UN Personnel Vandalise Archaeological Sites

In 1991, the United Nations sent a force to Western Sahara to monitor the ceasefire between the occupying Moroccan forces and the Polisario independence movement. The Force, known by its French acronym MINURSO, was also tasked with facilitating a referendum on self-determination within the territory – in fact this was its principal purpose. Some 16 years on, the referendum has failed to materialise, and MINURSO is widely viewed by the indigenous Sahrawi, and by some commentators, as leaning towards Morocco. On a positive note, the ceasefire has been maintained without any serious violations, and MINURSO recently has been arranging family visits for Sahrawi separated from their relatives by the effective partition of Western Sahara.

So, MINURSO has overseen a period of relative peace and stability (or helped to maintain the status quo as Morocco consolidates its occupation, depending on your opinion), and has (belatedly) helped Sahrawi exiles in the refugee camps in Algeria maintain contact with family members on the other side of the Moroccan Berm that cuts divides the territory into two zones. However, it has singularly failed in its main task, which is to organise a referendum on self-determination. Perhaps MINURSO cannot be blamed entirely for the continuing stalemate, given the wrangling over voter eligibility and lack of will of the international community to resolve the conflict in Western Sahara in an equitable fashion, if at all. What is clear is that MINURSO is increasingly irrelevant when it comes to determining the future of Western Sahara. It is the view of at least some Sahrawi that MINURSO no longer has any business being in Western Sahara at all.

A recent visit (Nov-Dec 2007) to Western Sahara by this blogger revealed a more unsavoury legacy of MINURSO’s presence in Western Sahara – the deliberate vandalism of archaeological sites. The most dramatic example of this is at Lajuad in the Southern Sector of the Polisario-controlled zone, where MINURSO recently installed some communications hardware on the inaccessible (except by helicopter) summit of a smooth granite hill. It appears that the MINURSO personnel responsible for the installation amused themselves by spray-painting their names on the wall of a rockshelter that is also an important archaeological site (see photos). Although the paintings and engravings in this shelter are somewhat faint, it is difficult not to notice that the wall defaced by the MINURSO personnel houses ancient paintings and engravings, as does the floor of the shelter. Note the engraved and painted wavy lines in the second photograph below, under graffiti from what appear to be Egyptian and Russion MINURSO personnel (see this Flickr album for more photos of the defacement of the Lajuad rockshelter). Perhaps the visiting UN staff were encouraged by the apparently earlier Arabic graffiti – they have certainly left a much greater impression at this site.

Reviewing MINURSO vandalism, Lajuad

MINURSO graffiti over ancient rock art

This isn’t the first example of the deliberate vandalism of an archaeological site by MINURSO personnel. Similar defacement of decorated rockshelters by UN staff can be seen at the more accessible site of Rekeiz in the Northern Sector of the Polisario zone. Here MINURSO staff again have seen fit to write their names over ancient rock art.

It is a tragedy that UN personnel tasked with resolving one of the world’s longest running military and political conflicts are engaging in the willful destruction of important archaeological sites that have much to teach us about the prehistory of a part of the world that is virtually unknown to the international research community. It is also a tragedy for the cultural heritage of Western Sahara, and is indicative of a contempt for the Sahrawi people on whose land these crimes have been committed. The Polisario, who control the region in which this vandalism has occurred, have apparently complained to MINURSO about these actions, but as of late November 2007 had received no formal response.

It is clear that the destruction and defacement of archaeological sites is unacceptable. The only way for MINURSO to redeem itself in this matter, and by extension the reputation of the United Nations in this region, is to pay for the professional restoration of the sites that its staff have willfully vandalised. MINURSO must also make clear to all its staff that such actions will not be tolerated in the future. Any UN staff found vandalising archaeological sites should be disciplined, and preferably sent home. The funds for restoring damage sites might come from the relevant UN agency (in this case the Department of Peacekeeping Operations), or perhaps from the nations contributing to the MINURSO mission whose military personnel have taken part in these wanton acts of destruction. The guilty parties have, after all, been good enough to leave details of their home countries, their own identities, and the dates on which they committed their misdemeanours.

There is a further irony here, in that the personnel under the jurisdiction of one UN department are busy destroying archaeological sites as another UN agency (UNESCO) is about to embark on developing an inventory of rock art sites in Western Sahara with the aim of recording and preserving the territory’s cultural heritage. As long as UN staff on the ground in Western Sahara delight in defacing rock art, perhaps it is best not to advertise its location.

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30 Responses to UN Personnel Vandalise Archaeological Sites

  1. Ahmed Med Brahim says:

    Dear Sir.
    thank you very much for posting this article which not only shows that the MINURSO has failed to organize a long promised self-determination for the people of Western Sahara but also proves that the UN mission in Western Sahara is taking part with Morocco in destroying the archaeoligical sites in the territory. As a native of Western sahara how come i belive that UN can guarantee me a self-determination referendum while a group of the mission is just spending their time spraying paintings on archaeoligical sites on our land, i think they are like the occupying forces so it is better for them to leave our land before they do any more crazy actions

  2. Maybe this is an example of what the U.N is really doing in Western Sahara. Unfortunately, it is not NOTHING anymore. But damaging the soil. The U.N. must deeply study their roots, and start learning wnat to do, and what not to.

  3. Anon, UN DPKO says:

    This is dreadful and you are absolutely right to draw the world’s attention to it. Please publish the results of whatever action transpires.

    In particular, please tell us whether it turns out that these vandals were UN staff or national secondees; while the UN has quota systems for regions, nations and gender which results in being forced to hire many incpmpetent staff, this could also be the work of military officers seconded by member states. These people are not trained, selected or assessed by the UN.

    If this seems disfunctional then write to your Foreign Minister urging greater UN reform.

  4. You would think that any normal person – let alone the UN staff – would be awed at the history and beauty of this archeological site.
    In my opinion the same braindead people who are responisible for this wanton destruction should be made to pay out of their own pockets for the restoration, in addition to the UN offering an apology to the Sahrawi people, after all, as the author so poignantly points out, these people have left their names and dates on the rock face!
    Thank you Mr. Brook for this article!

  5. Sharon Cather says:

    It’s extraordinary that cultural heritage that has lasted millennia is routinely destroyed. Your suggestion – similar to one on BBC News – that the rock art should be ‘restored’ is, I’m afraid, rather naive. It implies that it is now possible to throw some money at the problem [curiously the BBC suggests UNESCO pays instead of the UN authority responsible for the vandals] and it will be solved. The damage is permanent and irreversible. Some cosmetic treatment is possible, but that is all. As you might imagine, graffiti spray paint is very robust and durable whereas the ancient paintings are fragile. A very great pity.

  6. A.W.Adie says:

    This sad situation seems to reflect the sorry pass to which the MINURSO mission has come after all these years. Yet another UN ‘initiative’ that has run – literally – into the sand because it lacks vital political support and proper resources.
    No wonder then that, neglected and left to wither in the desert, personnel morale may be below par. It would indeed be surprising if boredom, and the impression that they have been all but abandoned, unaccountable and forgotten in a remote and hostile land, did not have an impact on discipline, and bred resentment rather than admiration for a place the rest of us hold precious.
    So, such outrageously irresponsible behaviour, whilst unforgiveable, is perhaps understandable in the circumstances. However, your suggestion that the perpetrators should be sent home could – I suspect – unfortunately, have the opposite to the desired effect. Offenders should instead know they will receive orders they are to be redeployed for an additional tour among the dunes!

  7. […] Nick Brooks, who discovered the vandalism, has blogged about it here. […]

  8. […] of these people are all we have. In my defence Nick Brooks, who found this graffitti, says that this really is an underexplored area of the world. The finds from here could tell us about how the climate changed and how people adapted to life in […]

  9. anon former MINURSO member says:

    When I visited the Devils’ Mountains petroglyph site about ten years ago my Saharawi companion and me were dismayed to find a Russian obscene word in huge Cyrillic letters recently painted in white, and a few seemingly older lines in Arabic in dark colour. (I shall try to post the photos here.)
    It was sad, but the present situation is a shame. Still, as much as I -and many other commentators here- would not carry out such vandalism and find it regrettable, in the end one could also take a lighter stance: some people a long time ago left their signs on a rock wall (maybe desecrating it??), now some other people have left their signs on the same wall. It is just a reflection of how this planet is being treated in general. The damage made by big money to the ecosystem is more worrying than this vandalism, but where is the moral outcry?
    And concerning the anti-UN rhetoric mixed into the topic by some, let me say that the vast majority of MINURSO staff are doing their best under very hard conditions, but UN has a difficult time to act in the face of secret (and not so secret) support for Morocco by the US and France. It is about big bucks also in Western Sahara (phosphate, fish, oil, …)

  10. anon former MINURSO member says:

    sorry, no photos. Seems it isn’t possible to post images in a comment

  11. RK, UNICEF says:

    To anonymous former MINURSO member: that’s a fine act of moral juggling you have displayed. I’m afraid a “lighter stance” is not possible here, because it’s not a question of “old signs” vs. “new signs”. It’s a question of artistic images put up on a BLANK rock wall vs. writing “DICK” (that’s what they Russian word “хуй” means in the picture above, unfortunately) all over said ancient art. Has it occurred to you that one may be more valuable than the other? And to claim that this is insignificant because there are worse things happening all over the world is at best morally blind and at worst morally repugnant. It’s like saying “Well, at least you haven’t been murdered” to a rape victim.

