News / Middle East

    Former Director of Iraq National Museum Remains Haunted by 2003 Looting

    For three days in April 2003 looters rampaged in the store rooms and galleries of Iraq's National Museum, making off with some 15,000 priceless objects. Art historians call it the desecration of civilization.
    For three days in April 2003 looters rampaged in the store rooms and galleries of Iraq's National Museum, making off with some 15,000 priceless objects. Art historians call it the desecration of civilization.

    Multimedia

    Seven years ago, in the chaos that followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein, looters ransacked Iraq's National Museum.  Donny George Youkhanna, at the time the museum's director general, witnessed the looting and is haunted by the memroies.  He fled Iraq in 2006 and has been teaching at a university outside New York City. 

    Art historians call it the desecration of civilization.  For three days in April 2003 looters rampaged in the store rooms and galleries of Iraq's National Museum, making off with some 15,000 priceless objects.  Many dated back thousands of years, to the great civilizations of Babylon and Mesopotamia.

    Donny George Youkhanna, then director general of the museum, remembers it well.

    "We had them here, single items unique for the history of mankind.  They were there in that museum.  And then, some of them completely destroyed, some of them looted, gone.  When I remember, deep inside myself, I feel my heart bleeding for that," he said.

    Youkhanna, who fled Iraq at the height of the insurgency, is teaching anthropology at a university near New York City.

    In his absence, the museum was restored with major donations from the U.S. and Italy. About half of the objects that were stolen or misplaced were located and retrieved by Iraqi and American investigators.  

    Last year, to much fanfare, the museum re-opened, although much of the exhibition space is still closed and only special groups can visit.

    Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki officiated.

    At the time, Youkhanna said re-opening the museum was premature. He said the museum was being re-opened for political reasons.

    He still expresses anger over what happened seven years ago.  

    Coalition forces, he says, had parked a tank a few blocks away from the museum.  He says he asked to have the tank moved to the museum entrance, but American troops had no order to intervene and stood by as Iraq's heritage was plundered.   

    One memorable moment that week was when then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dismissed the looting in Baghdad as unimportant. "Freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things," Rumsfeld said.

    Youkhanna says many of the looters knew which objects they were looking for and where to find them.  In other words, they were insiders.  On Sunday, April 12 Youkhanna returned to the museum to survey the damage. "It's a great shock," he stated. "The word "anger" is not enough."

    Fast forward to today, and a slide presentation Youkhanna gave at a New York museum.  "That Sunday when we came back to the institution this is what we found.  Over 120 rooms were trashed like this and everything was taken away, all the doors were smashed and papers were here and there," he said. 

    Fortunately, some of the most precious items had been removed from the museum ahead of the invasion, like the famous Golden Lyre of Ur, over 4,500 years old.

    "Before that time we had evacuated the real gold head," Youkhanna said. "We had the bronze head there, so they took the bronze head.  The gold head was in the Central Bank of Baghdad. "

    Still many valuable pieces remain missing. The FBI lists "The Lioness and the Nubian," an eighth century BC ivory plaque, as the "Most Wanted" work of art in the world.  

    "It's inlaid with precious stones and gilded in some parts," Youkhanna explained.  "That one was actually one of the masterpieces of the museum."

    Today, anyone can view the museum on the Internet. Italian curators inaugurated a virtual museum last year. But the worldwide search continues, with the goal of showing the real treasures, together, in Baghdad one day.

    You May Like

    US Watching as North Korea Holds Biggest Political Meeting in 36 Years

    Workers' Party Congress set for Friday; Washington anticipating possibility of another missile launch or nuclear test as top officials gather

    Video Pop Icon Prince Quietly Helped Afghan Orphans for Years

    He sent thousands of dollars to help an aid group rebuild a training center for orphan boy and girl scouts in Kabul, but kept his involvement secret

    Britain’s Muslims See London Mayor Race as Victory

    Mere running of 45-year-old former government minister and son of Pakistani immigrants Sadiq Khan seen by many as turning point

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Donations Rescue Afghan Parents, Children From Forced Labori
    X
    May 05, 2016 6:44 PM
    A Facebook campaign organized by a VOA radio host raised 150,000 Afghan rupees to rescue a family from forced labor at a brick kiln in Nangarhar province – the result of the father’s unpaid debt. Video by a VOA reporter in Jalalabad went viral this week and triggered the Facebook campaign.
    Video

