‘This is not collateral damage’

In June 2014, town of Mosul in northern Iraq fell to the forces of the so-called Islamic State in a matter of days.

Omar Mohammed, a historian on the University of Mosul, noticed all of it first hand. Risking his life, he knowledgeable the skin world about ISIS’s atrocities by running a blog anonymously as ‘Mosul Eye’.

One of the primary issues ISIS did was to destroy a shrine mentioned to be the tomb of the prophet Jonah, or Younis.

Revered by Muslims, Christians and Jews, and constructed on the foundations of a 7th Century BC Assyrian palace, Mohammed says that the individuals of Mosul had lengthy believed that the positioning conferred particular safety.

“The city lived over the centuries with the notion that we are divinely protected, and no one can actually dare to damage or harm the city,” he says.

When ISIS blew it up, that worldview disintegrated. People thought, “if they are capable of destroying that site, therefore they are capable of doing everything,” he says. “Which immediately actually led to the collapse of the resistance and the resilience of the people.”

An Iraqi soldier guarding the ruins of the tomb of Jonah, a UNESCO world heritage website in Nebi Yunus, japanese Mosul, after its liberation from the Islamic State in January 2017 (Photo: Martyn Aim/Corbis through Getty Images)

When Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in 2022, Mohammed watched because the Russian military struck museums, monuments, church buildings and Jewish holy websites. In his thoughts, the parallels have been apparent. This was not unintended.

“They are targeting the grounds of the existence of the nation,” he says. “Russia was destroying all of these elements in an attempt to bring the Ukrainians to a moment to accept all the conditions that Russia will impose.”

He vehemently disagrees with those that say the destruction is unintentional. “Their targeting of a church, then a synagogue, then a mosque, then a Holocaust memorial… it showed you that there is a pattern in the operation,” he says.

“This is not just the collateral damage of the war, there is a deep context behind this – ‘we are going to destroy everything that represents your identity’.”

Damage to a church after a Russian assault in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Ukraine’s army mentioned Russia destroyed greater than 60 spiritual buildings throughout the nation within the first month of the battle (Photo: AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)

But Ukraine is combating again. A bunch of younger Ukrainians have launched a motion known as the Shadows Project. With its very existence as a nation at stake, the group is selling Ukrainian tradition inside and outdoors the nation, fundraising to guard its artwork and documenting Russia’s destruction of cultural heritage. And Mohammed helps them.

Agatha Gorksi is a Ukrainian pupil at Sciences Po in Paris, France, and one of many co-founders of the Shadows Project. The challenge was created by a gaggle of like-minded younger Ukrainians in early 2021 with the concept of “preserving and advocating for Ukranian culture”. On its Instagram profile, the group share content material about Ukrainian artists, writers, historic figures, meals and cultural costume, all dropped at life with arresting trendy graphics which seem like they may grace album covers. The group makes use of a “multimedia, fun approach” to encourage individuals to “engage with history, culture, traditions, but in a very modern sense,” Gorski explains. It may contain a publish imagining what it could be wish to “go on a Tinder date” with one of many Cossacks, she says. The group additionally wished to “share Ukrainian culture with people living abroad”, so the challenge’s output is in English in addition to Ukrainian.

The challenge was, in fact, a direct response to a risk from the east. Russia’s shadow has loomed over Ukraine for hundreds of years, however the necessity to assert the nation’s impartial identification turned rather more pressing after Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and covert invasion of the Donbas.

Everything in regards to the Shadows Project is freighted with symbolism. The identify is a homage to Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, the landmark movie by Sergei Parajanov. A rare-Ukrainian language movie when the nation was a part of the USSR, its premiere in Kyiv in 1965 became an open protest in opposition to Soviet repression (in 1973, Parajanov was himself thrown in a gulag). The group’s putting emblem depicts a faceless “motanka” – a conventional Ukrainian doll believed to thrust back evil spirits. The facelessness of the motanka, and the truth that individuals beautify it otherwise relying on what area of Ukraine they’re from – are each important. “We really wanted to have her be faceless because it’s this idea that anyone can really put their face into this representation,” Gorski says. “We’re curating very diverse and different experiences which is something that is very key to the Ukrainian identity, because we live in a country which is incredibly diverse.

“Anyone can be in the project, anyone can be a part of the community, anyone can be Ukrainian. It means something different to every person.”

On 24 February, Russia invaded Ukraine and it modified all the pieces. As a Kyiv resident, Gorski escaped it by a whisker. With tensions rising, she had determined to relocate to Paris to proceed her research on 23 February (as a result of she was nervous about direct flights being cancelled, she travelled to France through a practice journey to Poland). Her buddies thought she was overreacting. “The general sentiment was that something was going to happen but it was going to be in the east, or at least it wasn’t going to happen as fast, it wasn’t going to be the whole country being bombed,” she recollects. “So I made this rash decision, and a lot of my friends were telling me, ‘why are you leaving, don’t worry, it will be fine, a few days won’t change anything’.” Gorski crossed the border about an hour earlier than the bombing began. Her household in Kyiv needed to make a unique escape. “They left the first day and they went westwards,” she says. “It was a very difficult couple of days because they were on the road for three days and the cities that they were staying in, they were getting bombed constantly.” Her sisters at the moment are in security in Germany.

