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In the past few months, a deadly civil war in Yemen between the Saudi Arabia-backed government and Houthi militants has claimed the lives of nearly 2,000 civilians and led to the state’s collapse. But as with other current conflicts in the region, it’s not just the country’s future that’s at risk, but also its past.
On the night of May 11, a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states bombed the historic section of the Yemeni capital Sana’a, which has recently become a stronghold for Houthi rebels. Restored by UNESCO in the late 1980s, the World Heritage Site has been inhabited for more than 2,500 years and contains more than 6,000 houses, hammams, and mosques built before the 11th century CE. It’s one of four World Heritage sites at risk in Yemen, along with 10 more that have been on UNESCO’s tentative list since 2002.
The coalition also carried out airstrikes in the Old City of Saa’dah, partially destroying the 1,100-year-old Al-Hadi Mosque — the oldest Islamic learning center in the Arabian Peninsula. It also attacked the ancient walled city of Barakish.
“I condemn these destructions and I call on all parties to keep cultural heritage out of the conflict,” UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said in a statement that asked those fighting to respect international treaties, particularly the 1954 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and the 1972 World Heritage Convention. “I am particularly distressed by the news concerning air strikes on heavily populated areas such as the cities of Sana’a and Saa’dah,” she continued. “In addition to causing terrible human suffering, these attacks are destroying Yemen’s unique cultural heritage, which is the repository of people’s identity, history, and memory, and an exceptional testimony to the achievements of the Islamic civilization.”
According to Lebanon’s Daily Star, the fighting has also damaged the Ottoman-era fort in Taiz and ancient stucco buildings in the medieval Red Sea port city of Zabid; in central Yemen, a shrine purportedly built by the biblical Queen of Sheba may be at risk.
The recent destruction follows after the 2012 looting of the Zinjibar Museum in Abyan, which the Yemen Times reported was largely emptied of its collection and has since become a camp for people displaced by the war. The city’s Hal Al-Wahda Theater was also damaged and now houses the homeless. In April of that year, Yemeni Minister of Culture Abdullah Awbal released a statement expressing his concern about the looting of manuscripts and antiquities, and more recently, in December 2014, his successor Arwa Othman declared the country’s cultural heritage officially “afflicted.”
UNESCO has since begun developing an emergency response plan to help local experts assess historic buildings, archaeological sites, and museum collections and monitor those at risk. The plan is being enacted with the cooperation of the Manama-based Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage, the General Organization for the Preservation of Historic Cities of Yemen, and the General Organization of Antiquities, Museums and Manuscripts of Yemen. Training is being provided by the Sharjah-based ICCROM-ATHAR.
While war in Syria and Iraq has won more media attention, experts say the Yemeni conflict cannot be ignored, as it’s helped strengthen al-Qaeda’s hold on the region. The militant group’s Yemeni branch claimed responsibility for the January attack on Charlie Hebdo, and it also attacked two mosques in Sana’a on March 20, killing 142 people and injuring 351 others. On March 31, the UN officially pulled out of the country, warning that it’s on the verge of “total collapse.” The subsequent losses, both human and cultural, tragically confirm that assessment.