    Video Donations Rescue Afghan Parents, Children From Forced Labor

    A Facebook campaign organized by a VOA radio host raised 150,000 Afghan rupees to rescue a family from forced labor at a brick kiln in Nangarhar province – the result of the father’s unpaid debt. Video by a VOA reporter in Jalalabad went viral this week and triggered the Facebook campaign.
    Video

    Video Kurdish Troops Recount Firefight Which Killed US Navy SEAL

    A U.S. Navy SEAL killed Tuesday, when Islamic State fighters punched through Kurdish lines in northern Iraq, was part of a quick reaction force sent to extract other U.S. troops trapped by the surprise offensive. VOA's Kawa Omar spoke with Kurdish troops in the town of Telskuf -- the scene of what U.S. officials called a "dynamic firefight."
    Video

    Video British Lawmakers Warn EU Exit Talks Could Last A Decade

    Leaving the European Union would mean difficult negotiations that could take years to complete, according to a bipartisan group of British lawmakers. While the group did not recommend a vote either way, the lawmakers noted trade deals between the EU and non-EU states take between four and nine years on average. Henry Ridgwell reports on the mounting debate over whether Britain should stay or exit the EU as the June vote approaches.
    Video

    Video NASA Astronauts Train for Commercial Space Flights

    Since the last Shuttle flight in 2011, the United States has been relying on Russian rockets to launch fresh crews to the International Space Station. But that may change in the next few years. NASA and several private space companies are developing advanced capsules capable of taking humans into low orbit and beyond. As VOA's George Putic reports, astronauts are already training for commercial spacecraft in flight simulators.
    Video

    Video US Worried Political Chaos in Iraq Will Hurt IS Fight

    The White House is expressing concern about rising political chaos in Iraq and the impact it could have on the fight against the Islamic State. The U.S. says Iraq needs a stable, central government to help push back the group. But some say Baghdad may not have a unified government any time soon. VOA's White House correspondent Mary Alice Salinas reports.
    Video

    Video Press Freedom in Myanmar Fragile, Limited

    As Myanmar begins a new era with a democratically elected government, many issues of the past confront the new leadership. Among them is press freedom in a country where journalists have been routinely harassed or jailed.
    Video

    Video Taliban Threats Force Messi Fan to Leave Afghanistan

    A young Afghan boy, who recently received autographed shirts and a football from his soccer hero Lionel Messi, has fled his country due to safety concerns. He and his family are now taking refuge in neighboring Pakistan. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from Islamabad.
    Video

    Video Major Rubbish Burning Experiment Captures Destructive Greenhouse Gases

    The world’s first test to capture environmentally harmful carbon dioxide gases from the fumes of burning rubbish took place recently in Oslo, Norway. The successful experiment at the city's main incinerator plant, showcased a method for capturing most of the carbon dioxide. VOA’s Deborah Block has more.
    Video

    Video EU Visa Block Threatens To Derail EU-Turkey Migrant Deal

    Turkish citizens could soon benefit from visa-free travel to Europe as part of the recent deal between the EU and Ankara to stem the flow of refugees. In return, Turkey has pledged to keep the migrants on Turkish soil and crack down on those who are smuggling them. Brussels is set to publish its latest progress report Wednesday — but as Henry Ridgwell reports from London, many EU lawmakers are threatening to veto the deal over human rights concerns.
    Video

    Video Tensions Rising Ahead of South China Sea Ruling

    As the Philippines awaits an international arbitration ruling on a challenge to China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, it is already becoming clear that regardless of which way the decision goes, the dispute is intensifying. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
    Video

    Video Painting Captures President Lincoln Assassination Aftermath

    A newly restored painting captures the moments following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. It was recently unveiled at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, where America’s 16th president was shot. It is the only known painting by an eyewitness that captures the horror of that fateful night. VOA’s Julie Taboh tells us more about the painting and what it took to restore it to its original condition.
    Video

    Video Displaced By War, Syrian Artist Finds Inspiration Abroad

    Saudi-born Syrian painter Mohammad Zaza is among the millions who fled their home for an uncertain future after Syria's civil war broke out. Since fleeing Syria, Zaza has lived in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and now Turkey where his latest exhibition, “Earth is Blue like an Orange,” opened in Istanbul. He spoke with VOA about how being displaced by the Syrian civil war has affected the country's artists.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora