Stray bullets strike hard


It is often said that contemporary warfare progresses along a path of technological advancement that removes the human element and turns the act of war into a flag-conquering mechanism by which resources or strategic sites are either destroyed with surgical precision or witness a rapid change of ownership.

However, this is a delusional statement in that, despite the media overkill at crowding our already stressed minds with heart-rending footage from the war zones around the planet, blood is shed profusely and perhaps those who decide the fates of us all are too far from the action to appreciate how brutal the state of war truly is.

As an archaeologist taking a course in Heritage Management I researched the impact of warfare on cultural heritage in the Balkans and discovered much to my dismay that cultural heritage sites are often targeted since these are seen as banners of the “enemy” embodying the cultural and religious essence of a nation.

The conflict in Kosovo is merely one example and the victims were not only human; century-old Albanian mosques and Serbian monasteries were bombarded, leveled and devastated beyond all reckoning, almost a cathartic act of cultural raping leaving a deafening void in its wake.

The mutilations that such conflicts leave behind have scarred generations beyond reckoning; the land so closely connected to a sense of people or nation endures in a comatose state with little chance of awakening.

However, I’ve often wondered whether “our overlords”, who so lightly choose to unleash their brand new sparkling military toys (along with the birthday cards from us taxpayers) in the name of a very blurry concept of democracy or national security, take into account the extent of environmental destruction wreaked upon the ecosystems of the unfortunate land to be targeted.

The first things that come to my mind are water contamination (rivers, wells and other drinking sources), toxic substances released by bombs and rocket propellants or even the simple destruction of forests and natural sites (often used as shelters by defending forces). You start wondering why this is even allowed.

And then you read a 20-year old statement like the following:

Warfare is inherently destructive of sustainable development. States shall therefore respect international law providing protection for the environment in times of armed conflict and cooperate in its further development, as necessary.” – 1992 Rio Declaration


Ecological degradation is a side-effect of war which is not sufficiently taken into consideration.

This rather painful and self-destructive thinking (since I am indeed one of those idealists who still gets very upset at hearing about the usual absurdities that prove humanity’s inherent stupidity) led me to purchasing a book that had recently caught my attention; this is Lawrence Anthony’s “Babylon’s Ark – The incredible wartime rescue of the Baghdad Zoo”.


As any predictable animalist out there I have mixed feelings about zoos. The emphasis has very often been on turning the poor creatures into some sort of 19th century freak show rather than the actual study and preservation of species. Perhaps this has slightly changed (though I think it’s mostly due to the pressure that animalist organisations have placed on zoo owners) but regardless of this all, we are, whether we like it or not, responsible for the animals held captive therein.


As soon as the Iraq War broke out in 2003, and once more, in a Sid Meier-like inspired scenario where the securing of precious oil wells was paramount among the objectives of the coalition, no one had even considered what was to be done with the city zoo in Baghdad.


On the other side of the planet, Lawrence Anthony, the renowned conservationist who whispers to elephants and runs the Thula Thula Game reserve in Zululand, South Africa, was staring in utter disbelief at the reports leaking out of the war zone.

As a friend of all animals, regardless of their place in the food chain, he felt compelled to make a difference and rescue the few survivors of the tumultuous days that had turned Baghdad into a ghost city where genuine ghosts dwelled, attempting to survive among the wreckage of their previous existence.


Some dominionist with anthropocentric whims may blurt out the rather annoying cliché: “Why help animals when humans are dying?” Well, why should a conservationist with veterinarian skills sit on his couch and not do anything at all when he has the skills to at least attempt to salvage something from the floundering ship?


That was precisely what came to Lawrence’s mind when the tear-jerking footage of starving and traumatised animals invaded his everyday life and haunted his thoughts.


In a rather adventurous fashion, through some lying skills (always convenient!) and some connections, Lawrence made it, suitcase and all, to reach the quasi-biblical Ark to which he would have devoted the coming months in complete uncertainty.


The book in itself is riveting and despite the criticisms for the rather colloquial South African prose (in all honesty the story feels even more genuine and vivid in this fashion) it is definitely a read that one would recommend to all, regardless of one’s feelings about animal rights.


It is a war-time story and the setting is far from being pretty; human dignity only glimmers in isolated surges in unexpected places, brutality, murder and hatred permeate the very air and jeopardise human relationships at the most vital moments.


Lawrence finds incredible allies among the American soldiers, the Iraqis who flock to the Zoo realizing that it had become the only place that was functioning while the last embers of war were burning passionately, and conservations and animalists like him who rally under the banner of an iconic setting that can represent the birthplace of a new Iraq.


The story is rich of incredible anecdotes which become more and more astounding as one flips the pages: from the rescue of Saddam’s purebred Arabian horses in the terrifying Abu Ghraib district, to the shutting down of an illegal zoo, to the disturbing descriptions of the state of some of the animals (such as a bear described with the following words: “The poor creature’s frenzied scrambling resulted in ripping the savage wounds on her paws even deeper. She also started defecating all over the cage, due to both terror and rage. That this proud and beautiful animal had been degraded and reduced to such pitiful circumstances was absolutely criminal”) to the exhilarating descriptions of the search for necessary goods and items to keep the zoo running.


However, the purpose of the story goes beyond the individual case itself; there are hundreds of zoos, aquaria, dolphinaria, circuses and scientific labs where animals are suddenly forgotten when the threat of war looms at the horizon.


To leave them in a state of helplessness and hopelessness is a criminal act:

“The most crucial lesson I learned in Baghdad was this: If ‘civilized’ man is capable of routinely justifying such blatant abuse of trapped wildlife, what of the other unseen atrocities being inflicted on our planet?”


Our attitude towards the other living creatures that share the planet with us is a mirror in which are reflected all of the crimes that we commit on a daily basis against our own species. There is no distinction; cruelty and indifference are of one and the same kind.

The recent footage and news coming from the Tripoli Zoo in the wake of the Libyan War were disturbingly familiar. No lessons had been learnt, no experience had been treasured in at least trying to prevent another disgraceful memento of man’s incapability of respecting the right to life and dignity that other species are entitled to.


A month later, the zoo is still waiting for the funds which are so desperately needed to allow these poor creatures to leave behind the stress, the terror and the simple madness that has haunted them ever since.


All in all, if conventions for the protection of cultural heritage exist (though are seldom respected), perhaps it is time that natural sites, animal sanctuaries and reserves should be protected and kept out of internecine and shameful human conflicts. After all, it shouldn’t be their business.


“I, for one, have never felt a need to accept the status quo, or pay homage to the authorities. We are laying waste to the natural world and, in the main, the authorities, secular and nonsecular, are conspicuous by their absence of imperative, rational initiative to correct this.” L .Anthony