The men with guns decide
Intimidated by secret police, threatened at gun point, robbed by hardcore jihadists – how do Leiden researchers manage to survive in crisis areas? “A man rushed at my taxi brandishing a pistol.”
Wednesday 2 April 2014
Krak des chevaliers, an old crusader castle in Syria, is suffering badly from the civil war

“My worst fears have come true”, says Peter Akkermans, Professor of Archaeology of the Near East. “Twenty-five years of research down the drain; many, many hours of work by many people have been destroyed.” Akkermans spent decades working in Syria, in Tell Sabi Abyad. “It’s a hill full of ruins, north of the town of Rakka. All sorts of things turn up in the soil there: shards, flints, bones.” However, he explains that “hardcore jihadists” took control of the region in the spring of 2013.

“It is very difficult to get in touch with anyone, but very occasionally, I hear from people who are involved in the project. I spoke to our guard in December; he informed me that the hill had not been damaged.’

The reports of the storage space at Rakka are much worse. “There’s been fighting and looting in the vicinity of the shed where we store our finds. We had hundreds of boxes of material.”

The Syrian government’s Directorate General of Antiquities & Museums’ report confirms the situation: hundreds of armed men stole a large number of pots and other objects. Anything that was left was transferred to a concrete building in another part of the town, but it was to no avail. The remainder of the material was forcibly handed over at gun point. Akkermans remarks: “They say that some material from the museum was transferred to the storage space too. If that’s the case, I’m afraid we’ve lost our collection of cuneiform texts too.”

The archaeologist is not the only Leiden academic to be hard hit by reality: there are more researchers who work in conflict areas.

Ed de Vogel, a botanist formerly on the staff of the National Herbarium, used to visit Papua New Guinea regularly to search for rare orchids. Thanks to his efforts, Leiden’s botanical gardens are the only place in the world where they grow in hothouses. “The country is terribly dangerous; it only emerged from the Stone Age some twenty or thirty years ago”, he recalls. “In the past, the Papua peoples would fight their wars with bows and arrows, but now they tote Kalashnikovs. They drink a lot and there is a lot of aggression and lots of robberies.”

One of his female PhD students was robbed and was told she was lucky she wasn’t raped. Someone who worked for the World Wide Fund for Nature had a gun held against her head but managed to escape when the taxi driver behind her pulled out a machete and the gun turned out not to be loaded.

“I’ve been lucky”, reports De Vogel. “Once, a man rushed at my taxi brandishing a pistol but he didn’t shoot. The country is dangerous, but if you’re sensible, you can do your research. We have now catalogued more than three thousand varieties of orchids in Papua New Guinea and there might twice as many we haven’t discovered yet, so it’s worth the risk.”

Mirjam de Bruijn, Professor of African Studies and Cultural Anthropology studies people she describes as “jokers”. “They’re people who, for instance, are the focus of everyone’s attention with their art or literature and who publish it in the social media. “I initially intended to visit the north of Cameroon, but the situation there is too dangerous. Boko Haram, the Nigerian group of Muslim extremists, has crossed the border.”

Consequently, De Bruijn decided to go to Chad. “For our research, we are looking for conflict areas and we’re right in the thick of it there. The regime is extremely repressive and the secret police are on every street corner. It really makes you paranoid.”

Nonetheless, it is very difficult to assess when things get drastically out of hand”, she says. “Only last year, I travelled through the Central African Republic by car. I had hardly left the country when the violence erupted.” Catharine Wilson, one of her PhD students, wanted to do research in Bangui, the capital. “But that was just too risky. She’s now working with refugees who have fled to Congo.”

De Bruijn explains: “We have to be very flexible. This work is very important, but circumstances put us on the balance of whether it is academically responsible. Many archives have been burned in Chad, so we can only carry out our research by speaking to people. But in some parts, interviewing and observing people is simply too dangerous. We can’t send newbies out there.”

That sentiment was confirmed last October. “I was taking photographs in the town of Sarh with two PhD students when a motorbike pulled up behind us. It was the secret police. They arrested us. At the police station they rolled out a mat and told us ‘Just sit down there’. All our photographs were destroyed. It was pure intimidation. They tried to scare us and it worked. We were only allowed to leave with our equipment after much discussion and persuasion.

“The incident was actually a warning. I had been visiting the country for years and had started to get careless. This time I applied for a licence to record films, but I was told the time wasn’t right for it. Now we only record film indoors.”

Anthropologist Loes Lijnders (27) graduated from Leiden last year and currently works in Juba in South Sudan as a university lecturer. “Juba had been reasonably stable and safe in recent years, but fighting broke out everywhere on 15 December.” Although guns could be heard all over Juba, she lived at a relatively safe distance from the areas where the fighting was the heavy. “Some of my friends were closer to the fighting, lost members of their family or friends and were forced to flee from their homes.”

She left on a military flight organised by the Dutch government on 20 December, but returned in early February. “To the eye, day-to-day life seems to have resumed its familiar pace, but the feelings of distrust are almost tangible. The government has gradually become more repressive. There is little room for political opposition and I will have to rethink my research project (on the political role of entertainers in the city, ed.) in a situation of fragile safety, increasing government control and distrust.”

Jesper Eidem, the Director of the Institute for the Near East in Leiden and a Professor at the University of Amsterdam, has been cut off from Syria, just like Peter Akkermans. “I used to work in a place called Qala’at Halwanji, a citadel dating back 4,000 years. Sometimes I can reach one of the site’s guards who lives in a house that I rented. The lesser finds are there, at least, I hope there are. Well, my guard says they’re still there. Whenever I manage to speak to him, he tells me about the fights between various rebel factions. Many of the other residents have run away, but he still lives there with his family. I try to send him money – which isn’t easy – because if they leave, the site will probably be plundered. There are many desperate and hungry people in the vicinity. If I didn’t send any money, his children would probably starve. So I try to do my bit for humanitarian aid. We know so many people in that wonderful country and it’s terrible to see all the destruction. All we can do is sit by and watch.”

According to Eidem, the Directorate General of Antiquities & Museums is still doing a pretty good job under the circumstances. “The agency tries not to get involved in politics and they’re doing their utmost to protect the valuable objects. In fact, they’ve moved all the important objects from the museums in Aleppo to a safer place. The agency’s report reveals that, despite the chaos and misery, there are local projects to protect the digs.”

The civil war is causing damage to historic buildings. “A tragic example is the ancient bazaar in Aleppo that burned to the ground. The Al-Madina Souq was one of the most beautiful and romantic markets in the Middle East. I used to wander about there for hours after work. It brings tears to people’s eyes when they see that a grenade has created a huge hole in the Krak des Chevaliers, the Crusaders’ fortress near Homs. It’s an image that really drives the conflict home.”

“It’s awful to see, but the damage can be repaired. Only the tells, man-made hills, have been damaged beyond repair due to illegal digs. The penalties are harsh, but as discipline and authority have broken down, it happens quite a lot.”

Akkermans: “I can only say that cultural heritage is being destroyed besides all the human suffering. Syria is an archaeological paradise, but I wonder whether I’ll ever return. The end of the war doesn’t seem to be anywhere in sight. The men with guns decide what happens.”