Historian finally forced to flee Baghdad's ruins

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 February, 2007, 12:00am

To get from his home on one side of Baghdad to his job at Iraq's National Museum on the other, Donny George would use three different cars, to keep any assassins off his trail. He varied his route and never left for work at the same time two days in a row.

'I never knew if I would make it to my destination because it's likely you will be targeted or will be the victim of a random roadside bomb or shooting,' Dr George says.

Yet, for three years, the archaeologist, who led efforts to recover priceless artefacts looted from the museum after the American invasion, refused to leave Iraq.

Then, a few months ago, authorities found Dr George's beloved colleague, Riyadh al-Doory, shot dead on the side of a road outside of town. Assassins also ambushed Dr George's head accountant, Nabil Alsafi, on the way to work one morning, and cut him and his driver to shreds in a hail of bullets.

Dr George believes both were targeted because they were intellectuals - and neither was as well known as Dr George, a professor at Baghdad University and director-general of the National Museum, quoted around the world for his efforts to recover the lost treasures.

'At least 200 to 300 intellectuals from universities have been assassinated,' Dr George says.

Even so, he says he would still be in Baghdad had the government not appointed a member of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Shiite political faction minister of tourism and antiquities last year. The pressure on Dr George to retire - because he is a Chaldean Christian - coupled with a terrifying threat to his family, finally drove him out.

In exile in the United States for the past two months, Dr George has just started his first semester at Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York.

A statement by Stony Brook on his appointment as visiting professor in its anthropology department said he first lectured there in 2003, seven months after the US invasion, on conditions at his museum.

It said Dr George would teach courses on the archaeology of Mesopotamia, and on the cultural heritage of Iraq. Through its political science department, 'he will also lecture on the occupation of Iraq, in addition to conducting research'.

His appointment was co-sponsored by the Institute of International Education's Scholar Rescue Fund, 'whose mission is to rescue persecuted scholars ... to continue their academic careers in safe locations'.

Dr George is among the most prominent of only about 500 Iraqis a year to get a US visa. But his story is an increasingly common one. Thousands of intellectuals are fleeing their home country as it descends into civil war.

'We believe this is exactly what happened in Iran,' Dr George says. 'If you kill one intellectual, several more will leave the country. Who knows what will happen?'

According to the Iraqi Ministry of Health, between April 2003 and June 2006, 720 doctors and health professionals were killed. Unofficial estimates show 2,000 Iraqi doctors have emigrated from the country. Up to April 2005, 300 Iraqi medical doctors were kidnapped by armed groups. Dozens of intellectuals have been assassinated on the premises of Baghdad University.

Just a few months ago, Dr George insisted he was in Baghdad to stay, despite the risks. There was too much important work to do. He was proud of his position as chairman of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, and the keeper of the keys to an international archaeological treasure. And he worked tirelessly to recover the almost 15,000 priceless artefacts looted in the post-invasion anarchy of 2003.

The looting of the National Museum made international headlines as a particularly regrettable occurrence among the chaos and pillaging raging across the nation. Iraq is the site of ancient Mesopotamia, the first literate human society, which arose between the Tigris and Euphrates River more than 6,000 years ago. It is often referred to as 'the cradle of civilisation'. The museum boasted a priceless collection.

Among the pieces looted was the Warka Vase dating back to 3200 BC, which was recovered from southern Iraq.

'It has beautiful friezes showing the philosophy of the Sumerians about the beginning of life and stages of life and the relations between water, plants, animals and man,' Dr George says.

Dr George networked with governments, international organisations, national museums and archaeologists the world over, keeping the issue alive.

He attended Interpol conferences and worked the phones. In 2005, he told Newsweek that everyone was co-operating, except Turkey and Iran. Today, Dr George estimates the museum now has recovered about half of what it lost.

But only about 4,000 artefacts have been returned to the museum. A few months ago, Dr George told countries such as Saudi Arabia, Germany, Spain and Syria to hold on to artefacts they seized, rather than ship them back. For now, they are safer abroad.

It was a form of refuge Dr George never intended for himself. Then one day, his son, Martin, 17, received an envelope with a bullet and a warning. The letter accused Martin of teasing Muslim girls in the neighbourhood and ordered him to apologise and pay a fine of US$1,000. It gave him two days to comply, or face kidnapping and possible beheading in the street.

Dr George immediately moved his family to his parents' house and moved forward plans to send them all to Damascus.

'When it comes to family and children, you have to take action,' to get them to safety, Dr George says. 'But I believe if the time comes for me to die, I will die wherever I am. I had to stay in my job.'

Sadr had other ideas. On taking over the museum, the new minister for culture, a Shiite dentist, stripped Dr George of his duties and rumours spread that they wanted him out.

As he arranged for his family to go to Damascus, rumours increased. Finally, someone took him aside and warned him that the minister was planning to fire him because he was a Christian. 'This hurt me very much,' he says.

He applied for retirement, the minister signed the request that day, he packed a suitcase and left.

'I left behind two houses - my flat and my parents' house - completely intact. We locked the door and left,' Dr George says.

Within weeks, Dr George, his wife and younger son boarded a plane for America. His parents and older son Steven, 23, and daughter Marian, 21, are still in Syria, among the thousands waiting there and in Jordan as the situation in Iraq grows worse by the day.

'I'm sure it will go down to a kind of open civil war,' he says.

Dr George says he would like to return to Iraq. 'Why not? That's my country and I have my friends and a lot of relatives there ... But I can't see that happening in the near future'.

For now, he is settling into his new teaching job on Long Island, a long way from the war-torn streets of Baghdad. But 'students are students', says Dr George, whether in Iraq or suburban America. There is at least some comfort in that.