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Documenting Damaged Cultural Heritage and Human Suffering in Yemen’s Civil War

Yemeni human rights organization Mwatana has issued a report based on years of research, titled, “The Degradation of History: Violations Committed by the Warring Parties against Yemen’s Cultural Property.”

Market square by Bab al-Yemen, old city of Sana‘a, 2006 (Photo by Aneta Ribarska via Wikimedia Commons)

On November 15, the Yemeni human rights organization Mwatana issued a report on damage to cultural heritage in Yemen from the ongoing civil war. The report, entitled “The Degradation of History: Violations Committed by the Warring Parties against Yemen’s Cultural Property,” is the first comprehensive look at the treatment of Yemen’s cultural heritage over the course of the conflict, which began in 2015 over disputed claims to the Yemeni government between the then-incumbent president and a Houthi militia.

There are many factions involved in the conflict, but the major parties include ousted president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, supported by the “Popular Resistance” on the ground in Yemen and by airstrikes from the Arab coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE (with support from the US and the UK), on one side. They are opposed by the Houthi movement (Ansar Allah), formerly allied with Hadi’s predecessor as president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Mwatana’s report demonstrates that heritage sites have been damaged by all of these parties.

Mwatana conducted research for the report over a period of three years, primarily through on-the-ground interviews and site visits. Information in the report is sometimes limited, as several sites were off-limits to the organizations’ researchers because of the ongoing conflict. And unfortunately, Mwatana did not include photographs and other documentation that they took of affected sites they did visit. Instead, the incident discussions are based solely on eyewitness testimonies. Even with these drawbacks, the report is still extremely valuable for the broad, yet detailed picture it gives.

While there are a few documented incidents of ideological destruction of heritage sites (by Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other jihadist groups), most damage appears to be the direct result of violence between the warring parties. This includes shelling by the Houthis and forces loyal to the ousted president Hadi. But a close examination of the incident reports suggests that the biggest culprit are airstrikes by the Saudi-led Arab coalition.

Ancient dam at Ma’rib, 1988. The dam was hit by an Arab coalition airstrike in 2015. (Photo by H. Grobe via Wikimedia Commons)

Of course, drawing attention to attacks on cultural heritage should not distract from the extreme human suffering that this conflict has caused. Appropriately, the report clearly indicates where people have been killed and houses damaged and destroyed by these attacks on cultural heritage — and we only need to look at Mwatana’s many other reports to see how the organization has drawn attention to the human rights situation in the country for more than three years.

One thing that stands out with the publication of this report is the contrast with the attention to cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq. Yemen’s cultural heritage has not received nearly as much media coverage. Meanwhile, the US State Department has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars a year funding the impressive ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives to monitor damage to cultural heritage in Syria, northern Iraq, and Libya. There is nothing comparable for Yemen — the Mwatana report is the first comprehensive study to be published.

Why this disparity? For one thing, Syria and Iraq have a large number of ancient remains familiarized in biblical and classical texts and architectural forms — like Palmyra, or Nineveh. In other words, they are remains that can be envisioned as part of a Western past. (It is not coincidental that threats to Syria’s Islamic past have received much less international attention.) Yemen’s antiquities fit much less comfortably into these Western pasts, which makes it much easier for Europeans and North Americans to ignore them.

There is another factor: Syria’s cultural heritage has been used as a weapon in the Syrian civil war. Not only have ISIS and Russia exploited it, but the US has used it to justify bombing campaigns. In Yemen, the calculus is far different. There, the primary threat to cultural heritage — and to human life — is the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia, a strong ally of the US and western European countries. There has been little incentive for Western governments and media to draw attention to these actions.

In one way there has been attention to Yemen’s cultural heritage: as part of the call to “save” antiquities. A handful of news pieces and features have alerted their readers to the need to save the cultural heritage of Yemen, like that of Syria. This is ironic: Yemen’s antiquities have been looted regularly by Europeans and Americans since the 19th century. Moses Shapira allegedly stole medieval texts from Jewish communities there. In the 1950s, “oilman-archaeologist” Wendell Phillips led a problematic expedition, excavating a number of antiquities on behalf of his own American Foundation for the Study of Man. Phillips’s Yemeni antiquities have now been acquired by the Freer and Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian Institution, which used some of its dubiously acquired antiquities to argue for the importance of “protecting” Middle Eastern cultural heritage.

In these pieces, the situation in Syria is oversimplified and threats to heritage are attributed solely to ISIS. By contrast, Yemen is “multisided,” “complex,” and “less popularly understood,” according to the Smithsonian. Even so, the situation is blamed mostly on the Houthis, who are said to be “tribally based, religiously motivated, anti-Saudi, anti-American” and “Iran-backed.” Meanwhile, the Saudis are “beleaguered” and merely supporting the ousted “sitting president.” And so we see the goal of saving cultural heritage, illustrated with questionable acquisitions, used to justify war.

In January, the U.S. State Department and the International Council on Museums (ICOM) published an Emergency Red List of Cultural Objects at Risk for Yemen. (Red Lists are publications meant to draw attention to and prevent antiquities trafficking.) The Yemen Red List was unveiled at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in front of the same Temple of Dendur where, four years earlier, then Secretary of State John Kerry used the cultural heritage of the Middle East to justify the start of the US bombing campaign against ISIS in Syria.

At the Yemen ceremony, the State Department’s representative, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Jennifer Zimdahl Galt, made reference to ISIS and Al Qaeda — who have played a limited role in the destruction of cultural heritage in Yemen — but not to the main parties involved, particularly the Saudi-led coalition. And on the cover of the published Red List is featured (as a textbook example of a properly acquired antiquity) none other than the Freer/Sackler’s “Miriam,” a Yemeni sculpture found and removed from the country by Wendell Phillips.

The good news is that the situation may be changing. Since Trump’s election, there has been increasing media coverage of the Yemeni civil war and increasing political efforts to end it. There has also been increased critical attention to Yemen’s cultural heritage and its use as propaganda. Last month, the Middle East Studies Association’s annual meeting featured a roundtable casting a critical eye on Yemen’s heritage. On December 7, award-winning Yemeni filmmaker Khadija Al-Salami’s short film “The Bronze Man,” looking at one small part of that cultural heritage, will be shown and discussed at Georgetown University. The Mwatana report and its coverage in the media are other positive steps. But there is a need to be cautious: as the Syrian civil war has shown, linking cultural heritage to human rights can be a dangerous game.

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