in Ali Baba! It´s all yours." -
Called The Americans
By Walter Sommerfeld
Translated by Dagmar Nearpass
& George Paxinos
SZ Süddeutsche Zeitung
8 May, 2003
Since the fall of Baghdad,
anarchy has reigned in this city of five million. Everyone is armed
to the teeth, and shooting can be heard around the clock, especially
at night. Shots are fired in warning, in fear, or in celebration, when
a district is suddenly supplied with power for two hours a day. The
greatest worry is therefore security. All former government employees,
hundreds of thousands of teachers, doctors, professors and civil servants,
have not been paid for almost two months. Theft, robbery and murder
are daily fare. Armed robbers commit carjacking in broad daylight. On
the other hand, neighborly help is experiencing an upsurge. Many districts
have formed citizens' protection groups, and everyday folk control traffic
with home-made signs. The Iraqis are artists at improvisation.
Particularly shocking for
most Iraqis was the fervor with which their infrastructure and cultural
heritage has been destroyed. Many independent eyewitnesses are unanimous
about this. Apparently the infrastructure of this ancient state was
systematically plundered, district by district. Whatever was not worth
the taking, was destroyed. In museums, libraries and cultural centers,
in the country's 15 universities, in every ministry with the exception
of the Ministry of Oil, in hospitals, state warehouses, hotels, banks,
palaces of government ministers, and also in the German Embassy, the
French Cultural Institute and the UN-Building. Even at the beginning
of May, plundering continued throughout the day.
>>A resident reports
how US soldiers commanded chance Iraqi bystanders on the museum grounds,
to go into the museum and help themselves: "This is your treasure,
These lootings were instigated
or tolerated. Many Iraqis report on futile attempts to get soldiers
to intervene. Even appeals to the command center in the Palestine Hotel
remained fruitless. Looters were both simple people from the poor quarters
and wealthy residents of the neighborhood. People stole for reasons
of poverty, anger, revenge or greed, and their spoils were often sold
off the same day on the streets.
The most surprising detail
in all reports was the assertion that American soldiers often made the
looting possible at all, by breaking open or unlocking well-protected
doors and then animating bystanders to plunder: "Go in, Ali Baba,
its yours!³ -- shouted the Americans, say Iraqi eyewitnesses. Among
Americans., "Ali Baba" has become an almost generic term for
Iraqi looters. A member of the UN Development Agency observed how Americans
forced open the Technical University, opened computers and removed their
hard drives, before allowing looters in.
Many Iraqis speak openly
about these incidents, but wish to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisals
and because they must now work with Americans. This also applies to
the staff and residents of the Iraqi Museum, more especially as their
observervations were so explosively shocking. On Tuesday, the 8th of
April, fierce fighting occurred around the museum, as it lies in the
center of town and is surrounded by strategically important points.
The armed civil guard designated to protect the museum had to retreat
in fear from the premises, which then fell into the hands of the Americans.
>>Only after one of
the Directors managed to reach a colleague at the British Museum via
a borrowed satellite phone, who mobilized British and American authorities
in London, did tanks roll up, which have been there since.<<
A high-ranking museum official
reports that the day after, two tanks rolled up, and American soldiers
broke open the doors of the main building and spent around two hours
unobserved in the display galleries. Afterward, they removed certain
objects and transported them away. Which objects these were, could not
be identified by him or other observers. What is certain is only that
most of the large and conspicuous exhibits were still present, due to
their difficulty of transportation, and that only the smaller exhibits
had been removed from their display cases to storerooms.
A resident reports how US
soldiers commanded chance Iraqi bystanders on the museum grounds, to
go into the museum and help themselves: "This is your treasure,
get in!³ For three days the plunderers worked unhindered and carried
away their booty in front of running cameras. The few museum employees
who had returned to work tried desperately to get American troops to
protect the museum. A few soldiers turned up for a short while, looked
at what was going on and disappeared again with the remark: "This
is not our order."
Afterward, employees worried
that as everywhere else, fires would be laid, destroying the irreplaceable
documentation, the excavation reports and the library. Two directors
of the Department of Antiquities therefore went on the Sunday to the
US Command Center at the Palestine Hotel. and had to wait for four hours
for an audience, before they were able to plead urgently for protection.
