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By 11:00 a.m. on Saturday August 13, 2015, the battle between Ansar Allah (known as the Houthis) forces and Popular Resistance forces (aligned with he internationally recognized government in Aden) raged in the vicinity of the Taiz National Museum, in southwest Yemen, resulting in a fire that destroyed large parts of it.
The Houthis used the museum, which was established in 1967, as a warehouse to store weapons from March 2015 and until their withdrawal from it in August 2015. Abu Al-Abbas Brigades, which were stationed on Taiz city’s eastern front, then seized control of the museum until the Taiz Branch of the General Organization of Antiquities and Museums took it over in 2017 and started to prepare an inventory of the antiquities left in it.
During this period, all contents of museums in Taiz were looted, according to a report submitted by the Yemeni Ministry of Culture to the United Nations in May 2018, and according to the inventory report number 75 submitted by the Taiz Branch of the General Organization of Antiquities and Museums to the cabinet in September 2018.
This investigative report, which is based on documents attained by the journalist, exposes how parties to the conflict stole antiquities from museums across the governorate of Taiz and how the internationally-recognized government failed to investigate what happened and to try to apprehend the perpetrators.
According to a report published by the Yemeni organization Mwatana for Human Rights in November 2018, Taiz, Yemen’s cultural capital, has been hit hardest by the war on the cultural level with the destruction of eight archaeological landmarks since 2014.
The Houthis seized Taiz in March 2015 and used the National Museum, also known as Al-Ardi Museum, as a military base before withdrawing from it and from other parts of the city five months later.
According to the inventory report submitted on September 2018 by the Taiz Branch of the General Organization of Antiquities and Museums to the cabinet, the museum was “robbed and looted during the Houthis’ militants presence in it.”
Photo of the report
The report added that the museum’s contents included rare and diverse antiques as well as Arabic and Hebrew manuscripts.
After the Houthis’ withdrawal from the city, Abu Al-Abbas Brigades seized control of the museum. According to a document detailing the investigation of Al-Bab Al-Kabir police station with the individual in charge of securing the museum and attained by the author, the gate of the library in the museum had been ravaged by bullets before he assumed his duties.
147 valuable manuscripts were missing from the National Museum, including 124 Arabic and Hebrew manuscripts and 14 Qurans, according to the report submitted by the Yemeni cabinet to the United Nations. This is in addition to many other manuscripts missing from other museums in the governorate of Taiz.
A total of 1,631 antiques pieces and manuscripts are missing from museums in Taiz, Aden and Zinjibar, the report said, adding that
The aforementioned inventory report said that all antiques in the National Museum and Sala Museum in the governorate of Taiz were looted during the years 2015 and 2016. However, the report did not hold any of the parties to the conflict accountable.
According to a report by Mwatana for Human Rights, Abu Al-Abbas Brigades and armed members from Al-Qaeda organization seized control of Al-Ardi area, where the National Museum is located, after the Houthis withdrew from it. The area was thus under the control of different Popular Resistance factions during 2015 and 2016.
Mwatana’s report quoted eyewitnesses as saying that Abu Al-Abbas Brigades “looted the museum,” packing three bags with silver collectibles and coins and three bags with copper collectibles.
A document dated May 8, 2017 revealed that Abu Al-Abbas Brigades transferred antiques from the museum to their headquarters before and after the General Organization of Antiquities and Museums formed its committee in Taiz.
In April 2018, the General Organization of Antiquities and Museums requested from the governorate to urgently transfer the antiques in the headquarters of Abu Al-Abbas’ Brigades, whose founder Adel Abdo Farea, aka Abu Al-Abbas was added to the US terror lists in 2017, to the Yemen Bank for Reconstruction and Development after the Abu Al-Abbas’ Brigade headquarters were shelled.
Photo of the document
In early 2019, the minister of culture issued a Decision to form a committee that carries out an inventory of the museum’s contents and oversees retrieving them from Abu Al-Abbas Brigades’ headquarters. The committee wrapped up its work in early March 2019.
A month later, Abu Al-Abbas Brigades said there were other collectibles in its headquarters and said it had nothing to do with stealing any of them. In a statement posted on its Facebook page on April 29, Abu Al-Abbas Brigades accused Popular Resistance Forces of stealing them after raiding their headquarters later in March after the committee finished its work.
