By AT Asfha (Post Doctoral Researcher at University of Tsukuba and Lecturer at Mekelle University)
This article is written one year after the Tigray war began on Nov. 4, 2020. Tigrayans have been subjected to unimaginable atrocities that showed us the darkest side of human potential for malevolence and parallelly an endurance to survive in face of genocide.
Tigrayans have a long history of continuous statehood, religious traditions, and excellence in literature, art, and architecture. This resulted in a rich collection of cultural heritage. A large section of the Tigrayan cultural and religious legacy dominate the mainstream mega heritage narration of Ethiopia. Many Tigrayan heritage articles also litter the storages and libraries institutions in the ‘west’. As heritage articles are not for sale traditionally large numbers of these manuscripts and other collections were either forcefully expropriated or looted in Times of crisis.
The current conflict also opened another season of Tigray for sale when the invading forces disproportionately targeted religious and cultural institutions that are in the custody of the heritage. Tigrayan monasteries and castles are always perceived as treasure hoards of gold and other objects accumulated for millennia. Historically, warlords marching on Tigray used a rich collection of gold and artifacts as a motivation of war to their soldiers. The current war on Tigray also had similar characteristics. In a complete communication blackout, several heritage articles were looted from Museums and church collections. Actually, looting was at the core of conflict both as a war motivation and end goal to weaken Tigray through cultural genocide.
The early phase of the conflict when the international community was distracted with the US 2020 presidential election were the high times for the destruction of cultural heritage. Looting attempts in the monastery of Aksum UNESCO World Heritage City resulted in the massacre of hundreds of civilians who tried to protect the site from looting. The Aksum museum was looted, including 24 precious Aksumite Coins. Emperor Caleb’s tomb was also damaged by a mounted grenade according to architectural conservation expert Mekonen Hadgu. Takea Mariam Palace excavation site sustained damage by artillery. Many of the heritage shades of Bete Giorgis and the visitor’s platform of ‘Queen Sheba palace’ were dismantled and looted.
Almost all the religious institutions on the path of the battles were affected by the killing of their leaders and some sort of looting or destruction. Despite all these atrocities, many of the heritage advocacy institutions remained indifferent as the whole Tigrayans cried for a fraction of the attention given to the fire of the Notre Dame cathedral.
Scholars, concerned bodies of the international community, religious leaders, and Tigrayan scholars started to alert and question the condition of cultural heritage within the war under communication blackout. People traveled on foot for days to report heritage damage and looting in Al Nejashi Mosque and the Catholic church in Wukro. There were appeals, reports, documentations and series of letters from the Global Society of Tigrayan Scholars that alerted the international community. These helped in putting heritage sites into attention and helped decrease major destructions that can be visible from satellite images.
A list of victims of killing in the war on Tigray show, religious leaders protecting heritage were disproportionately targeted from direct killing. The Tigray Orthodox Church patriarchs listed 326 names of Priests massacred up to February 2021. Some writers wondered on a serious question on why religious institutions are affected by other followers of a similar religion. Orthodox Church leaders and members in Tigray describe their dismay at the Ethiopian orthodox church leaders and followers’ lack of empathy and even support of the war on Tigray. The intent of cultural genocide is clearly visible in this war. Keen observers of the conflict alerted the world on genocide.
The scale of the looting
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church Patriarch alerted the world that genocide is taking place in Tigray and many churches were looted and destroyed. A member of the Ethiopian government-appointed Tigray Interim government said he witnessed ‘a well-planned, well-executed, multi-states-sponsored campaign of genocide’ on Tigray. Ethiopian higher officials also discussed plans of wiping out Tigrayans with an EU delegation. Many Ethiopian religious organizers were explicit in their intent of genocide on many occasions. Appropriation of heritage without recognition has been a trend of ethnic cleansing. This meant markers of Tigrayan identity were either looted or destroyed on purpose.
The level of looting is still to be registered as some parts of Tigray administered by alien forces and the rest in a complete communication blackout. However, the level of destruction and looting is estimated to be only paralleled in history to the infamous invasions. A preliminary assessment by the Tigray Bureau of Culture and Tourism shows the extent of loss is very high. Reports of looting came out since November 2020 from looted religious sites in Adigrat Catholic Diocese, Al Nejashi 7th C. Mosque, Zalambes Lgat Church, Maebino Holy Cross Aba Zewengel Monastery, Yeha, Debre Damo, Waldeba Monastery, DebreAbay Monastery, Abune Thomas Monastery, MereaweChristos Monastery, Asira Metira, and several others. Many of these lootings are accompanied by killings and rapes of nuns.
The targeted plundered objects in the religious institutions include manuscripts, liturgical musical instruments, objects donated by royal families. Many personal collections of individuals are also looted including photograph albums. A member of the Tigray interim government installed by the Ethiopian federal government witnessed and testified heritage sites were deliberately looted and targeted under government army supervision. Local heritage professionals, who made damage assessments, also echoed similar views. Auxiliary materials of heritage like storage and exhibition equipment, vehicles, heritage site shades and building elements were targets of looting.
The largest museums in Tigray, the National Martyrs’ Memorial Museum and Yohannes IV palace Museum were both damaged and looted during the occupation period. Several collections of the museums are confirmed to be looted including clothes, jewelry, adornment, and ethnological collections. Some PoWs from the Ethiopian army were found with looted crosses, signals individual plunder also existed. Some army commanders converted Yohannes IV Palace Museum into a residence, moving out collections outdoors.
There are three estimated locations of looted objects
(1) Government institutions: based on the local information, many heritage objects could land within government storages of Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Amhara forces. This includes archival materials, historical and heritage valued materials, etc. Looting of objects was done in an organized manner with organized teams by all three parties
(2) Privately kept: Many army commanders and soldiers actively looted private properties including cars and household items. It is estimated that smaller movable heritage articles could be in the private holding of soldiers. This was supported by a large cross found with PoW. The soldiers were given shoot-at-sight orders during curfews and at deemed necessary, which motivated them to steal and rape, knowing people will not move out to help.
(3) Local people: the chaos during the conflict created several moments of statelessness. While many went on protecting heritage, some local people could go on stealing economically valuable goods like gold-made things, etc.
Call for Action
When the comprehensive list of looted objects is released we could know the extent of the damage. However, looted objects might start to resurface on the international heritage market. The international community has to flag such objects. The Ethiopian, Eritrean and Amharan governments also need to be asked to reinstate looted objects to their original places.
Independent investigation of the damages and looting is necessary that doesn’t include the perpetrators. Local and foreign professionals and institutions working on the damage assessment, rescue projects need to be supported by the international community through funding and technical support. Especially local Tigrayan universities and their staffs are instrumental in heritage protection, and they need to be actively supported for sustainable results.
Above all, one major obstacle poses the greatest risk to heritage. The communication blackout under total siege of Tigray. This has paralyzed any effort on salvaging the heritage of Tigray. Under genocide of its people, Tigray is for sale.
Let the world, say no to looted objects.