    Also, do you not realize that by dismissing legitimate criticism of such barbaric behavior and chalking it up to “anti-UN” rhetoric, you are adding insult to injury and exacerbating an already bad situation. I can only hope that the current MINURSO management does not adopt this approach. I work for a UN agency myself (UNICEF) and I am appalled by these acts of vandalism regardless of any professional allegiance I may feel towards the people who have committed them. Their behavior is simply unacceptable. They may be the minority, as you have implied, but a spoonful of tar spoils a barrel of honey, as we say in Russian (yes, I am from that part of the world and yes, I am ashamed- I am pissed, in fact – that one of the vandals was my countryman). Find them, discipline them, better yet – sack them. People make mistakes and people can be misguided, but this story speaks of neither mistake nor misdirection. It speaks of malice and a sense of impunity. This should not be ignored.

  12. nickbrooks says:

    Dear all,

    Thanks for the interest and the comments here. I’ll follow up a few of them here. First, I’ll address the issue of rehabilitation of the sites, as raised by Sharon. I agree that it is by no means certain that the graffiti can be removed. However, it is worth assessing whether the site can be “restored”. This needs to be done by specialists in this kind of restoration – any “amateur” attempts to clean the graffiti off would almost certainly cause further damage. This is not an area in which I have any expertise. However, colleagues of mine in Spain are looking into the possibility of rehabilitation, and they tell me that such action has been successful at other sites. It has been suggested that the spray paint may actually be easier to remove than the ostensibly less severe graffiti in charcoal (at this and other sites). The idea is that the former might be removed be chemical means, while the latter might require more “mechanical” intervention. As far as I am concerned the verdict on whether restoration is possible is yet to be reached. But in my view it is worth at least investigating.

    Second, on UN, and specifically MINURSO, personnel, I don’t want to tar everyone with the same brush. I’ve met some decent MINURSO people who would be horrified at the damage. The civilian leadership of MINURSO are taking this very seriously, and I and my Spanish colleagues are communicating with them with the aim of addressing this issue in terms of rehabilitation and prevention of future vandalism. Julian Harston, the head of MINURSO, is on record in the press as saying that the personnel responsible are officers, not “squaddies” – he has publicly expressed his own outrage at what has happened here. So I’m hopeful that we can act in cooperation with MINURSO to protect the sites in these area – we will see how it goes.

    More comments from me later when I have a bit more time. But please feel free to keep the discussion going.

  13. Vandalismo: lo sport piu` amato dal popolo

    L’ispirante frase del titolo di questo post e` scritta su un muro, vicino alla Scuola Normale. Evidentemente il vandalismo non e` amato solo dal popolo, ma anche dai soldati della missione ONU MINURSO in Western Sahara. La notizia a cui faccio rifer…

  14. It is very disheartening as a member of MINURSO to see this vandalism, it is also very stupid and that’s what I find most infuriating. To deface any part of this amazing landscape, not alone with graffiti but with rubbish or anything not natural to this environment is unacceptable. I am ashamed to be associated with stupid act, by virtue of being in the MINURSO mission. I hope this sentiment conveys that the vast majority of MINURSO members are very disappointed with this action. IH

  15. nickbrooks says:

    I just want to say thanks to the serving MINURSO member for his/her comments. Of course it is not all MINURSO personnel who are responsible for these activities. Unfortunately the actions of a few reflect badly on everyone. So it is very important that responsible MINURSO personnel encourage their potentially less thoughfull colleagues to behave in a responsible manner. I hope that the recent coverage of this issue will help people like yourself to exert some moral pressure on other MINURSO staff, who might be tempted to leave their mark on archaeological sites, to restrain themselves. What we need to do is create a “moral environment” in which this kind of behaviour is seen as completely unacceptable. That is one of the outcomes that I hope for with all the coverage – a much more important consequence than simply generating lots of bad feeling against MINURSO, which is neither constructive nor my intention.

