Silent Victims of War

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

Wars bring devastating results. Wars destroy hundreds of lives and property. Wars have been the reason behind the vanishing of some civilizations from the face of the earth. Heritage is severely damaged by wars. The damage caused to heritage even after a war ends tends to continue unless measures are taken to prevent it. 

Sri Lanka, a country that suffered from a bloody war for three decades needs no explanation about the devastating effects of war. The three-decade war killed hundreds of people and destroyed the country in many aspects. Among the many things that suffered from the war, our heritage tops the list. 

During the war, we had no time, energy, and resources to focus on our heritage, as it happens in a war. Therefore, we should understand the need to take precautions during times of peace. We must understand that protecting our heritage during a war is not practical and will not be a priority; hence, it is crucial to look into this matter and take necessary measures to protect our heritage in advance.

Heritage in Sri Lanka and the war

During the three-decade war in Sri Lanka, many of our heritage sites and monuments were damaged, destroyed, and neglected. Unfortunately, we still do not have any idea about the number of heritage sites and monuments that were destroyed or damaged during the war. The gravest of these attacks was the bombing of the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy.

To date, the echoes of this bloody war haunt our heritage sites, especially those in the North and East. We must emphasize that we do not intend to talk merely about the Buddhist heritage of the country, but also of the Hindu kovils, Catholic and Christian churches, and Muslim mosques of these war-torn areas too, as we consider all of them as a part of Sri Lanka’s heritage. When we say our heritage it means ‘collectively,’ and not heritage sites and monuments belonging to one religion or race. Nevertheless, whether we like it or not, the majority of the country’s heritage is Buddhist.

Last year we witnessed a slight dispute between the Sinhalese and the Tamils in Mullaithivu over a recently discovered Yupa stone at the Kurundimale Stupa. Many incidents are reported about heritage sites being vandalized in the Northern and Eastern provinces in Sri Lanka at present. All these are repercussions of the war. Instead of establishing peace and reconciliation between the communities, our politicians and even international bodies are attempting to add fuel to the fire. 

UN’s problematic and contradictory statement about SL’s archaeology work

In the recently released Annual Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and reports of the Office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General of its 49th session, titled ‘Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka,’ it says that the archaeological work happening in the country such as the identifying of archaeological monuments and facilitating the repair or construction of Buddhist sites, conducted by the Government could impact livelihoods and increase the potential for new conflict as this program fears the minority communities of those areas. It further says that the Archaeology Department has taken over 358 acres of land in the Trincomalee District after they were identified as archaeological sites and expressed their disagreement for handing over some of these sites to Buddhist clergy.           

The statement of this 16-page report is highly problematic as it clearly does not understand the concept of heritage and the above-mentioned statements are evidently to spread hatred and deliberately provoke communities in the country. This also shows that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is poorly educated about ‘heritage’ as well as the idea of ‘peace and reconciliation. 

How does a country’s archaeological work cause dispute between communities? On one hand, UNESCO puts much weight on the protection of heritage all over the world, and on the other hand, the UN makes such bizarre statements with regards to heritage in Sri Lanka. 

What does the UN statement exactly imply? Do they mean that the DOA should put an end to archaeological conservation work and let the sites and monuments be further destroyed?

Why is heritage targeted during wars?

As we have witnessed during our lifetime, wars have destroyed many valuable heritage sites and monuments of the world. In 2001, the whole world, in tears, helplessly witnessed the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban. The Kabul museum was looted during the war. The archaeological looting of the National Museum of Iraq and the archaeological heritage of Iraq has caused irreparable damage. 

In the Bosnia-Herzegovina War in the 1990s, extensive damage was done to the heritage of Catholic Croatians and Bosnian Catholics, whilst Muslims. Churches, mosques, the National Library, and the town of Mostar were deliberately destroyed to wipe away any trace of the people who lived there. In Syria, most notably in the Citadel at the heart of the ancient city of Aleppo, the World Heritage site is facing a grave threat.

The point is that, in every war, heritage is endangered and is damaged. Museums are looted. Sites and monuments are wiped off the face of the earth. Why do people harm lifeless monuments? 

Heritage is material evidence of the past. Whether we like it or not, they are physical reminders of the past. They tell the story of people, races, and religions. Hence they have an identity. This identity is the very reason that they are targeted during wars. People attack the religious or national identity that these monuments bear. 

Also, as they have a high price due to their antiquity, material value, and aesthetic value, they are subjected to looting. These are deliberate attacks focused on heritage. 