However, the investigation with the person in charge of securing the National Museum, who is also a soldier in Abu Al-Abbas Brigades, exposed some of the Brigades’ members’ involvement in stealing the collectibles.
According to what he said in the interrogation conducted with him on February 13, 2017, he allowed the owner of an antiques shop in the popular market in Taiz to enter the museum and take two gold watches and four candelabras from Al-Badr Castle which is part of the National Museum Complex. After they were sold, he received 300,000 YER (approximately $1,200 according to the exchange rate at the time) as commission for the two watches and 40,000 YER (approximately $160 according to the exchange rate at the time) as commission for the four candelabras.
This is in addition to a “handful” of various jewelries, as he said, and which were sold for 150,000 YER (approximately $600 according to the exchange rate at the time).
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The same soldier allowed the owner of the antiques’ shop to enter the museum again and take four swords. He later allowed him to enter again and take 200 watches from Imam Ahmad Palace, including 50 metal, silver and gold pocket watches, seven daggers and 35 silver and gold pen sets. More contents were stolen from the museum which the soldier knows nothing about.
The report submitted to the UN documenting the missing antiques has photos of 27 silver and gold clocks and pocket watches, eight swords and daggers and dozens of jewelry, but that’s only a sample of the missing watches and weapons.
A police report has been filed on the matter and it clearly names the shop owner for selling the museum’s antiques. However, when a reporter visited his shop, he was running his business freely although it’s been three years since the report was filed.
During the interrogation, the soldier said that a battalion from Al-Sa’alik Brigade, which is backed by Al-Islah Party that’s affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, encouraged him to facilitate the looting of the museum’s antiques when it took an ancient equestrian saddle from the museum and told him it was halal (permissible) to take anything from the museum because it’s “Houthi”.
The soldier who is in charge of securing the museum said in the interrogation carried out on March 2, 2017 that he sent “silver coins to Sheikh (Abu Al-Abbas),” adding that the latter received more coins in eight bags.
According to a source in the police department who requested anonymity, this was the last interrogation with the soldier. The source added that the authorities did not resume the investigation because names of “warlords” involved in the looting had surfaced.
Another source familiar with the process of inventorying the antiques in Abu Al-Abbas Brigades’ headquarters, said the inventorying process and investigation were suspended due to the governor’s lack of cooperation.
In February 2018, Gustavo Meza-Cuadra, the chair of the Security Council Committee established pursuant to resolution 2140 (2014) regarding the Yemeni crisis, called on UNESCO to inform museums and auction houses that exporting and selling Yemeni antiques is illegal and said measures must be taken to make sure that the money made from trading Yemeni antiques is not a source of funding to armed groups.
Article 4 of The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict stipulates: “The High Contracting Parties further undertake to prohibit, prevent and, if necessary, put a stop to any form of theft, pillage or misappropriation of, and any acts of vandalism directed against, cultural property. They shall refrain from requisitioning movable cultural property situated in the territory of another High Contracting Party.”
However, Professor of Law at South Texas College Derek Fincham believes the Hague convention will not help protect cultural property in Yemen given the complexity of the civil war which involves several internal and external actors.
Although Yemen has signed the Hague convention, documents reporter attained reveal that Yemeni army members were accused of looting the warehouses of the National Museum in Taiz.
The Taiz’ Branch of the General Authority for Antiquities and Museums submitted a report to the Ministry of Culture in February 2019 informing it that the National Museum in Taiz “was still being looted although security guards are deployed inside it.”
The report accused members of the Yemeni army’s 22nd Mika Brigade, who are present in the headquarters of the military police, of looting the museum’s warehouses.
“We have previously reported that the museum’s contents have been looted while security guards were present there, and we requested from you (i.e. the minister of culture) to form a committee, carry out an investigation and interrogate the perpetrators, however, you ignored this request,” the report said.
A source from the ministry of culture said no investigation was launched although it’s been two years since these thefts because the perpetrators fight in the ranks of the Yemeni army, adding that those who were imprisoned for their involvement in stealing antiques from Taiz were released from jail without being tried.