The commander promised to immediately send tanks and troops -- but two
days later, nothing had happened yet. Only after one of the Directors
managed to reach a colleague at the British Museum via a borrowed satellite
phone, who mobilized British and American authorities in London, did
tanks roll up, which have been there since.
Today, the Iraqi Museum is
the best-protected museum on Earth. Its workers and even its directors,
who are now cleaning up without pay and cataloguing the damage, are
allowed in only after personal and baggage security checks -- and are
very indignant: "We decide, who enters and when" said a soldier
on guard at the entrance.
Recovered objects are stored in a side building. As the Director General
showed me around, the tables held hardly more than 100 pieces, protected
by perhaps a dozen soldiers, who had erected their field bunks next
With certainty, some of the
most well-known exhibits of the museum, which had still been in the
display galleries, have disappeared (see list). The looters broke open
the storeroom undisturbed, whose contents ran to over 170'000 inventoried
items. Only since a few days ago, has a generator been able to restore
lighting, and the staff been able to take stock of the damage. The library
remained intact, also the excavation records and apparently too most
of the inventory lists. There has not been a total loss, but it seems
that the greater part of the collection has been looted.
Stolen antiquities were particularly
sought-after by journalists, so that armed gangs specialized in robbing
them along the 500-kilometre long highway from Baghdad to the Jordanian
border. One of those robbed reported that after he was robbed of his
car, the first thing the bandits wanted to know was: "Where are
the antiquities?" In one journalist's car, twelve boxes of antiquities
were turned up.
The most precious and non-insurable
artifacts, among them the famous gold-finds from the Assyrian Queens'
Graves in Nimrod, were stored in the safe of the Central Bank. Here
too, looters had long had a free hand, but meanwhile it has also been
protected by soldiers. Even the Directorship of Antiquities does not
have any information about what remains of these treasures, or where
they may be now.
On the other hand, even after
the international outcry over cultural pillaging in Iraq, the ongoing
destruction is still being tolerated. A European female colleague and
an Iraqi lady archaeologist report that in Babylon, the most famous
city of Antiquity, looting and burning had continued up until a few
days ago. Among others, the documentation of Iraqi excavations there
has been burned. As in Baghdad, representatives of the Department of
Antiquities pleaded in vain with US troops, who had housed themselves
in one of Saddam's palaces, only to be told: "This is not our order"
The 15 universities of Iraq
have been totally looted and burned. Only the University of Baghdad
in Djadaria remained untouched. There, Americans had made their headquarters.
Of the infrastructure of the Mustansanja University, along with that
of Bologna the oldest in the world, nothing has been left -- even fixed
installations were dismantled -- including the electrical wall-sockets,
and the campus burned down. On the campus of the Arts Faculty of the
University of Baghdad in Wazinja almost everything has been destroyed,
also its Department of Archaeology, which as extension of the Iraqi
Museum delineates the sources of the more than 5'000 year-old period
of high culture. The fires have caused several buildings to collapse.
Of the Library of the Germanistic Section, which contained over 15'000
volumes, only solidified slagheaps of ash remain.
In the meantime, professors
and students have begun clearing up the debris. Even this is difficult:
the gasoline reserves of Baghdad are being depleted, station after station
is closing down, to get gas, one must line up for up to five hours,
the price of gasoline has risen tenfold, and one can no longer afford
to drive to the university. Some rooms have been provisionally reopened,
individuals pay for padlocks out of their own pockets, so that their
work is not destroyed anew.
On May 17, the universities
are scheduled to reopen -- without furniture, libraries, paper, or administrational
records. Not textbooks and computers, but brooms and shovels, will be
the most important working tools now, and the lecturers will have to
each science from memory alone. Many wish to do it for the sake of the
students, so that they will not lose an entire year.
"Under Saddam, it was
bad, but now it is worse. Why was this done to us?" asked the director
of the Department of Archaeology of the University of Baghdad: "Our
future looms darkly. We have trust in nothing. We only wish to survive."
(The Author is Professor
of Oriental Philology in Marburg, and has toured Iraq for the past 20
years. He was one of the first German scientists to visit Iraq after
the war. Translated from an article in Süddeutschen Zeitung
a German newspaper.)