Palmyra. Even the sound of this oasis in the Syrian Desert carries a freshness, and as early as the second millennium BC, Palmyra has served as a caravan stop for travelers crossing the arid terrain.
When the Roman Empire conquered the area in the first and second centuries AD, the city’s position on the silk road linking the West to Persia, India and China allowed an influx of world culture, art and archeology. Palmyra was richly embellished.
Or, as Telegraph travel writer Chris Moss writes,
For it was also here that caravans from the east and the west arrived to trade salt, dyes, cloths, slaves, perfumes and prostitutes.
Islamic State Militants Take Control of Palmyra
On Wednesday, May 20, Islamic State (IS) militants took control of the historic city as well as its 50,000 inhabitants and surrounding gas fields. The gas fields allow IS to control the supply of electricity to regime-held areas.
The ruins, however, hold precious black market commodities, and destroying the city would show the world once again IS is a group of insecure psychopaths who care not for Islam nor humanity.
And although Palmyra has remained on the UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger since 2013, its destruction or damage at the hands of IS marks another tally for war crimes committed.
Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, said in a video appeal on May 21,
Any destruction to Palmyra is not just a war crime, it will mean an enormous loss for humanity.
We just have to make everything possible to prevent its destruction… We need total mobilization of the international community.
Since the takeover, IS militants repeated claims they wouldn’t offend the ancient city and on May 27, a Syrian broadcast station reported the group will only destroy statues representing idols.
And deconstruction of two millennia of Middle Eastern heritage has already begun with the crushing of a first-century “god lion” statue as well as others.
This concerned attention on Palmyra follows the systematic destruction of ancient ruins and artifacts in Mosul, Hatra, Nimrud and others.
Looting is also evident at these sites, and groups such as the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology have been scrambling to smuggle out to safety whatever antiquities they can.
Heritage Sites and War Crimes
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC): “Extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly” falls under Chapter 44, Rule 156 — Definition of War Crimes.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini shared a more direct warning over potential war crimes in Palmyra.
Mass killings and deliberate destruction of archaeological and cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq amount to a war crime according to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
There is little doubt IS war crimes also include sickening human rights violations. The slaughter of civilians. Sex slaves and rape. The abuse and torture of children.
Even the IS slaughter against the Yazidis seems to fit the international legal definition of genocide.
Which is worse?
The mass killings inside and surrounding Palmyra have unfortunately become dark normalcies to the news consumer in the West. Every couple of days, new reports of atrocities arise.
A terrible side effect of this war is that after the Nth headline, it becomes increasingly difficult to put faces and humanity to those killed, as opposed to thinking of them as mere statistics.
But when the IS propaganda machine moved toward antiquities starting in January 2015, international anxiety swelled once again.
A March 2015 co-op in The Telegraph, titled “Sign me up to fight Islamic State’s demolition of the past,” was written by the former London mayor Boris Johnson.
In it, he writes
[The destruction of historic sites] has filled me with a special blackness and despair.
I am a victim to a certain level of immunity regarding the emotional weight of seeing beheading videos and headlines reporting death statistics. But my heart sunk at the news of Palmyra (I was vividly reminded of a trip to Volubilis, an ancient Roman ruin in Morocco).
I looked at the statistic, 20 men executed in the Palmyra amphitheater, and tried to imagine the horror, but couldn’t. I wondered if I was a sociopath who cared more for places than individual human lives.
A press officer from UNESCO sent Elite Daily an email that often corresponds to a theme put forth by Bokova, the organization’s Director-General:
UNESCO believes that protection of heritage must be included in the international community’s response to crisis situations and integrated into humanitarian operations because heritage is important for people’s identity, for social cohesion for post-conflict reconstruction.
Sites like Palmyra are the vestiges of history and once gone, they are gone forever.
But from the Geneva conventions regarding war crimes to pleas for the protection of heritage sites, it is important to remember the central theme of IS: The group will destroy our history and by murdering through the present, gone are those who once had the opportunity to be creators of history.
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