Heritage is often lost or damaged in conflict as a consequence of development (both buildings and agricultural expansion). It’s important to note that the loss of heritage from illegal development is a common problem in peacetime. However, during conflict, the staff charged with protecting sites – whether heritage staff or law enforcement – are frequently unable to access sites to enforce protection. As a result, the destruction of sites to build new houses, or increase the size of fields can become a major problem, particularly at significant sites that may otherwise have been well protected. Whilst the new buildings can be removed, the demolition cannot be undone. Stone robbing is also a problem, as those in need of building materials take the cut stone from existing historic buildings. The rapid destruction of towns – whether from conflict or a natural disaster – also leads to rapid redevelopment, where the urgent need to provide shelter for those who live there, and to restart the economy, frequently overrides the need to take account of heritage, the recovery and rebuilding of which is very slow. The plans for the rebuilding of Beirut, for example, frequently failed to take account of the extensive archaeological layers revealed by the clearance of the rubble, so no money was allocated for their excavation or the storage of finds, and there was extensive loss. In addition, many historic buildings that could perhaps have been saved or rebuilt were cleared away, leading some to call contemporary Beirut’s centre “soulless”.

Mitigation: As far as possible, site guards and those responsible for enforcing heritage laws should be supported to continue their work to protect sites and, when the situation permits, national prosecutions should be carried out to punish those who demolish historic areas, acting as a deterrent to future illegal development in the post-conflict period. In addition, those dealing with heritage reconstruction should contact those who deal with larger-scale rebuilding of infrastructure, to raise the importance of heritage in post-conflict rebuilding, both in terms of funding requirements and potential to contribute to community rebuilding. This work will benefit considerably from accurate plans of the location of heritage sites, completed (as far as possible) during peacetime.

Photo: The Yellow House (Barakat Building), Beirut, is located on the former “green line”. It is now a museum. 2009, by Elie plus, via Wikimedia Commons.

See more information about the rebuilding of downtown Beirut on the Aleppo Project’s website (including the comment at the bottom)

See examples of development during conflict in this satellite imagery analysis of damage to sites in Syria during the conflict by UNOSAT