Nearly 500 Kuwaiti artefacts remain missing after war
James Calderwood, Foreign Correspondent
• Last Updated: June 30. 2010 12:45AM UAE / June 29. 2010 8:45PM GMT
Nawaf al Failakawi of the Kuwait National Museum shows some of the recovered items. Gustavo Ferrari / The National
KUWAIT CITY // War reparations and the exchange of bodies from mass graves are not the only problems facing Iraq and Kuwait as they try to repair a relationship left in tatters by the 1990 invasion.
Just as mystery surrounds the fate of Iraqi artefacts missing since the 2003 US-led war, a dusty storeroom in the Kuwait National Museum has records of an issue that curators say is just as important – looted artefacts from Kuwait’s rich history.
“Our artefacts are important, because we don’t have so many,” said Nawal al Failakawai, an archaeologist who has worked in the museum for the past 21 years. “We’re not like Egypt or Iraq – they have so many archaeological items.”
After the invasion, government buildings and private houses throughout Kuwait were looted. Ms al Failakawai said about 6,000 items were stolen from the museum for a show in Baghdad.
The occupation lasted seven months. When the country was liberated by coalition forces in February 1991, a team of Kuwaiti experts left for Baghdad under the auspices of the United Nations to reclaim their stolen heritage.
They retrieved about 5,500 of their exhibits, and the museum has records of 487 treasures that have still not been found. “Maybe someone liked them and kept them for themselves, maybe it’s political,” Ms al Failakawai said. “It’s our history and our tradition, so it’s very important for our children to see what we had in the past.”
The returned items included important historical finds, including a stone inscribed in Greek that was discovered on Failaka Island, identifying an ancient Hellenistic settlement there. The discovery inspired European interest in Kuwait’s history and subsequent missions during the 1950s unearthed many of the country’s treasures. Some were returned damaged, including the Ikaros Stela, a large stone block inscribed with instructions from a Greek ruler to the island’s inhabitants. The block sits in the museum’s storeroom after being reassembled from pieces.
“They returned so many broken jars, and some of the important artefacts went missing, I’d estimate up to 20 per cent of the returned items were damaged,” Ms al Failakawai said, as she leafed through files with pictures of the missing items, including an ornate Quran from the Islamic period, seals from the bronze-age Dilmun civilisation and Roman coins.
One museum ravaged by fire and yet to be repaired housed a vast private collection owned by two members of the royal family, Sheikh Nasser Sabah al Ahmed al Sabah and his wife, Sheikha Hussah.
An official with Dar al Athar al Islamiyyah, which manages the Al Sabah Collection, said there were “several hundred” items of Islamic art on display when the Iraqis arrived. By good fortune, many pieces were en route to an exhibition at the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia, when the building was ransacked. That part of the collection went on tour for the next 14 years.
But 58 items of the Al Sabah Collection are still missing, including a carved gemstone from 16th-century India and an Ushak carpet from the same period in Turkey. One Mughal dagger set with rubies and emeralds was recovered in 1996 after turning up at an auction at Sotheby’s in London.
Stolen property is just one issue that Kuwaitis want to be resolved before Iraq can be relieved of the UN’s remaining sanctions. Kuwait is still owed about US$25 billion (Dh91.8) in war reparations and billions more in loans, and Iraq has yet to recognise the border between the two countries drawn up by the UN in 1993.
Both sides also want the other to return the remains of citizens missing since the war. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which is involved in painstaking negotiations between the two countries, had some measure of success in May when the remains of 55 Iraqi soldiers were repatriated after being dug up from a mass grave in Kuwait.
The families of 376 missing Kuwaitis have had less success. Jean Michel Monod, the head of the ICRC’s regional delegation, said no expeditions for Kuwaiti graves in Iraq have been carried out this year.
“Now there is quiet work going on. We’re working on documents. You don’t just go out and start digging frantically,” he said.
Relations between the two countries improved with the appointment in May of the first Iraqi ambassador to Kuwait since the invasion, but he arrived to a storm of controversy after Kuwait Airways sought to freeze Iraqi Airways’ assets worldwide, leading the Iraqi transport ministry to dissolve the national carrier. Officials of the Kuwaiti government-run carrier say Iraq stole 10 of its planes during the invasion.
The government’s focus on the huge payments still owed to Kuwait and the demarcation of the border has led some at Kuwait’s national museum to wonder if their cultural heritage will be brushed aside as the countries try to hammer out a settlement they can live with.
“We didn’t hear anything about the missing items from the UN or Iraq” since the last batches were returned in 1993 and 1994, Ms al Failakawai said. Iraq should return the items if they are to be relieved of the remaining sanctions, she added. “The government should be firm, because it is very important for us, for our history.”