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How war has robbed Syria of its history

May 19, 2015 at 6:35 PM EDT
There’s a battle being waged for Syria’s history, where four years of war have devastated cultural heritage sites and looting occurs by all sides of the conflict. Special correspondent Marcia Biggs reports on the flagrant destruction of relics, the big business of smuggling antiquities and what’s being done to stop it.

GWEN IFILL: The United Nations Cultural Agency recently expressed alarm over one of the Middle East’s most treasured historical sites. They reported that the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria, home of 2,000-year-old ruins and a U.N. World Heritage Site, is currently under threat, as Islamic State forces move in, fighting against government troops in the area.

At this point, the militants have been held at bay, but the destruction and looting of antiquities is one of the turmoil’s many casualties.

NewsHour special correspondent Marcia Biggs reports tonight on the fight to save them. It’s part of our series on Culture at Risk.

MARCIA BIGGS, Special Correspondent: It’s as stark as night and day, this satellite photo before the war began and after.

Both are from the ancient city of Apamea, founded in 300 B.C. It was a hub of commerce and culture in the Roman era. And it boasted one of the largest theaters of the ancient world. Today, it is pockmarked with craters, evidence of massive looting on an industrial scale.

Syria’s cultural heritage sites have been devastated by four years of war. Some in the region are battling to save the country’s history, but it’s oftentimes a life-threatening race against the clock. We traveled to Turkey to meet a Syrian archaeologist who is at the forefront of that fight. He asked that we not show you his face or use his real name. So, we will call him Saeed.

Early in the war, Saeed was part of a team called the Syrian Heritage Task Force, which sandbagged historic sites like this museum in Ma’ara, to protect them from Bashar al-Assad’s airstrikes.

SAEED (through interpreter): It’s not a war on our present. That’s what I believe. The war is targeting the human being that is alive now, who is also part of a history of roots. So we are fighting on more than one front. I choose to fight on the front that is that of history.

MARCIA BIGGS: When the Islamic State came in, they took Saeed’s village. He says the punishment for protecting secular objects is now death. Saeed has moved his wife and three children to Turkey, fearing for their safety.

Is your work worth this risk?

SAEED (through interpreter): There is nothing to gain from this. Most of the time, I don’t get money. But, at the end of the day, I’m a Syrian citizen and it’s my duty. Some Syrians are fighting the regime. Some are fighting against I.S. I would rather work in my field, which is protecting antiquities.

MARCIA BIGGS: While looting is occurring on all sides of the conflict, both the United Nations and the U.S. Treasury Department consider it a source of funding for the Islamic State, which Saeed says has even established a bureau of antiquities.

Looters are required to fill out permission forms like this one and hand over a percentage of their proceeds.

So, if you want to loot antiquities, you have to buy a license from the Islamic State?

SAEED (through interpreter): Of course.

MARCIA BIGGS: And then I.S. takes a cut, 20 percent or so?

SAEED (through interpreter): Of course. But they don’t offer any help or equipment. They just take 20 percent. If they offer help and equipment, they take more, 50 percent.

MARCIA BIGGS: Publicly, the group has made a campaign of destroying any un-Islamic cultural relics. Two months ago, this video surfaced which appears to show I.S. fighters destroying priceless artifacts in Iraq’s Mosul Museum. It later emerged that some of the pieces were not original.

Do you think that this is a bit for show, that they are actually selling quite a lot of pieces?

ASSAAD SEIF, Coordinator of Archaeological Research and Excavations, Directorate General of Antiquities, Lebanon: For sure. For sure. For sure. I mean, they destroyed the pieces that we saw they are destroying, but, of course, we know that, in Mosul Museum, we have lots of pieces. And it’s very possible that the other pieces were sold on the illicit market.

MARCIA BIGGS: Dr. Assaad Seif is an archaeologist with Lebanon’s Directorate General of Antiquities, working with local police to stop the trafficking of illegal antiquities across Syria’s border with Lebanon.

How much money have you seen in illicit trafficked antiquities that have come through this museum?

ASSAAD SEIF: If we just calculate the sum of them, we could reach between $5 million to $10 million.

MARCIA BIGGS: That’s quite a lot of money.

ASSAAD SEIF: Quite a lot of money, yes, but not as much as we think it has looted from Syria.

MARCIA BIGGS: Antiquities are smuggled from Syria through two main transit points, Turkey and Lebanon. They’re not being sold on the open market, which makes verifying their number difficult. But according to the U.N., the scale of looting is enormous.

