserving the heritage of such a culture rich country.