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Memories in the Middle East & Mostar Bridge

Image by author - Playground in a camp on the Nineveh Plains, Iraq 2018

If everyday people of post-conflict communities are not helped to acknowledge their suffering and archaeological sites are given precedence over local people and their precarious sense of place, it is easy to imagine how trust, respect and belief in the United Nations and UNESCO’s peacebuilding processes could be undermined.

An example[1] where this seems be the case, is the reconstruction of Mostar Bridge (Stari Most meaning the old bridge) which was rebuilt after being destroyed on the 9th November 1993, during the War in Bosnia and Herzegovina. A peacebuilding initiative by the international community to support reconciliation and improve social cohesion after the end of the war, “[t]he World Bank, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the World Monuments Fund formed a coalition to oversee the reconstruction of the Stari Most and the historic city centre of Mostar” (Hannah, Armaly and Blasi, 2004). The bridge was reopened with great international acclaim, the Director-General of UNESCO at the time, Koïchiro Matsuura stated at the opening "We are present in Mostar in order to breathe fresh life into an exceptional heritage which, after having been used as a target, needs to become a rallying sign, a sign of recognition, the powerful symbol of a plural identity founded on mutual trust" (Sopova, 2004). However, an article in the Guardian Newspaper, ‘Bridge opens but Mostar remains a divided city’, gives another perspective where "[t]he life of ordinary people on this artificially divided space has become absurd," said a report by the international authority running Bosnia last December 2004. "The situation is unacceptable and unsustainable" (Traynor, 2004). A situation which reiterates Meskell’s observation that “international staging has at times, papered over the smouldering religious and ethnic tensions”, and that there is an inherent danger in believing that reconstruction brings about reconciliation (Meskell, 2018).

Stari Most, is an interesting example, it highlights how ineffective, difficult and complicated UNESCO’s role has become. The organisation which began as a globally orientated establishment seems to have gradually lost influence and momentum. It has publicly suffered politically and economically over the years, wrestling international aspirations and national agendas on the ground. For Irish, UNESCO’s problems are becoming perilous, he writes, “[t]oo little cash, too much politics, leaves UNESCO fighting for life” believing that with the loss of an annual $80 million from the United States after leaving the organisation with Israel over the UNESCO vote to admit Palestine (Irish, 2017). A complicated situation, which Meskell acknowledges, explaining that, “UNESCO was transformed into an intergovernmental agency, a mere shadow of its former ambition for world peace and mutual understanding between peoples” and that “the overreach of powerful governments has come to permeate all aspects of its functioning” (Meskell, 2018).

A possible example of ‘permeated functioning’, where UNESCO’s validity has become compromised or where its authenticity has been seen to struggle, is in the Middle East, a region where the organisation, “appeared to fail or be indifferent to, the protection of Iraq’s National Museum” after the fall of the Baathist regime and during the US led occupation of the country in 2003 (Stone, 2009). Similar contradictions to UNESCO’s founding ethos can be read in the failure to protect major historic sites in the country when, “[c]oalition forces that deployed and damaged major heritage sites to build military bases, including the archaeologist site of Babylon with its famous ziggurat and Ishtar Gate – ascribed on UNESCO’s tentative list 2003”. An important third millennium BC UNESCO recognised site, which was renamed during the campaign, ‘Camp Alpha’. Stone continues to highlight the issue by writing that during 2005, there was, “[l]ooting and damage by British and American forces - deliberate destruction of many important sites of Islamic heritage”. The coalition forces continued to damage culturally significant property that year when, “coalition forces used part of the ninth century Great Mosque of Samarra to construct military barracks and a training camp for 1500 Iraqi national police” (Stone, 2009). These hypocritical situations are not restricted to Iraq and can be read in regions like Saudi Arabia, a nation that joined UNESCO in November 1946. Where, according to articles by Power and McKernan, government contractors in Saudi Arabia have been demolishing artefacts in and around Mecca, a world-significant site, which is not listed by UNESCO. Both Power and McKernan report that, “columns around Kaaba were demolished in 2014 Saudi Arabia” (McKernan, 2018), and that “ a large number of historic mosques, mausoleums and monuments have been razed to the ground to make way for skyscrapers and shopping malls - 1998 Saudi Arabian government bulldozed and burned down the tomb of Aminah, the mother of Mohammed” (POWER, 2014).

In light of these apparent international elite or governmental driven inconsistencies witnessed in the Middle East, and also the apparent oversight with regards the importance of a community’s everyday relationship with memories of violence, which leads to the development of a precarious sense of place after conflict which the Mostar Bridge example seems to indicate, it is likely that local people in post-conflict communities feel uncertain, finding it difficult to trust UNESCO’s sincerity and the reasoning behind its objectives with regards any future peacebuilding processes in their community.

[1] There are two other examples of note: Long Kesh / Maze Prison, Northern Ireland and Beit Beirut Museum and Urban Centre, Lebanon

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