The expertise was profoundly dislocating for Gorski. “For me it was a huge shock just because I saw [Kyiv] the night before. It was alive. I was out, I was doing things… it was basically business as usual.”

With the invasion, the work of the Shadows Project was solid in a brand new mild. Russia actually threatened to wipe Ukraine off the map. In a televised handle on 21 February, Putin had spoken about how “Ukraine never had a tradition of genuine statehood.” A column for state information company RIA Novosti claimed that Ukrainian nationwide identification was synonymous with Nazism. “Denazification is inevitably additionally deukrainisation,” it mentioned. “Ukrainian culture is literally under fire, it’s very much like we’re fighting for its survival,” Gorksi says. “We’re not only fighting Russia in terms of our physical territory and terrain, but also on the cultural front.”

By probability, she occurred to be finding out at a college with somebody who knew all about cultural warfare. Unable to return to Mosul, Mohammed now teaches Middle East historical past and cultural heritage diplomacy at Sciences Po. Gorski had beforehand been launched to him when engaged on a college project, however when Mohammed turned conscious of the Shadows Project, he “reached out”.

Mohammed believes it’s important that Ukrainians cling on to their tradition. “He who controls your past will control your future,” he warns. “If you are unable to build your own narrative, no violent battle will actually defeat your enemy. It’s only if you have a strong narrative.” Preserving each cultural website doable is important. “The visible elements of your identity, that’s what defines you, that’s what actually represents your past, present and future,” he says. “You can rebuild a hospital, you can rebuild a street, you can rebuild a house. You can rebuild everything. But how could you actually restore the memory and the identity of a historical site that you have been living in all your life?” Working on the restoration of Mosul because it was liberated in 2017, Mohammed says that financial and non secular life have returned to town. The hardest “struggle” is to now restoring the “cultural representation” of various teams.

Gorski says Mohammed’s recommendation has been invaluable. “I reach out to him a lot just for guidance and some direction as to how we should be dealing with this, because his knowledge is very extensive.”

One of the primary priorities of the Shadows Project for the reason that invasion has been to bolster efforts to protect Ukraine’s artwork and historic artefacts. The group has raised cash to purchase fireproof safes and blankets, turbines, and different provides for Ukrainian museums. One of the co-founders, Catarina Buchatskiy, has taken a go away of absence from her research at Stanford University within the US and moved to Poland so she will coordinate the movement of supplies throughout the border.

Unfortunately, not all the pieces could be saved. What is destroyed needs to be recorded. Mohammed – who revealed to the skin world what was taking place in Mosul beneath ISIS – says it’s “very important” for Ukrainians to “document what’s happening now”. It’s important to sustaining the narrative he talks about – “a narrative that is not based on false information” however “facts, the truth, on the records”.

On its Twitter profile, the Shadows Project publish photos of cultural destruction, from bombed out architectural gems to a monument to Ukraine’s nationwide poet, Taras Shevchenko, riddled with shrapnel holes. Gorski has sources on the bottom serving to her to doc the injury. Samuele Minelli, a fellow pupil of Gorski’s at Sciences Po, has joined the group to create an interactive map which is up to date each day to chart the cultural destruction within the nation.

A monument to Taras Shevchenko within the metropolis of Borodyanka (Photo: Hennadii Minchenko/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing through Getty Images)

Given the appalling lack of human life in Ukraine, it’s comprehensible that tradition just isn’t essentially on the forefront of individuals’s minds. But Mohammed says it can’t be missed. Ukrainians will want it when the battle does finally finish. “I struggled honestly during the time of Daesh to find people – of my people, in Mosul – who can think about tomorrow,” he says. “Some people will just decide, ‘why would I care about my culture?’ They will just seek a new life. And rightly so – people need to live their life. But how could you rehabilitate your nation without history, without visible heritage?

“Why would we ask people to think about cultural heritage when there are hundreds of people getting killed? But you have to take the responsibility, you have to sacrifice something, someone has to do something, because history is in the making and it’s actually not about the past. History is about our tomorrow.”

Looking at initiatives just like the Shadows Project, he feels heartened that Ukraine’s “future is going to be safe”.

When requested what the Shadows Project desires from the worldwide group, Gorski says in the beginning that Ukraine just isn’t forgotten. As the battle drags on, there are issues it should slip down the information agenda. But the group additionally need elevated recognition of Ukraine’s cultural contribution to the world. Earlier this month, the National Gallery altered the title of Edgar Degas’ drawing Russian Dancers to Ukrainian Dancers. The Shadows Project are campaigning for galleries to cease referring to Ukrainian-born Kazimir Malevich as a Russian artist.

Gorksi is optimistic in regards to the future. “A lot of people say ‘Ukrainians are so strong, you’re so brave’, but for us it’s very natural,” she explains. “We’ve always had this understanding that we always have to fight for our freedom, and that’s the only way we’re going to get it… as long as we have our land we’re going to rebuild everything.”

Mohammed says what performs out in Ukraine will reverberate all over the world and lengthy into the long run. “They are actually under existential threat,” he says. “Russia is threatening to uproot their identity and if the world actually allows this, we will allow other things to happen. We will allow more demolition of cultural heritage to happen.”

“What the Ukrainians are saying is ‘Look, this is our identity, we want to preserve our identity… we are not using it to attack you, we are not using it to hate you, it is our identity, we want to enjoy it.’

“Is that too much to ask?”

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