Unlike the widely reported attacks by Islamic State on historic sites in Syria and Iraq, the loss of Yemen’s cultural heritage due to continued violence and political instability has received little media attention. According to Unesco, many historic buildings were bombed on 11 May in the Old City of Sana’a, a World Heritage Site. The Old City of Saa’dah, submitted by Yemen as a tentative site to the World Heritage List, and the historic city of Baraqish were also reportedly damaged.
Fighting has repeatedly erupted across the country since 2011, as separatists, rebel groups and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) challenge the Saudi-installed president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi’s government for power. Druing this time, museums across Yemen have been looted, with Zinjibar Museum in Abyan Province, now virtually empty, serving as a temporary home for displaced people. Airstrikes, launched by a coalition of Arab states, have occurred regularly since March, following the taking of Sana’a by the Houthis, a rebel group. A five-day humanitarian cease-fire was in place from 12 May, but violence has since resumed.
“I condemn these destructions and I call on all parties to keep cultural heritage out of the conflict”, Irina Bokova, Unesco’s director-general, said in a statement. “I am particularly distressed by the news concerning air strikes on heavily populated areas such as the cities of Sana’a and Saa’dah. In addition to causing terrible human suffering, these attacks are destroying Yemen’s unique cultural heritage, which is the repository of people’s identity, history and memory and an exceptional testimony to the achievements of the Islamic civilisation.” Unesco has since launched an emergency response plan, supporting local heritage experts by providing training in risk management and the rapid assessment of damage to cultural sites.