Bombing and other devastating activities also harm heritage. 

The solution is not to remove national or religious identity from heritage. Also, as the above-stated UN report suggests, heritage should not be neglected nor removed in order to make communities satisfied. It is important to understand that heritage, despite its race or religion, is a part of the endowment of all Sri Lankans and of all mankind. This is why the world is concerned about heritage being damaged in Afghanistan, Palestine, or in Syria or Ukraine; because we consider ourselves part of the human race. The destruction of heritage anywhere in the world has an impact on all of us. 

A recent archaeological excavation in Sri Lanka revealed that the Siva Devala No. 1 at Polonnaruwa, was built on a Buddhist image house that was demolished. This is the historical truth and there is no need to feel hurt or hatred by this revelation. Also, there is no need to interpret this in modern terms and make it a point to spread hatred or racism. At one point of time in Sri Lankan history, we were invaded by the Cholas and they demolished Buddhist monasteries (not all, only some) and rebuilt Hindu kovils on top of them. This is the truth that we cannot change. This archaeological revelation does not mean that we must remove the Siva devale and conserve the Buddhist image house. Instead, what the Department of Archaeology does is cherish and protect the Siva devale as we consider it as a part of ‘our heritage’. Some of the colonial period buildings we have today are built on Buddhist temples; once again, what we do is preserve them as they are. 

Taking precautions 

We do not intend to say that there will be a war in the near future. However, we are a country that experienced a war. Still, the fire of misunderstanding and hatred has not fully blown over. The world is also raging in the throes of war and conflict. 

Hence, preparations and precautions are something that we must think of. Are we ready to protect our heritage if a conflict breaks?

It is important to understand what challenges we might face in such a situation. It is understandable that we cannot protect all the sites and monuments but we can protect at least some of them; the most precious ones. Some museums of the world have underground storerooms and safe lockers to protect the most important artifacts. These underground storerooms especially protect heritage during bombings. 

We need to have a list of artifacts that we consider as the most precious ones that should be given priority during such a devastating situation. Do we have the facilities to transport the artifacts safely?

Are there any financial provisions that we can spend on heritage protection in the event of such an emergency? 

We have to rethink, 

– Is our Heritage Management sector ready to protect our heritage in the event of a conflict? 

– Do we have a mechanism to protect our cultural heritage in such an emergency? (Policies, Legal and Financial)

Therefore, in order to protect heritage in such a situation, legal protections, prevention policies, and security measures should be sought to minimize the destructive effects. 

We need,

– Preventive measures,

– Preparation for risks and emergencies,

– Raising awareness,

– Community-centered security systems and

– Methods for restoration and repair. 

When should we make plans?

When should we make plans to protect our heritage? Should it be during a war? Preparations should be done during times of peace and in Sri Lanka, this is the best time to do so. 

Why is our heritage facing threats due to modern development projects? It is because we were never prepared. We cannot stop development, but we need to be prepared to protect heritage during such work. 

Wars and conflicts are inevitable and we cannot be sure that such unfortunate times will never come; not in the near future, but in the years to come, it is possible. Thus, preparation will do the least harm. This preparation and planning should be aimed not only at the next two or three years but a sustainable preparation for the next 10 or 20 years.

This process involves many stakeholders. Education and the media in the country, including the clergy, must play their part, while heritage professionals must work to formulate policies and laws.

We also need to analyze what could be the most vulnerable places and sites and also, document the sites and monuments. It is also important to analyze the situations of the world and learn lessons from them.

In this process, documentation plays a very important role. Having such a database is evidence to show what kind of heritage there was. This is a tool. This tool can be used to prepare policies, legal frameworks, and raise funds. 

What did we learn from the bombing of the Temple of the Tooth Relic? Have we learned any lessons? Have we analyzed this situation? We must analyze the situation and consult the experts who actively worked on the restoration work of the Temple of the Tooth Relic to make plans for the future because we cannot say with confidence that such a situation will not happen again.

The role of heritage in building peace and reconciliation 

Heritage is a powerful factor in building peace. In a country like ours which has been severely wounded by terrorism and racism, heritage should be more actively involved in the task of building peace. This has practically been done in some countries of the world. For this purpose, the need for a community-centric approach is significant.

Uncategorized, Ama H.Vanniarachchy, heritage in war, Sri Lanka war, Sri Lankan archaeology, United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Sri Lanka