“An attack on heritage is an attack on the soul”, says historian during ICRC visit

31 January 2019
“An attack on heritage is an attack on the soul”, says historian during ICRC visit

The importance of protecting cultural heritage in times of conflict has been highlighted by broadcaster and historian Dan Snow, during a visit to Timbuktu with the ICRC.

The British presenter visited the remote town in Mali, West Africa, to learn about how local people hid precious artefacts and documents, risking their lives to shield them from destruction when conflict came.

"This place has exceeded my wildest expectations," said Snow during the visit. "Timbuktu was part of a dynamic centre of the Islamic world that covered thousands of miles across this continent into Europe and the Middle East.

"The vast collection of manuscripts here represent the most important set of documents and writings in the history of Sub-Saharan Africa. They, collectively, are one of humanity's greatest treasures."

The artefacts, rescued and hidden from armed fighters by the local community, are now on display in Timbuktu's local institutions.

"These objects survived destruction because incredibly brave volunteers took them away and hid them in their own homes, and brought them all back here," said Snow. "It's a story about what people are prepared to risk to protect their shared history."

Cultural property is protected under International Humanitarian Law (also known as the laws of war) which obliges parties to an armed conflict to protect and respect such property. This includes religious buildings, historic artefacts, works of art, historic sites and monuments. A recent survey by the ICRC emphasised that the majority of people living in areas affected by conflict also saw this as a hugely important issue for the future of their country.

"Everyone here has said that an attack on history, an attack on heritage, is an attack on the soul of a country," said Snow following his visit to Timbuktu. "Mali, without Timbuktu – without the buildings, the mausoleums, without the documents – is a body without a soul."

Read more about protecting cultural heritage here.