Sudan’s museum authorities say mass looting of cultural property is taking place as fighting intensifies in the country.
Last week, the Sudan National Museum in Khartoum was reportedly raided by the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group that is at war with the state military.
The national museum in Khartoum houses the world’s largest and most comprehensive Nubian archaeological collection.
A video posted on social media appears to show fighters raiding the museum’s bioarcheology lab, where uncovered mummified remains can be seen. The museum’s collection includes embalmed mummies dating from 2,500 BC, making them among the earliest and most important such remains in the world.
Staff were forced to abandon the institution when fighting broke out in April. The museum's director, Ghalia Gharelnabi, who has fled to the Netherlands, told the Guardian she was concerned Sudan’s rich archaeological heritage could share the same fate as that of Iraq and Syria after conflicts there.
The museum has already suffered damage in the fighting, which was confirmed in May by the Smithsonian’s Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab. Satellite imagery shows fire damage to two structures on the museum's campus.
Several other museums are thought to have been occupied and used as bases during the conflict, including the tomb of Muhammad Ahmad, known as the Mahdi, whose rebellion established a state in Sudan in the 19th century. There are concerns that such sites may become the target of airstrikes.
There are also reports of damage to the Presidential Palace, a historic building that includes the Republican Palace Museum.
Meanwhile thousands of historic books, archives and research materials were destroyed last week in a fire set by looters at Omdurman Ahlia University. Other universities, libraries and research centres have also been looted in the fighting.
The International Council of Museums (Icom) published a statement this week calling for solidarity with Sudanese museums. The organisation is making efforts to gather verified information about the situation in the country.
The statement said: “Icom deplores the significant humanitarian consequences that the conflict has already had on the population, including the loss of life and the forced displacement of individuals. Icom also expresses its deep concern about the implications of the increased fighting for the safety and security of museum professionals, museum collections and cultural heritage in the country.”
An emergency workshop and forum was held at the Child Museum in Cairo recently, organised by the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums. The workshop brought together representatives from international cultural institutions and organisations with the aim of identifying current needs and actions.
Icom also warned of a potential increase in the trafficking of cultural objects from Sudan. The statement said: “Every crisis renders cultural heritage vulnerable, namely to the risks of theft, looting and deliberate – or accidental – destruction. For this reason, Icom advises all parties of the importance of vigilance with regard to potential increases in the trafficking of cultural objects from Sudan and the region in general.”
The statement continued: “Icom and all of its national and international committees will continue to monitor the situation in the region and will continue to offer support to Sudanese museum professionals and institutions in order to alleviate any potential threats the heritage of Sudan may face.”
Unesco has also expressed solidarity with the people of Sudan and said it is monitoring developments on the ground. The body has begun mapping the impact of the fighting on major cultural and heritage sites.
Around 1.2 million people have been displaced inside the country since the war broke out and a further 400,000 have fled to neighbouring states.