Rock art redux

October 25, 2010

Yesterday I received a request to appear on the BBC World Service’s Newshour programme, to talk about Saharan rock art. This request was precipitated by a story in Algerian journal Ennahar, about a meeting in Smaara, in occupied Western Sahara, aimed at addressing the problem of the looting and destruction of Saharan rock art. The meeting included the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA), and Malika Hachid, a big name in Algerian archaeology and cultural heritage, so had at least a modicum of respectability. However, one presumes that an international meeting held in Moroccan-occupied territory must have been organised through collaboration with the occupying Moroccan powers-that-be. Given the well documented abuse of rock art in the Polisario-controlled areas of Western Sahara and the subsequent publicity, perhaps this is another attempt by Morocco to take ownership of the issue. Perhaps not. A quick web search reveals no information about the meeting other that the Ennahar story. Any information on the meeting, or coverage of it, from those in the know is very welcome here.

In the end, the nature of the Smaara meeting wasn’t relevant to my 3 minutes on the BBC. After seeing the Ennahar story 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 “news” story about something that happened some 3 years ago, and which received widespread media coverage in early 2008. Prior to the interview I told the BBC that the vandalised sites had actually been restored (more on that below), and sent them links to earlier coverage, but they still ran with the old (and now out of date) “UN peacekeepers vandalise ancient art” story. It was enough to make me feel almost sorry for MINURSO, who were being dragged through the mud again on this topic, when they’d done their best to address the idiotic actions of some of their officers some time ago. I attempted to salvage the interview and do justice to the facts by pointing out that this “bad news” story had become a sort of “good news” story with the restoration, but the original Smaara meeting wasn’t mentioned, and the whole experience was somewhat bizarre. It must have seemed like an odd story to the listeners, although it was right at the end of the broadcast, in the slot that other programmes often reserve for amusing stories about animals. At least it was an opportunity to highlight the wider issues of the Western Sahara conflict and threats to cultural heritage.

Much more interesting than my participation in BBC interviews about old news is what ultimately transpired as a result of the highlighting of the vandalism of prehistoric rock art sites by MINURSO personnel. As those of you who’ve read my earlier posts on this topic will know, MINURSO undertook to ensure that such wanton, destructive stupidity didn’t recur, and to restore the damaged sites to their original condition, or as near as possible, if that proved to be feasible. MINURSO’s responses to the vandalism are briefly summarised in its 2008, 2009 and 2010 reports to the UN Secretary General, the last of which claims that restoration of the sites was carried out in February 2010.

Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to visit Lajuad, where the most dramatic damage was perpetrated, since 2007, when we first saw the vandalism, so I can’t comment on how complete or successful the restoration has been at this site. However, I can verify that the graffiti at the other heavily damaged site, at Rekeiz Lemgassem, has been removed, and that whoever carried out the restoration appears to have done a decent job, although this is based on a superficial impression formed during a brief visit rather than any systematic or expert assessment, and restoration to the aesthetic status quo ante was obviously impossible. (A visit in 2008 indicated some rather inexpert attempts to “rub out” some of the evidence prior to any formal restoration, and the logical, although unproven, conclusion is that this was done by MINURSO personnel trying to cover their, or somebody else’s, tracks).

Nonetheless, the circumstances of the restoration remain somewhat murky. I visited Rekeiz Lemgassem in October 2009, and the site had been fully restored then – some time before February 2010, when MINURSO claim the restoration was carried out. During my visit to the Free Zone in October 2009 I spoke with MINURSO, the Polisario, and colleagues involved in the restoration process. No-one, including MINURSO, was prepared to take credit for the restoration at Rekeiz Lemgassem. MINURSO said they hadn’t done it, while the Polisario claimed that MINURSO had already carried out the restoration unilaterally – i.e. without any consultation with the Polisario. The Polisario representatives I spoke with seemed quite put out by what they claimed was a lack of coordination and consultation with them on the part of MINURSO.

I’m still not quite sure what to make of the whole process, which remains extremely opaque as far as I’m concerned. However, given the fraught politics of the region, I suspect that MINURSO felt themselves unable to cooperate openly with the Polisario, for fear of upsetting Morocco (which refuses to recognise that the Free Zone, where the vandalism took place, is controlled by the Polisario, preferring instead to pretend that the Polisario-controlled areas are a neutral “buffer zone” or even part of Moroccan territory, rather than the de facto territory of a nascent Sahrawi state, which is closer to the truth). In order to stop the Moroccans making a(nother) petulant fuss about the whole affair, MINURSO would have needed to appear to be carrying out the restoration on their own (and not colluding with the Polisario), and would have felt that they needed to keep their distance from the Polisario throughout. The Polisario no doubt wanted to have a greater say in the restoration process – they have, after all, declared the area that includes the Rekeiz Lemgassem site a national archaeological park. So, the Polisario’s nose is out of joint here, and they are complaining about MINURSO’s “unilateral” actions on what they see as their territory. I’m sure there was some liaison, but this probably was more about MINURSO informing the Polisario of their actions than about MINURSO getting the Polisario involved (although the impression my Polisario contacts gave me was that such consultation was minimal to the point of vanishing). MINURSO are just trying to clean up after the stupid mess left by some of their ignorant, bone-headed officers, and are, as usual, more concerned with keeping the Moroccan wolves at bay than they are about upsetting the Polisario.

The overarching issue here is, as usual, Morocco’s tendency to sabotage any process that might have an outcome that isn’t entirely to its own perceived advantage. Given Morocco’s apparent sabotaging of MINURSO’s attempts to engage UNESCO in the restoration process (no assistance from UNESCO was forthcoming other than the name of a restoration specialist that MINURSO had already obtained from the University of Girona), it’s understandable that MINURSO wanted to do the restoration as quietly as possible. It’s also understandable that the Polisario are annoyed at being marginalised in the process. As usual, it’s all about keeping Rabat happy and ensuring that the number of toys thrown out of the Moroccan pram is minimal.

Nonetheless, at least the mess appears to have been cleared up, and that’s something.

Rekeiz Lemgassem, Example 1: December 2008

RKL 1 2009

Rekeiz Lemgassem, Example 1: October 2009