This is gone forever

Islamic State soldiers destroying works of art: “We need to shout, at the top of our voices: ‘This must stop!”

By Petra Meijer

Having fled Iraq and now living in safety in Amersfoort, Hikmat Basheer al-Aswat (65), the director of Iraq’s Mosul Museum, watched helplessly as members of IS destroy ancient works of art with electric drills. “Condemning their actions is not enough.”

(Het originele Nederlandse verhaal staat hier)

“I was appointed director of the Mosul Museum in 2004; it’s the country’s most important museum, apart from the National Museum of Iraq in Bagdad and it has Assyrian, Parthian, Islamic and prehistoric objects. However, I’m a Christian, so I was under threat; in fact, some of my Christian colleagues were murdered. We received hate mail, a letter with a bullet in it. I was forced to retire from my position in 2010.”
Hikmat Basheer al-Aswat (65) recently spoke at the Heritage Heist conference in Leiden’s Stadsgehoorzaal as a keynote speaker.
Mare spoke to him before the conference while he was waiting; seated at a table with his wife Intesar and daughter Masara (20), he listed everything IS had destroyed and his family expressed their grief. In February, the footage of IS members in Mosul pushing statues off their pedestals and smashing them with hammers and pickaxes shocked the whole world. Last month, the family were once again appalled to see how the Parthian city of Hatra, a hundred kilometres from Mosul, was devastated.
“I can hardly believe anything like this could happen in the twenty-first century”, exclaimed al-Aswat. “It’s horrifying. They’ve burnt books and manuscripts and blown up entire archaeological sites. IS has set up a military base camp at Hatra and destroyed all its Christian symbols and manuscripts.”
He was struck by how professional the footage of the destruction was: “Media coverage is crucial for IS and they want to force the world to pay attention.” The former director stressed that the footage was recorded in July or August of 2014. “It gave IS time to make off with valuable relics and artefacts. The footage didn’t show the yellow obelisk of the Assyrian king Esarhaddon or various tablets and objects from the Islamic room. They said the destruction of everything too large to remove, like an enormous, winged bull at the gate of Nirgal, was needed because they were idolatrous images. We know that valuable items were transported to Turkey, and sold.”
He keeps up with events from his apartment in Amersfoort by watching television and Facebook. “A group of people in Mosul are documenting the developments and I still have contacts in Bagdad, although it’s difficult to stay in touch.”
He thinks the world should intervene instead of sitting back and watching. “It’s our moral duty, as humans. Condemning their actions is not enough.” But what can we do? “That’s up to the super powers; they should put an end to it – by telephone even. IS is made of people; they’re not moon monsters or Martians.”
His wife shook her head sadly. She now volunteers at a food bank, but before she arrived in the Netherlands, she worked in the museum’s library. They were united by their passion for archaeology. “The library had 22,000 books – every single one of them has been burnt”, she recalled with emotion in her voice. “All non-Islamic texts are lost, we’ll never recover them.”
She fled in 2011 with her elder daughter Sara (23), crossing the border in a lorry, after the threats. “My father and I couldn’t go with them” their younger daughter Masara explained, “It was extremely expensive.” The family was reunited in 2013. “We arrived by plane.”
Although she wonders how her friends and former school are faring, Masara is happy in the Netherlands. “In Iraq, I couldn’t be a girl. Here, I have room for my dreams and hobbies. My sister is training to be a dentist’s assistant and I’m going to start the same course soon.”
Al-Aswat continued: “Christians in Iraq are having a tough time. There were 1.4 million Christians there in 2003; now there are only 300,000 and many more are fleeing. We had to leave everything behind. I have two brothers who fled to the north with nothing but the clothes on their backs. We’d like to return, but we’re staying here because it’s better for the children.”
Besides, they can’t go home without a Dutch passport. “We’ll only get one when we’ve been here for five years. My mother and sister have been here for four years, and my father and I only two. But my parents aren’t sure they’ll ever get a passport: they must learn Dutch but my father is already 65 and my mother failed one of the exams”, Masara said about her mother, whose cheeks were wet with tears.
She stared at the table. “It’s very difficult for my parents”, she declared uneasily. “We’re very grateful to the Netherlands, but there’s still so much uncertainty.”
For al-Aswat, there is a glint of hope in the fact that there are some 100,000 archaeological sites throughout Iraq and so far only one per cent of them has been discovered. “One day, when peace is restored to our country, we will start digging again. But what we’re losing now is gone forever. We need to shout, at the top of our voices: ‘This must stop.’”

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