Use + Remix

A decade after Islamic State militants tried to destroy the rich history of Iraq and Syria, the hard work to rebuild the nations' cultural heritage continues.

The ancient city of Hatra resisted invasion by the Roman Emperor Trajan in AD 116, but succumbed to an attack by Islamic State fighters in 2015. It’s now being repaired. : JoAnn Makinano 2008 (Wikimedia commons) Public Domain The ancient city of Hatra resisted invasion by the Roman Emperor Trajan in AD 116, but succumbed to an attack by Islamic State fighters in 2015. It’s now being repaired. : JoAnn Makinano 2008 (Wikimedia commons) Public Domain

A decade after Islamic State militants tried to destroy the rich history of Iraq and Syria, the hard work to rebuild the nations’ cultural heritage continues.

Ten years ago the world watched in horror as the so-called Islamic State conquered the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

Of the many disturbing images that followed, few seemed to shock global audiences as much as their attack on Mosul’s rich and diverse cultural heritage.

The militants uploaded carefully staged propaganda films documenting their attacks on places such as the Mosul Museum, where bearded ISIS members used sledgehammers to smash priceless artefacts and statues.

In April 2015, at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Hatra, a city that resisted invasion by the Roman Emperor Trajan in AD 116, came under attack by Islamic State fighters. The group used assault rifles to target the city’s ancient walls and reliefs.

At the ancient archaeological site of Nimrud, the former capital of the Assyrian empire and home to some of the first modern discoveries of ancient Mesopotamian art, ISIS fighters hacked apart the winged bull sculptures that marked the gates of the palace, looted what they could find, before setting off a mass explosion that sent a giant brown mushroom cloud into the sky and reduced much of the site to rubble.

These monuments to our shared human history, now lost.

Beyond these prominent examples, the ISIS terrorist group also destroyed countless mosques, churches, shrines, historic buildings, libraries, artworks and artefacts — all with the view to creating a religiously and ideologically homogeneous state.

Profound impact of destruction

As we commemorate the 10-year anniversary of such destruction, it is essential to reflect on the enduring impact this has had on the local population and to acknowledge the efforts they have made to move forward and rebuild their heritage.

It is a difficult task to not only understand the complex motives that drive the perpetrators of such destruction, but also to gauge the profound impact such destruction has on those who survive it.

As part of my research, I have met and interviewed many people of the Yazidi and Christian minorities, both of which were actively persecuted by the terror group and who were directly and acutely affected by the heritage destruction.

Not surprisingly, several of these witnesses shared their strong emotional reaction to the destruction of their heritage, describing how they wept and felt sick. Many experienced the destruction as a form of trauma, a sequence of acts so disturbing that it shattered their most personal memories and their sense of self.

Others spoke of heritage destruction as a deliberate component of the genocidal campaign of ISIS and their determination to rid the land of ethnic and religious minorities. The sites were a proxy for attacks on the people themselves, their destruction a symbol of intent.

As one Yazidi man I spoke to put it: The targeting of heritage sites “is part of their cultural genocide. They wanted to destroy everything that connected us to our culture and heritage”.

“IS knew exactly what they were doing. They raped the women, they traumatised the community, they forcefully converted them to Islam so people will lose their faith. And also, they blew up their religious places and shrines so they have no place of worship.”

But even in the midst of such despair, there are always glimmers of hope.

One group of interviewees from the villages of Bashiqa and Bahzani were excited about an initiative they had started shortly after their hometowns had been liberated from ISIS control in 2017.

Rebuilding lives an act of defiance

Men and women, young and old, Yazidi and Christian, all came together to undertake a community-led effort to restore their towns, especially those heritage sites held most sacred to them.

This group, brought together by tragedy and destruction, described riding in buses together and visiting each other’s villages for the first time.

They painted over the jihadist graffiti left by ISIS militants with bright colours and messages of hope. They swept up rubble and removed the ruins, replacing them where they could with flower beds.

But most importantly, they worked as one cohesive group to first, raise money and then to physically rebuild whatever they could.

It took a lot of time and hard work, but slowly they revived the religious and cultural heartbeat of their tiny enclaves.

Temples and churches re-emerged from the ashes and they were able to practice their religious customs and rituals once more.

Festivals returned, modest feasts and concerts were held, and people got married according to the prescriptions of their faith.

Encouraged by the signs of life, more and more members of their community began to come and help. Some moved home permanently.

Then others came to visit, some to watch the spectacle, others to commiserate over the shared suffering, and still others to learn something new about their fellow Iraqis.

It was the ultimate act of defiance. It was a grassroots demonstration of remarkable resilience. The Islamic State had not triumphed after all and while life would never be the same, it would go on.

As one young Yazidi man put it to me, working with his Christian and Yazidi friends to rebuild the temple in his village was the ultimate show of resistance and one key way to overcome the past and begin building a brighter future.

As he put it: “‘What the community of Bashiqa did is to start building these shrines again as a message to Islamic State we are still here and we will still resist.

“So the shrines in Bashiqa have been built by the donation of the people of Bashiqa not by the government or any NGOs. So the people of Bashiqa raise money, raise funds and they are starting to build shrines one by one and they start celebrating in the completion of any new shrine in a kind of festival where you can find all the community.

“So some people asked them: ‘why are you building a shrine before the houses?’ … If you build the shrine you are building a place or a thing for the whole town and for the whole people. Because the shrine belongs to everybody in Bashiqa and not to a specific person in particular. 

“That’s why you can see all the people cooperate to build the shrines first to say that Bashiqa still belongs to minorities.”

Benjamin Isakhan is Professor of International Politics and Founding Director of POLIS, a research network for Political Science and International Relations scholars in the Alfred Deakin Institute at Deakin University, Australia. The research reported in this article was funded by The Australian Department of Defence and the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DE120100315). The views expressed in this article do not reflect those of Defence or Government policy.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

Editors Note: In the story “A decade of ISIS” sent at: 01/07/2024 13:33.

This is a corrected repeat.

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