Reflections by Sada Mire

Archaeologist and researcher at Leiden University, The Hague, 13 June 2016

Cultural heritage at risk: protecting cultural heritage in times of conflict

Her Excellency Ms Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO

Her Excellency Ms Silvia Fernandez de Gurmendi, President of the International Criminal Court

H.R.H Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands, UNESCO Special Envoy on Literacy for Development

Honourable moderator Ms Sneska Quaedvlieg-Mihailovic, Secretary-General of Europa Nostra

Your Excellences

Ladies and Gentlemen

I am honoured to be speaking here today and responding to this important speech by Ms Bokova in this Europe Lecture. Europe itself is a continent which’s heritage I am personally connected to through my Scandinavian experience.

The Director-General has made the point that UNESCO values cultural heritage as a bond for the humanity we all share. I of course share this view.


Fled from the Somali civil war

I was 14 when my family fled from the Somali civil war and ended up in Sweden.

I witnessed the destruction of the ancient quarters of my hometown Mogadishu.

I was a refugee in Sweden when I became fascinated by European pre-history and enrolled for Lund University.

I felt at home in Sweden through its heritage and human stories. 

However, I learned also about archaeology and political groups when in 2002 riots took place in India because radical Hindu nationalists destroyed a 500 years old mosque in the ancient

town of Ayodhya.

I published my first academic paper on the Ayodhya conflict.

I mention this example because historically, intentional destruction, as we know, is not something new or limited to a region of the world, it has taken place throughout history.

In fact, after reading up on this very church we are in this evening I learned that it used to have a catholic iconography destroyed during the iconoclasm of the reformation in the 16th (beeldenstorm).


Heritage created through destruction

We know that heritage is also created through the way we see the past, which is inherently linked to ideologies, identities and politics of the present. 

How do we then help people appreciate different heritage in times of war? 

I am very happy that Ms Bokova demonstrates we need culture in times of war.

Because I have been told ‘You are a refugee- why are you studying Scandinavian archaeology?’ as if just because I was refugee, I couldn’t appreciate a new different culture. 2 Also later when I realised the impact of war on Somali cultural heritage, I did not want to wait for peace to arrive. 


Somali heritage fieldwork - knowledge centered approach

So I started fieldwork in 2004, even then I was sadly told Somalia does not need cultural heritage, it needs security, food and shelter. 

How do we achieve all this without considering the cultural heritage? 

I knew already that people like me survived the war because after fleeing our homes we could build nomadic huts, get ethnobotanical medicine, and find water before any international aid arrived. 

I have formulated this type of cultural knowledge preservation under the term ‘the Knowledge-Centered Approach’. 


Local culture

This system fits perfectly for the local culture. Most of the people are nomads, they carry very little, and transmit and preserve knowledge of heritage through oral culture and performance of skill. 

However, with the help of a few dedicated people I set up the Department of Archaeology, in Somaliland hiring and training over 50 people. 

We mapped, documented and created inventories of hundreds of sites. Today the sites we saved bring pride and dignity, and some communities are living of heritage tourism while also keeping their own traditions alive


Top-down approaches

However, we have also learned that heritage work is undermined by the top-down approaches and lack of local infrastructure for archaeological research. 

In our academic community, we are reflecting on the complex relationships relating to heritage such as war, economic inequality, representation and ownership issues.

In Leiden I am working on a course, a MOOC, massive online open access course titled ‘Heritage under Threat’ together with experts associated with the Faculty of Archaeology, the Centre for Global Heritage and Development and the Centre for Innovation, the latter based here in The Hague. 

UNESCO partners such as ICCROM, as Ms Bokova mentioned, are championing the training in protection of heritage. I was participant and a keynote speaker to the ICCROM international course on First Aid to Cultural Heritage in Times of Crisis.


Changing local mind-set

However, it is also important to be in the field and help change local mind-set in conflict zones. 

As Ms Bokova said, we need to also work with the youth. 

I believe we need to explore, with the local communities, the potential of plural and inclusive heritage. 

Heritage is made of layers of plurality which can help us learn to accept and respect each other’s differences. 

My approach to changing local attitudes is by making them the owners and custodians of the heritage, with all its layers of diversity. 

We heard the Director –General’s message we are all diminished when we lose our diverse human heritage. 

For example, the diverse and plural heritage that my team unearthed was initially overwhelming to the local population. 


Sufi Saint Shrine

One example is an important Sufi Saint Shrine in Somaliland, which is dedicated to Sheikh Yusuf Aw-Barkhadle. 

It includes the sacred mausoleum and landscape, which is a major pilgrimage centre, known and revered all over the Horn of Africa. 

The intangible and tangible cultural aspects of this pilgrimage centre testify to a multireligious past spanning over two millennia. 

It shows Somalis that other beliefs systems existed in their country in the past. It shows the acceptance and peaceful co-existence of different communities in the past.

The Netherlands

The Netherlands indeed plays important role in the support for culture as the Director-General has already pointed out.

I should mention we received support from the Cultural Emergency Response Program of the Prince Claus Foundation back in 2011 towards the survey.


Shared regional past in the Horn of Africa

I am now working on a regional project which aims to explore the relationships between the different indigenous populations whose heritage we believe is critical for understanding a shared regional past.

It must be said indigenous and minority heritage – that is the non-Muslim and non-Christian heritage of the Horn of Africa- has become marginalised in the nationalistic dominant narratives of their countries.

It is critical now to investigate the cultural values that glue people together in the Horn of Africa, because in the last 4 decades, we have had 3 major regional wars, some still on-going.

My current project is inspired by the academic work in the Faculty of Archaeology on indigenous and native heritage, which was neglected for centuries, but exposed by some of my colleagues such as professor Maarten Jansen, and indigenous expert Aurora Gabina Perez in Mesoamerica, and that of our Dean professor Corinne Hofman in the Caribbean. 

My regional project in HoA will help expand our identity beyond ethnic and national borders and will link us to our neighbours, Djibouti, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

It is urgent to expose shared heritage that might be useful for diplomacy and a dialogue between those that could potentially destroy certain heritage and those whose sacred heritage might be a target. 


I share Ms Bokova’s vision that heritage can be an instrument for peace.

Already, upon seeing similarities with those they see as the ‘Other’, I noted a wide-eyed reaction from the locals who say: ‘Oh, so this too, could be my past’?

I believe that if we can accept diversity in our own past, we can accept diversity in the present.

Thanks you for your attention.


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