There is a moment in Tim Slade’s compelling documentary, ‘The Destruction of Memory’, where the camera focuses on an ancient building on a hilltop and rests there just for a heartbeat, and the audience holds its breath. It is July 2014 and you know what is coming: a minaret will collapse, a rampart will fall, the skyline won’t be quite the same. Instead, there is a cataclysmic explosion. In one second, roiling clouds of smoke obliterate the entire hillside and you wonder how much of that hillside will be left. The next shot shows people scrambling over mounds of rubble. A monument – as it happens, the tomb of Jonah (he of the whale) in Mosul, in northern Iraq – has disappeared. Not just as a landmark, but part of the landscape itself has vanished; not only a piece of heritage but a piece of identity, a place of worship or pilgrimage, a home. Vanished, one more landmark of the mind.
The bridge of Mostar was another. I can remember as a young journalist in London hearing about this 400-year-old stone bridge and being surprised by pictures of it – how small it was for all that media coverage, how high. And how vulnerable it was amid the catastrophe engulfing the Balkans. It was still standing, still standing, though surely its days were numbered. When, in November 1993, it finally went, it felt even to me, who had never been there and had never crossed it, as if a piece of the bridge that takes us out of barbarism had just been obliterated, too.
“We expect people to die; we count on our own lives to end,’’ says the writer, Slavenka Drakulic, during the film. ‘The destruction of a monument to civilization is something else. The bridge in all its beauty and grace was built to outlive us. It was an attempt to grasp eternity.
‘’What sort of people do not need that bridge?’’ Drakulic continued. “People who do not believe in the future, theirs or their children’s, do not need such a bridge.’’
Since the Balkan wars, this sobering documentary tells us, monuments, museums and architectural heritage are no longer collateral damage; they have become the targets themselves. Anyone who has followed the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, or over the past few years the gut-wrenching devastation of Aleppo and Palmyra, must be aware of this; anyone, too, who has heard of the horrendous fate of Khaled al-Asaad, the 82-year-old Syrian archaeologist, who refused to disclose to Isis the location of the Palmyran antiquities he had protected all his life. He died rather than let his civilization’s most precious artefacts become the blood diamonds of another war.
Like journalists, aid workers, ambulance drivers and schoolgirls, a people’s cultural heritage is one of those soft targets that asymmetrical warfare these days cannot resist. Attacking it is designed to outrage, demoralise, isolate and undermine. Unesco is right to insist that the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage be considered a war crime. What this wide-ranging film, based on the book of the same title by Robert Bevan, exposes is that its destruction is not just criminal in its own right, but an alarm signal – for massacres and genocide yet to come.
Warlords don’t just ethnically cleanse a people. By erasing their culture, the places their grandparents built and that they seek to preserve for their children, they deny survivors an identity. Scrubbing out their physical history is an annihilation of an even more insidious kind.