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2 February 2008
UN vandals spray graffiti on Sahara's prehistoric art

Spectacular prehistoric depictions of animal and human figures created up to 6,000 years ago on Western Saharan rocks have been vandalised by United Nations peacekeepers. 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. 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.
     Julian Harston, the UN official responsible for Western Sahara, said he had been shocked by the vandalism. He said funds would now be sought from the UN cultural organisation, Unesco, to remove the graffiti. Graffiti, including the spray-painting of UN personnel's names, can be seen at Lajuad, an important archaeological site, Mr Harston said. "I was appalled. You'd think some of them would know better. These are officers, not squaddies," Mr Harston concluded.
     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. Mr. Brook, a climate scientist who runs the Western Sahara Project, has written a blog about his findings which show pictures of graffiti more than a metre high on granite rocks. He says the vandalism at Lajuad is not the first example of the deliberate vandalism of an archaeological site by the UN. "It is a tragedy that UN personnel tasked with resolving one of the world's longest running military and political conflicts are engaging in the wilful destruction of important archaeological sites that have much to teach us about the prehistory of a part of the world that is virtually unknown to the international research community," he writes on his Sand and Dust blog.
     The Casablanca-based Moroccan Sahara Association (ASM) chief Reda Daoujni warned that if an apology was not offered to his group, it would call for a rally outside the Minurso offices in Western Sahara and in Rabat. Morocco's director of national heritage Abdallah Salih spoke out against the vandalism. "We condemn these acts committed in the demilitarized zone," he said.
     Western Sahara has been at the centre of a bitter dispute since former colonial power Spain pulled out in 1975 and neighbouring Morocco invaded. UN peacekeepers were deployed in 1991 to monitor a ceasefire between Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front, which has been seeking independence for the territory.

Sources: BBC News, Times Online (31 January 2008), AFP (1 February 2008)

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