  16. […] may present a diplomatic obstacle to the rehabilitation and preservation of archaeological sites damaged by personnel from the UN observer force in Western Sahara (known by its acronym MINURSO), as I will elaborate […]

  17. […] месец дена не напиша сторија за овој настан. Меѓутоа да не постираше археологот Ник Брукс на својот блог и д…, не верувам дека одговорните во UN ќе ја признаеја […]

  18. EX MINURSO MEMBER says:

    Well, I remember when I was there at POLSARIO side, we took great care even not to pollute the environment, and stored all the garbage in a fire point. We were extra cautious not to litter the place, not to offend the SHARAWIs and above all only were allowed to take pictures of the TIFFARITI cave. Later we also restricted going neear the cave and touching or taking pictures pf the heritage. I don’t know how this stupid act of paintings took place. As far as I remeber, all patrols are being accompanied by a POLISARIO interpreter or liaison member, how he (POLISARIO) could allow this act! Anyway, I think all UN personnell should be brifed abouit this act and prevent any future misdeeds like this by placing boards and restricting personnen to go near the site. Thanks and I feel sorry and really asgamed as an ex memeber of MINURSO for this kind of act.

  19. EX MINURSO MEMBER says:

    Well, I remember when I was there at POLSARIO side; we took great care even not to pollute the environment, and stored all the garbage in a fire point. We were extra cautious not to litter the place, not to offend the SHARAWIs and above all only were allowed to take pictures of the TIFFARITI cave. Later we also restricted going near the cave and touching or taking pictures pf the heritage. I do not know how this stupid act of paintings took place. As far as I remember, all patrols are being accompanied by a POLISARIO interpreter or liaison member, how HE (POLISARIO) could allow this act! Anyway, I think all UN personnel should be briefed about this act and prevent any future misdeeds like this by placing boards and restricting personnel to go near the site. Thanks and I feel sorry and ashamed as an ex member of MINURSO for this kind of act.

  20. […] have responded (fairly promptly) to the complaints and associated publicity about the defacing of archaeological sites by their peacekeeping personal. The results can be seen in the photo, which shows a sign erected at […]

  21. […] A while back I wrote that UNESCO might be involved in evaluating and restoring archaeological sites vandalised by MINURSO peacekeeping personnel in the Polisario-controlled “Free Zone” of Western […]

  22. […] the UN (see previous post), it’s about time I provided you with an update on the vandalised rock art (see also the posts in the “Vandalised rock art” category to the […]

  23. […] mission (1). Things had changed since I last visited the site in late 2006, before the furore over vandalism by MINURSO personnel erupted. As a result of this scandal MINURSO had erected signs at  Lajuad and Rekeiz Lemgassem, […]

  24. Jochen says:

    You will have noticed this report:
    http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N10/300/20/PDF/N1030020.pdf?OpenElement
    which says…
    Conduct and discipline issues
    67. I am pleased to announce that the prehistoric rock art that had been defaced by
    MINURSO personnel, principally in the locality of Devil Mountain (Lejuad), near
    Agwanit, has been restored. MINURSO contracted with a team of restoration
    professionals, including an archaeologist, to repair the damage that had been done
    with spray paint. The restoration was carried out in February. In addition to Devil
    Mountain, it included a clean-up of some of the graffiti damaging the Tifariti
    (Rekeiz) cave paintings and the numbers painted on the rock engravings near Bir
    Lahlou (Sluguilla).

  25. nickbrooks says:

    Jochen

    Many thanks for this update. I hadn’t seen it, but will post an entry about it. However, the link doesn’t work – it takes you to a page on the UN documents site but not the document. If you can find a working link that would be great.

    All the best

    Nick

  26. Jochen says:

    It´s the report of the UN Secretary-General on the situation concerning Western Sahara, S 2010/175, dated 6 April 2010 –
    you can obtain it thanks to the UN online documentation.
    One way to access the .pdf is the Minurso report website at http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/missions/minurso/reports.shtml

    All the best
    Jochen

  27. […] story as a hook to talk about Saharan rock art, the Newshour team became fascinated with the MINURSO vandalism, and asked me about that. So the piece essentially became a “news” story about […]

  28. […] about the restoration of some rock art sites in the Free Zone of Western Sahara, that had been vandalised by UN peacekeepers, whose inability to live up to their mandate, and indeed their name, is going from strength to […]

  29. […] as an entry point for talking about Saharan rock art, the Newshour team became fascinated with the vandalism of rock art sites in Western Sahara by MINURSO peacekeepers, that was highlighted in 2007 and 2008, and asked me about that. So the piece essentially became a […]

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