Archaeological sites boasting ancient paintings and engravings of giraffes, buffalo and elephants have been defaced within the past two years by personnel attached to the UN mission, known by its French acronym, Minurso.
Graffiti, some of it more than a metre high and sprayed with paint meant for use for marking routes, now blights the rock art at Lajuad, an isolated site known as Devil Mountain, which is regarded by the local Sahrawi population as a mystical place of great cultural significance.
Many of the UN “graffiti artists” signed and dated their work, revealing their identities and where they are from. Minurso personnel stationed in Western Sahara come from almost 30 countries. They are monitoring a ceasefire between the occupying Moroccan forces and the Polisario Front, which is seeking independence.
One Croatian peacekeeper scrawled “Petar CroArmy” across a rock face. Extensive traces of pigment from rock painting are visible underneath. Another left behind Cyrillic graffiti, and “Evgeny” from Russia scribbled AUI, the code for the Minurso base at Aguanit. “Mahmoud” from Egypt left his mark at Rekeiz Lemgasem, and “Ibrahim” wrote his name and number over a prehistoric painting of a giraffe. “Issa”, a Kenyan major who signed his name and wrote the date, had just completed a UN course, Ethics in Peacekeeping, documents show.
Julian J. Harston, the UN’s representative of the Secretary-General for Western Sahara and head of Minurso, said that he had been shocked by the scale of the vandalism. After visiting two of the sites, including Devil Mountain, this week, he said: “I was appalled. You’d think some of them would know better. These are officers, not squaddies.” The UN would take action against any officers “kind enough to leave their calling card. We will report it to the troop-contributing countries. We can move them.”
The extent of the damage is revealed in a report by Nick Brooks, of the University of East Anglia, and Joaquim Soler, of the University of Gerona, Spain, which was passed to The Times yesterday. It outlines the “severe vandalism”, saying that it “now appears to be an essentially universal practice when Minurso staff visit rock art sites . . . Minurso staff have felt entitled to destroy elements of Western Sahara’s and the Sahrawis’ cultural heritage, despite being aware of UN ethics in peacekeeping, and in breach of legislation enshrined in the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.”
It concludes: “Minurso personnel have played a major role in damaging archaeological sites, and such staff are engaged in the systematic defacement of valuable archaeological sites over a large area . . . the recent damage at Lajuad is unprecedented.”
The vandalism will reignite the debate about the conduct of UN peacekeepers after a series of scandals. Last January the UN admitted that more than 200 of its troops had been disciplined for sex offences, including rape and child abuse, in the preceding three years; in May it emerged that Paki-stani peacekeepers had been trading weapons with Congolese militia.