Rebuilding cultural sites that were destroyed in armed conflict needs to be an essential part of urban reconstruction policies. However, as Shadia Touqan argues, rebuilding these sites cannot be addressed in isolation from what should be any policy’s priority: protecting the lives of the people who live there.
Culture and heritage represent people’s roots, history, identity, and distinctiveness. They embody communities’ values that symbolise their past, present, and their future aspirations. Safeguarding cultural heritage, particularly sites inscribed on the World Heritage List, represents more than safeguarding national or regional heritage, but rather humankind’s heritage.
Historic City Centres as Cultural Heritage
Many of the historic cities in the Middle East still represent fine examples of the living cities they were planned and developed as over centuries; planned to provide shelter and housing, commercial, cultural, educational, and religious functions for their residents and visitors alike. The original cities, which now constitute the historic core of the grown cities, offered economic opportunities and social stability for generations, within their boundaries and beyond.
Planning for Post-Conflict
The regeneration of inner cities and the revitalisation of historic centres have started recently to be regarded as part of overall national urban development plans for towns, cities, and urban centres. To achieve sustainability, planners are taking into consideration the long-term prospects and potentials of the city, including all its assets and cultural resources. This role of planners’ becomes even more crucial in the aftermath of man-made or natural disasters. One of the most urgent requirements in planning for post-conflict is to identify priorities: before embarking on planning for reconstruction, necessary emergency work and risk management for recovering and handling the physical damage needs to be ensured.
There is a need to follow a comprehensive dynamic and flexible approach during the planning phase for post conflict/disaster reconstruction. Importantly, the responsibility of local and international agencies is not limited to assessing the physical damage and impact on its cultural value. Decision makers and professionals must reflect on and examine the traumatic and destructive consequences of the conflict in all its manifestations and consequences on the local community.
Destruction’s Effects on Communities
Most recent examples of armed conflicts’ devastating effect on historic cities can be seen in the Middle East, where countries like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and others have been ravaged by war for many years.
Historic cultural world heritage sites such as Palmyra, Aleppo, Sanaa, Mosul, and others demonstrate that during wars and armed conflicts, little attention is given during military actions to avoid damaging cultural heritage. In some extreme cases, cultural heritage sites are especially targeted by the warring factions to impose their ideologies, disregarding international laws and ignoring calls and demands by international organisations.
In many countries, the scale and magnitude of the damage caused to both humans and properties in historic areas and sites will require involving professionals, who can offer the communities living in, or returning to, heritage sites their relevant specialities and competence to cope with the post-trauma effects on the community.
For cities’ inhabitants, the destruction of a historic site usually means more than the loss of a building. It is the loss of their past and future, their memories, dreams, security, and way of life. Such strong feelings by the community should be taken into consideration when restoration and conservation laws are applied, physical plans are drawn, and budgets allocated by professionals and planners. This means, for example, that the return of displaced communities to their homes should not be delayed due to strict restoration regulations. Regulations must be implemented in a flexible way that allows for the communities’ needs to be prioritised.
The urgent and immediate needs of citizens returning home to their destroyed houses and neighbourhoods after long periods of absence should be the first priority to the official authorities in charge of the reconstruction process. Special assistance for emergency work should be available to ensure that those most in need will be provided with shelter and basic services.
Upon their return, community’s expectations may be very high after months and years of alienation and despair, causing impatience and mistrust towards those in charge of restoration. Therefore, as soon as some technical and financial resources are available to start the physical and social rebuilding of their lives, the community should be involved with the responsible authorities to start the community’s healing process.
International Conventions And Standards
Conservation and heritage protection practices should follow international conventions and standards. In the early stages of planning for reconstruction it is important to examine their suitability, especially in extreme cases of severe damage to the historic built fabric and entailing loss of its community’s livelihood. In such extreme cases, thorough and perfect implementation of strict regulations is impossible. Consequently, these laws should be revisited and reviewed. Modifications and revisions should be applied, where possible, to address the new realities of war damage and its impact on the living heritage in historic cities and cater for the urgency and necessity of required actions.
To succeed in affecting a positive change in the lives of residents in war-torn historic cities is a complex, multi-faceted, and sensitive undertaking. Therefore, planning teams should follow a dynamic and flexible approach based on diverse and multi-disciplinary skills. Teams must have the knowledge and training to deal with the human dimension in the preparation for post conflict intervention as well as the professional skills for reconstruction and preservation of the historic urban fabric.
Policies must be defined and implemented as part of coherent strategies which are coordinated by decision makers and stakeholders to ensure that the relationship between culture and development is taken into account to promote positive interaction between the different sectors.
In post-conflict reconstruction of historic sites, an integrated approach is needed, based on achieving a balance between catering for the needs and priorities of the community and the responsibility for carefully preserving the valuable monuments and historic fabric of cultural sites. In any case, safeguarding heritage for humanity must start with protecting the lives of humans.