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  • Eli Szydlo

Ukraine's Cultural Heritage At Risk

May 10, 2022

The Saint Sophia's Cathedral in Kyiv [Image Source: © UNSPLASH/ Fatmagul B.]

While the war continues in Ukraine, reports on the loss of life and abuses emerge daily. From the onset of the war, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has been calling for the protection of Ukraine’s cultural heritage. The preservation of human life and the prevention of abuses to human life undoubtedly remain vital concerns for the country. However, the looting of cultural artifacts can add insult to the loss of life, and the destruction of heritage deprives the country, and the world, of the irreplaceable history it embodied.

The looting and destruction of cultural heritage is not a rarity during war and conflict. Its occurrence in conflict zones has a long history that continues in modern conflicts. One of the largest and most organized examples targeting art and heritage was during World War II, where it played a pivotal role in the genocidal processes throughout the Holocaust. During the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, and continuing throughout the occupation of the Northern occupied territory, the destruction and looting of Cypriot cultural heritage has been an ongoing issue. Objects looted from Iraq and the Middle East from as far back as the 1990’s have surfaced in the Museum of the Bible (associated with Hobby Lobby) collection. Additionally, the topic of destruction of heritage became increasingly known as the world was made aware of the Syrian heritage that was extensively destroyed and looted in and after 2014-2015.

After the looting, it can take years, even decades of cataloging and recovery to reclaim only a portion of the lost items. However, contemporary technologies use a variety of methods to safely monitor countries undergoing conflict for possible instances of the destruction of heritage. One such example is the use of satellite imaging data to observe and document the destruction of cultural sites in the recent conflict in Armenia and Azerbaijan. In Ukraine, the Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab (CHML), in partnership with the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH) and the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative (SCRI), are using similar satellite imaging along with additional technologies to monitor cultural heritage at risk through threat of conflict and natural disaster.

On April 6, 2022, CHML released a report stating that since the beginning of the Russian invasion, 191 of the 26,000 sites being monitored have potentially been damaged. The extent of possible damage to the sites will need to be investigated and confirmed by local sources and media outlets throughout the conflict, and monitoring will need to be continued by specialists once the area is deemed safe. The local population and others on the ground photographing any damage or the current state of cultural heritage sites will also provide invaluable information.

The damaging and destruction of heritage sites can occur in warfare when it is deemed a military necessity and unavoidable, however the direct targeting of sites is considered a war crime. The International Criminal Court (ICC) Al Mahdi case demonstrated the first conviction of destruction of cultural heritage as a war crime, pertaining to the intentional targeting of cultural sites in Timbuktu, Mali. While it will take time to determine the extent of damage in Ukraine and to gather and evaluate evidence to determine whether a war crime was committed, there are growing concerns that Ukrainian heritage is not only being damaged but being stolen, looted, and sold for profit. The numerous reports indicate possible intentional targeting of Ukrainian cultural heritage by Russian forces that implies motive to further demoralize the victims of war and potentially eliminate the cultural identity of the Ukrainian people altogether.

A recent report by Ukrainian officials accuses Russian forces of stealing over 2,000 exhibit items from museums in Mariupol and Donetsk. Expanding on that report, additional information describes organized methods of looting of a museum cellar in Mariupol and the kidnapping of a museum curator. Ukrainian authorities also allege that Russian troops have been looting civilian homes in Ukraine, stealing items such as jewelry, electronics, appliances, children's toys, cars, and various other items of value. There are additional reports indicating that Russian forces have moved items to Belarus to be sold at bazaar, and while there isn’t evidence yet to demonstrate the sale of protected cultural items there is significant concern this could be taking place or will in the near future. The current situation in Ukraine is a prime opportunity for looting to occur, and the existence of markets for these items outside of the country is already in place.

While the opportunity for looting of heritage and the risk of destruction increases, measures are being taken to safeguard and protect where possible. Early in the invasion, any movable sculptures and artwork were moved to secret locations, and monuments were padded and shielded in whatever way possible. However, beyond the physical objects, bombings and cyberattacks place the digital heritage of Ukraine at high risk as well. A group of over 1,300 diverse individuals oversee Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online, which is responsible for backing up the country's internet archives to protect heritage such as basket weaving techniques, children's poetry, and census data. To protect the physical heritage of Ukraine, digital workshops by international groups have taught Ukrainian experts to provide emergency training while UNESCO has been developing funding and enforcing signage to better label sites as protected under international law.

While the verification and collection of evidence and reports on the events taking place in Ukraine are ongoing, the world has already witnessed refugees fleeing the violence and are receiving more reports of abuses to people and property. For those that survive the violence, the traumas inflicted on them and the country will continue long after the final bullet is fired or the last bomb falls. The preservation of cultural heritage and history of a country can provide closure and healing, such as the reconstruction of the Stari Most Bridge in Bosnia and Herzegovina which symbolically and literally bridged communities divided during the conflict, or return and reburials of indigenous objects and remains. However, the theft, erasure, and elimination of a country's cultural heritage can provide a finality to the deaths and abuse suffered, or can hold hostage those seeking to recover from reminders of their trauma.

The current conflict undoubtedly threatens Ukrainian heritage. Amid the ongoing war, the human rights abuses being reported can be difficult to monitor and similarly this chaos makes it challenging to protect heritage. Countries must monitor their imports for Ukrainian items (including those arriving from outside Ukrainian borders) to limit the profitability of trading in stolen goods. Further efforts to safeguard what can be preserved will be immensely valuable. Photography, satellite imagery, and documentation of heritage can provide invaluable evidence in the years to come, and will hold those responsible accountable for these crimes as well as provide opportunities to return stolen items to their rightful places.


For more information, five key points have been published here, that provide measures for the international community to pursue to ensure protections and support for Ukrainian heritage and heritage workers.


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