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India in history’s dustbin
- Tanks outside looted museum, burnt books inside library
Iraqis gather books from a burnt library in Baghdad. (AFP)

Mazin al Wattar and Camarin al Jaff wait at the gates of the Iraq Museum because they have been denied entry into Hotel Palestine where journalists from all over the world and the US Marines have set up camp.

The two believe that they have lost their jobs — Mazin in Baghdad University and Camarin in al-Mustansiriyah University — and are looking for work as interpreters. Mazin was teaching biotechnology, Camarin computers. Three days after news broke of the looting of the Iraq Museum, Mazin and Camarin decided to take a look themselves.

The gates to the museum are barred. Soldiers guard its perimeter. Lieutenant Erik Balascik says director Donny George is inside but will not meet anyone. Only employees will be allowed in. It is a day after three Abrams tanks rolled into the campus to guard the museum. The first tank to roll in had the words ‘With the compliments of the USA’ scrawled on its body.

Mazin says they will try again, later. They really want to have a look inside.

So Mazin and Camarin leave, and head for Bab al Muadam where Iraq’s National Library is.

It is a wreck, each one of its floors. “The library had different sections divided period-wise and country-wise,” says Camarin. The walls are covered with soot, the edges of photocopiers have melted, as have the edges of the metal containers on the catalogue shelf along one wall. Miraculously, the bigger wooden containers along another wall are mostly intact.

Inside the building, it is warm from the heat and the fire. The floors are a pile of charred debris comprising containers of microfilm, half-burnt journals, a copy of the November 11, 2002, issue of the Iraq Daily with a tribute to the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, and hundreds and hundreds of cards from the catalogues.

Camarin picks a few up and turns them over. Typewritten uniformly, they are references to:

1)823 T 737: London, George. Towards Democracy. Allen & Unwin 1915. 519p

2)923.254 A 991: Azad, Abul Kalam, India Wins Freedom, New Delhi, Sangam 1978

3)823 I 54: Ingram, John H; The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, England, Adam and Charles Black 1883

4)378.013 I 39: Indian Council for Social Science Research, Social Sciences in Professional Education, New Delhi 1976.

Allah ho Akbar, Allah ho Akbar, Allah ho Akbar,” Mazin mutters as he picks his way through the damage from room to room. The windows are smashed, the doors have been taken away, there is a lot of film lying in what used to be the reading room on the ground floor.

“Even my university has been looted,” says Mazin. “They have taken away scientific instruments and computers.”

There is the sound of feet crunching in a room they have just crossed, and voices in Arabic. Mazin and Camarin suspect danger. A youth comes in, followed by five others, two carry guns that look like AK-47s.

“Who are you, what are you doing here'” they ask gruffly. They speak in Arabic. Mazin and Camarin are given two minutes to leave. Walking through the front, Mazin says these boys claim they have come to guard what’s remaining of the library but he suspects otherwise. Just outside the compound, a large container-truck is parked in the lane leading into the library building. The vehicle does not have number plates.

In the city, the US forces are just beginning to settle down and guard “important” structures. Some, like the oil ministry, were secured immediately after they took the capital. Mazin says he has heard that the Americans have appointed a new mayor for Baghdad but has no idea where his office is.

They head back to the museum, may be the officer, the lieutenant there, can help. The museum is in Salhiya, a 20-minute drive through scanty, but cautiously moving, traffic. But the lieutenant has gone inside on work and there is another soldier in his place standing sentry at the locked gates that are opened only to let employees in.

Who do Mazin and Camarin turn to'

One museum employee says he is rejoining for the first time since the pillaging and cannot help. He has to go. What about the museum, how is it' “Before the war, we had packed a lot of artefacts into boxes and had made arrangements for their safekeeping. I do not know if those boxes have been looted. I’ll have to find out,” he says.

Mazin says that despite the years of hardship, Iraqis are actually very proud of their history. Even Saddam Hussein encouraged archaeology. He opened regional museums.

Once, he reconstructed a palace in Babylon, normally an hour’s drive south of Baghdad. A notice near the site also announced that the palace was rebuilt by Saddam Hussein “protector of civilisation (who) rebuilt this palace belonging to Nebuchadnezzar II”.

Looting of museums is not new in Iraq. Which is why the looting of the Iraq Museum is such a shock. There was the experience to learn from: it had been looted in 1991.

The saving grace is that Iraq’s treasure troves of historical riches are inexhaustible. There is Baghdad and Babylon and Nineveh and Ur and Hatra. Through the centuries, there was Mesopotamia, the Sumerians, the Assyrians, the Abbasids, the Mongols, the Persians and the Ottomans.

When the US marines were still coming into Baghdad and the museum was being pillaged, an employee had gone up to them and sought help. But the American forces were too busy elsewhere.

Later, a heartbroken Donny George laments the loss. “We are still assessing and evaluating. I will know only after some time.”

Till then, the Iraq Museum will have three massive displays in its front yard: each about 32 feet long, 12 feet wide and nearly eight feet high; each running on tracks and boasting highly mobile firepower: M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tanks.

(This report was written on return from Baghdad)

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