Lebanese authorities say stolen antiquities make their way from here by sea to Cyprus, then on to Turkey, and finally to Europe. Experts believe that objects are most likely going underground to storage facilities and private collections, and they may reappear in several years.

Lieutenant Colonel Nicholas Saad leads the investigations on the Lebanese side and knows well the routes and the players involved.

LT. COL. NICHOLAS SAAD, Chief of Bureau of International Theft, Lebanon: There is an intermediary in Syria. There’s the expert who searches for the antiquities. There is the smuggler who brings it from Syria to Lebanon. There is the smuggler who have it in Lebanon and takes it to the port of Lebanon. And there is also the smuggler who has the ship to take it to Europe.

MARCIA BIGGS: This cell phone video shows suspected regime soldiers loading sculptures stolen from Palmyra, the World Heritage Site now under threat by the Islamic State. Smugglers in Beirut were caught after they advertised the statues on the Internet for $200,000 a piece.

How often are you busting these guys?

LT. COL. NICHOLAS SAAD: Perhaps once a month.

MARCIA BIGGS: And before the war, how many times?

LT. COL. NICHOLAS SAAD: Before the war, it was once every five, six months, never a month — eight months, once a year.

MARCIA BIGGS: Once smugglers are caught, their wares are brought here to the basement of Lebanon’s National Museum, where Dr. Seif’s team is in charge of housing and authenticating them.

ASSAAD SEIF: And here, we have lots of fakes that are transported and sold as real objects.

MARCIA BIGGS: Today, he is preparing to send back a series of genuine religious artifacts from the town of Ma’loula. A U.N. resolution adopted in 1970 requires that any illicitly trafficked antiquities be returned to their country of origin.

ASSAAD SEIF: This one is from the 19th century.

MARCIA BIGGS: So, all of these things will go back to the people of Ma’loula?

ASSAAD SEIF: Yes. We’re preparing the list in order to send it.

MARCIA BIGGS: Ma’loula, a Christian village with monasteries going back to the fourth century, where they still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus, it was seized by the al-Qaida linked Jabhat al-Nusra in the fall of 2013. And it remained a battleground between opposition and region forces for months.

Do you have any concern about sending these pieces back to an unstable area, to a war zone?

ASSAAD SEIF: It’s always difficult to know that a piece could be in a danger zone later, of course, but we have to respect the wish of the country of origin.

MARCIA BIGGS: It’s a scene that Dr. Seif knows all too well. Lebanon was locked in its own bitter civil war from 1975 to 1991.

ASSAAD SEIF: In Lebanon, we have lived this trauma before. We feel the deep sorrow and the deep feeling of incapacity sometimes that you are in front of a heritage that is being destroyed and you cannot do anything. It’s a very, very hard feeling to have.

MARCIA BIGGS: In the chaos of war, not even Lebanon’s museum was sacred. Militias used it as a military base, even creating a sniper’s nest in this 1,500-year-old mosaic.

Lebanese archaeologists raced to protect the pieces that couldn’t be moved by surrounding them with concrete.

ASSAAD SEIF: We had armed forces here sometimes inside the museum. So they used to make a small fire in order to make tea or coffee or something like that. So, you see the burning spots that are outside.

MARCIA BIGGS: When the war ended, the concrete was removed. These 3,000-year-old sarcophagi are now the centerpiece of the national museum.

All of these marks here…

ASSAAD SEIF: Are shrapnel marks.

MARCIA BIGGS: They would have been destroyed.

ASSAAD SEIF: Yes, of course.

MARCIA BIGGS: And they made it.

ASSAAD SEIF: Yes, they made it.

MARCIA BIGGS: But the battle for history in Syria is much harder to fight.

ASSAAD SEIF: In Lebanon, the conflicting parties were not trying to erase the memory and the past of the other.

But, in Syria, they are trying to erase all the memory, all the history of the other. And this is very, very dangerous. It’s like eradicating the whole past of a community.

MARCIA BIGGS: And with over 200,000 people killed and almost 12 million people displaced from their homes, a future for Syria is dying alongside its past.

MAN (through interpreter): Sometimes, the issue of antiquities tortures us more than when Bashar al-Assad strikes with barrel bombs or I.S. kills, because we can change the conversation and we can rebuild in the future when we get rid of Bashar or I.S., but history, we can’t remake. This one kills, and that one kills. This one destroys civilizations, and that one destroys civilizations.

MARCIA BIGGS: For Saeed, he told me it’s pain on top of pain on top of pain.

Marcia Biggs for the PBS NewsHour, Beirut.