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Saving culture in war zones with a deck of cards

Archeologist Laurie Rush is leading a charge to teach armed forces around the world about preserving archeological sites and ancient artifacts in conflict areas. She believes doing so can be essential for safe missions.

Soldiers often enter conflict zones with limited knowledge of local cultural and historical nuances. Archaeologist Laurie Rush recognized that their ignorance can make conflicts worse. So she helped create a deck of playing cards that displays photos and messages about cultural heritage in Iraq, Afghanistan and Egypt.

Visitors going through the Ishtar Gate at a Babylon exhibition in Berlin (AP Photo/Franka Bruns)

The Ishtar Gate of ancient Babylon

Troops see pictures of Buddhist statues and tablets when playing poker and other games with the cards. They may discover that buying and selling antiquities is illegal or be reminded to look before digging. And Rush's concept has caught on: Soldiers from the US and other countries have snapped up more than 165,000 decks.

The US invasion of Iraq offered examples of what troubled Rush about soldiers' cultural knowledge. When American and Polish forces were building a camp in the ancient Iraqi city of Babylon in 2003, they inadvertently crushed ancient brick pavement and marred dragon decorations on the Ishtar Gate.

"It immediately occurred to me that a better educated force would not have made those kinds of mistakes," Rush told DW.

Heritage not prioritized

Developing the informational cards grew out of Rush's previous work with the US Army. In 1998, she became the archeologist at Fort Drum, a base in New York. The area is rich in Native American culture - Rush's specialty - and part of her civilian job was to ensure that construction and training on the base did not harm any valuable archeological sites.

Italien: Rom - Trajanssäule vom Trajansforum ED: 21.8.2012

The Traian Column in Rome was saved by troops and civilans during World War II

Rush collaborated with European colleagues to create the decks in multiple languages. Their task of preserving elements of cultural heritage is a first. During World War II, European and American military forces and civilians, dubbed the Monument Men, worked together to save many European historical sites and works of art.

But in recent years, protection of cultural heritage in war zones has not been a priority, even though it's required by the 1954 Hague Convention. Many governments claim they don't have the money for cultural protection in conflict regions, said professor and cultural heritage specialist, Joris Kila.

"People don't know that culture is a very basic need; they still see it as a luxury thing. But a lot of conflicts are cultural in terms," said Kila, who collaborated with Rush in creating the European version of the playing cards.

Soldiers' hesitancy

Rush has recorded mixed results since the cards went on the market. "There is a tiny site at a forward operating base east of Baghdad - it's a Mesopotamian city site of some sort. I got an email from a soldier: 'Dr. Rush, I think that they're digging into archeological property here at this forward operating base,'" she said.

Rush immediately notified the base commander, and "Keep Out" signs went up that afternoon. But the archaeologist acknowledges she's often met with resistance "Soldiers will often say, 'Dr. Rush, I also watch the Discovery Channel. But if what you're suggesting is going to result in losses of my personnel, don't even think about it!'"

It often helps, she said, to recount cases in which the destruction of cultural property could result in failed missions. She cites situations in Afghanistan where US military personnel might not recognize that piles of stone by a road with a little flag mark burial spots for recently deceased family members. Running them over with military vehicles can provoke anger from residents, perhaps prompting attacks.

Program successes

Artifacts from Afghanistan on display at the National Museum in Kabul. Afghan photo agency AEP Afghan Eyes Copyright AEP/Amiri.

The protection of artifacts, like these in kabul. Afghanistan, have not been a priority in war zones

Archaeologists achieved a victory for cultural artifacts during the recent Libyan conflict. Researchers from Great Britain and the United States worked with armed forces to place heritage sites on a no-strike list, sparing certain sites and precious antiquities. Cultural heritage legal expert Derek Fincham praised Laurie Rush's efforts in coordinating projects like the one in Libya.

"She's working with all these different nations to pool resources and work together. … She's an apostle for these things," he said.

Rush, Kila and other colleagues are working toward the establishment of an international center for cultural property protection. From this site, emergency assessment teams could be deployed during times of conflict.

The archaeology awareness cards have had an impact on a smaller scale, as well. Some US veterans, inspired by Laurie Rush and her playing cards, are studying to become archeologists. Ideally, Rush would like to see them become soldier-preservationists, who will support military missions by fostering respect for key elements of culture.

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