For years, ISIS and other extremist groups have wreaked havoc on the people of Syria. They have killed, stolen from and pushed out millions of civilians from their homes. At the same time, these militants have not spared the country’s rich cultural heritage, which is inextricably tied to the identity and livelihoods of Syrians. While culture is generally associated with museums, historic sites and the finer things in life, more often than not, it is embodied by centuries-old traditions, deeply embedded in the daily lives of local communities – the often-overlooked guardians of culture.
A report recently published in The National has uncovered the destructive impact ISIS has had on the life and culture of Syria's bedouins, in particular the ancient tradition of camel herding.
For generations, Saleh Suwaidan and his bedouin family owned a herd of camels, estimated to be worth half a million dollars. Camels were their source of income and pride. Today, Mr Saleh has lost everything. Forced to escape from his homeland, the herder now makes a living washing dishes in Greece.
The tragedy began in 2015, when ISIS militants stormed Palmyra, an ancient oasis city at the heart of the Syrian Desert. They ransacked its Unesco World Heritage Sites and killed its people, in the process drawing the ire of the international community. But their cruelty did not end there. They also took away many of the bedouins’ camels. Smugglers profited from the bedouins’ destitution, purchasing the rest of their herds and selling them abroad, while ISIS received handsome commissions on the sale and transportation of the animals into Iraq. A part of Syria’s bedouin culture was left to die a slow death, as herders were faced with a tough choice: to flee or to starve.
In 2015, the destruction of Palmyra made international headlines, but the struggle of its people did not receive similar attention. This sparked a debate about whether it was ethical to bemoan the loss of ancient ruins when extremist violence was costing people their lives. But the story of Palmyra's last camel herders sheds much-needed light on the link between culture and local livelihoods. The destruction of heritage and the loss of human lives and jobs due to extremist violence are not separate issues. They are in fact, deeply intertwined.
The Suwaidans lost nearly everything when they were forced to part with their camel herds. A whole industry built around camel breeding and racing vanished, and with it the livelihoods of hundreds who went hungry as a result. Similarly, Palmyra was once at the centre of Syria’s flourishing tourism sector, which the livelihoods of thousands hinged on. Its destruction, and the barbaric killings that ensued, were a slap in the face of a region proud of its rich and diverse history.
Among the dead was retired antiquities chief Khaled Al Asaad, who had spent a lifetime restoring Palmyra’s ancient ruins. He was tortured by ISIS for a month before being beheaded. For the extremists, the assaults on Syria’s cultural diversity, as well as the lives intertwined with it, were two sides of the same coin. And despite the so-called caliphate's defeat in the intervening period, the consequences of their brutal reign continues to haunt a country still ravaged by a decade of war.