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Lecturer outlines chilling portrait of devastation in native Iraq

March 30, 2007

Until last July, Donny George Youkhanna was director general of the Iraq Museum and chair of Iraq's State Board of Antiquities and Heritage.

Then he found a letter with a bullet in it in the driveway of his parents' Baghdad home.

The letter, from the Brigade of Martyrs, accused George's teenage son, Martin, of teasing Muslim girls. Its writers – who said they knew that George worked with Americans – warned that they would kidnap and behead Martin if George did not write a letter of apology and pay $1,000.

George's wife and mother urged him to pay, so he wrote a letter and sent the ransom money – and immediately made plans to get his family out of Iraq.

George told the story of his forced exile from Iraq in a recent lecture sponsored by the School of Human Evolution & Social Change, the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, and the Department of Political Science.

George says that while his son was being threatened, he was being pressured to leave his work at the museum and the Board of Antiquities.

“The minister took all my authority,” he says. “I could not do anything. I could not spend a dinar. Before, I could sign a check for 50 million dinar and people would go to work.

“I would give money out of my pocket – 10,000 to 15,000 dinar. After 30 years of service, I was not going to beg to stay in this position. I wrote a letter requesting my retirement, and it was immediately accepted.”

In his illustrated talk, titled “Museums and Archaeological sites in Iraq After 2003,” George discussed the looting of the museum and archaeological sites that began in 2003.

When he heard that his beloved Iraq Museum was being stormed by looters on April 12 of that year, he and his staff enlisted the aid of U.S. troops. But when they got to the museum, “nothing was left,” he says. “All the doors were smashed and everything was looted. Computers, copy machines – everything was taken.”

All the files and all the archaeological records had been emptied into piles on the floor. Antiquities dating to 3,200 B.C. were smashed, and the looters – who were Iraqis – had stolen the heads.

The alabaster Sacred Vase of Warka, one of the world's oldest known carved stone ritual vessels dating to about 3,200 B.C., had been broken from its base.

One ancient masterpiece, made from a lost-wax process centuries ago, had been dipped in oil and then hidden in a cesspool by the thieves.

In all, more than 15,000 items were looted, and just 3,709 of them have been recovered.

“This damage to the museum hit the people in the heart,” George says. “Some people bought the materials from the looters and brought it back to the museum without asking for their money back.”

Museum authorities from other countries, such as Italy, refurbished the museum's labs so restoration work could begin.

The museum was fortified with welded bars, thick walls and razor wire and sealed shut, George says. But because of continued unrest in Iraq and violent clashes on Haifa Street, just 200 meters away, the museum remains closed.

Now, he says, the authorities want to hire guards and put in electronic surveillance and reopen the museum. But the thought of reopening the museum before there is stability in Iraq breaks his heart.

“The guards and surveillance will not work,” George says. “One day there will be no electricity and the guards will not go back. The minister of interior said, ‘I can give you 1,000 people to police the museum,' but then it's not a museum. That is no place for families and children.”

After receiving the bullet and letter, George, who believes he was targeted because he is a Christian, took his family to Syria 's largest city, Damascus.

Through a friend, George secured a one-year appointment as a visiting professor of anthropology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, which he hopes will be extended to a five-year contract.

George says he still has many connections to Iraq's Board of Antiquities.

“I follow the looted antiquities, and I know what's going on almost daily,” he says. “ Iraq and antiquities are my life. But everything is not OK in Baghdad, and it's impossible to go there now.

“I left my heart in there.”