Some sites are damaged by their deliberate use and reuse. Although, at first glance, this may seem to be an issue of awareness, in many cases, those occupying sites are only too aware of their historic importance. For example, a group that occupied the historic Great Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, Syria, part of the World Heritage site, caused damage to the site (before it was then heavily damaged in later fighting).

The deliberate military use of sites encompasses the erection of fortifications and trenches, military buildings, and the planting of landmines. The site of Carchemish in southern Turkey was mined in World War II: the mines were only removed in 2011 (examined by Cunliffe 2016). Sites are also reused by desperate refugees (internally displaced persons, or IDPs) looking for shelter. During the fighting in Syria, there have been numerous reports of reoccupation of ancient tombs and villages built and abandoned more than a thousand years ago, for example. This reuse frequently heavily damages sites.

Mitigation: In the case of IDPs, desperation cannot be mitigated: all that we can do is remember the very human cost of war, and assist the delivery of aid wherever possible.  However, in cases of deliberate unnecessary use, we can work to raise awareness of the protection granted to such sites by international law. A number of studies are now ongoing (watch this space!) to examine the types and extent of such damage, to better understand the cost and methods of mitigation. The armed forces, emergency responders, and heritage professionals all need to be aware of the risks posed by armed conflict, of the laws that protect it, and to prepare for it accordingly.

Photo: Military fortifications at the Tentative World Heritage site of Apamea, built 2012.
Image: CNES, Airbus, via Google Earth. 02 May 2014

Read the NPR article on Syrian reoccupation of ancient tombs in our Media Library (opens pdf)

See the UNOSAT satellite imagery analysis of damage to the Ancient Villages of Northern Syrian World heritage site on their website

Read more about the protection granted to sites under international law in our Law Library