‘This is not collateral damage’

In June 2014, the city of Mosul in northern Iraq fell to the forces of the so-called Islamic State in a matter of days.

Omar Mohammed, a historian at the University of Mosul, saw it all first hand. Risking his life, he informed the outside world about ISIS’s atrocities by blogging anonymously as ‘Mosul Eye’.

One of the first things ISIS did was to destroy a shrine said to be the tomb of the prophet Jonah, or Younis.

Revered by Muslims, Christians and Jews, and built on the foundations of a 7th Century BC Assyrian palace, Mohammed says that the people of Mosul had long believed that the site conferred special protection.

“The city lived over the centuries with the notion that we are divinely protected, and no one can actually dare to damage or harm the city,” he says.

When ISIS blew it up, that worldview disintegrated. People thought, “if they are capable of destroying that site, therefore they are capable of doing everything,” he says. “Which immediately actually led to the collapse of the resistance and the resilience of the people.”

An Iraqi soldier guarding the ruins of the tomb of Jonah, a UNESCO world heritage site in Nebi Yunus, eastern Mosul, after its liberation from the Islamic State in January 2017 (Photo: Martyn Aim/Corbis via Getty Images)

When Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in 2022, Mohammed watched as the Russian army struck museums, monuments, churches and Jewish holy sites. In his mind, the parallels were obvious. This was not accidental.

“They are targeting the grounds of the existence of the nation,” he says. “Russia was destroying all of these elements in an attempt to bring the Ukrainians to a moment to accept all the conditions that Russia will impose.”

He vehemently disagrees with those who say the destruction is unintentional. “Their targeting of a church, then a synagogue, then a mosque, then a Holocaust memorial… it showed you that there is a pattern in the operation,” he says.

“This is not just the collateral damage of the war, there is a deep context behind this – ‘we are going to destroy everything that represents your identity’.”

Damage to a church after a Russian attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Ukraine’s military said Russia destroyed more than 60 religious buildings across the country in the first month of the war (Photo: AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)

But Ukraine is fighting back. A group of young Ukrainians have launched a movement called the Shadows Project. With its very existence as a nation at stake, the group is promoting Ukrainian culture inside and outside the country, fundraising to protect its art and documenting Russia’s destruction of cultural heritage. And Mohammed is helping them.

Agatha Gorksi is a Ukrainian student at Sciences Po in Paris, France, and one of the co-founders of the Shadows Project. The project was created by a group of like-minded young Ukrainians in early 2021 with the idea of “preserving and advocating for Ukranian culture”. On its Instagram profile, the group share content about Ukrainian artists, writers, historical figures, food and cultural dress, all brought to life with arresting modern graphics which look like they could grace album covers. The group uses a “multimedia, fun approach” to encourage people to “engage with history, culture, traditions, but in a very modern sense,” Gorski explains. It might involve a post imagining what it would be like to “go on a Tinder date” with one of the Cossacks, she says. The group also wanted to “share Ukrainian culture with people living abroad”, so the project’s output is in English as well as Ukrainian.

The project was, of course, a direct response to a threat from the east. Russia’s shadow has loomed over Ukraine for centuries, but the need to assert the country’s independent identity became much more urgent after Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and covert invasion of the Donbas.

Everything about the Shadows Project is freighted with symbolism. The name is a homage to Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, the landmark film by Sergei Parajanov. A rare-Ukrainian language film when the country was part of the USSR, its premiere in Kyiv in 1965 turned into an open protest against Soviet repression (in 1973, Parajanov was himself thrown in a gulag). The group’s striking logo depicts a faceless “motanka” – a traditional Ukrainian doll believed to ward off evil spirits. The facelessness of the motanka, and the fact that people decorate it differently depending on what region of Ukraine they are from – are both significant. “We really wanted to have her be faceless because it’s this idea that anyone can really put their face into this representation,” Gorski says. “We’re curating very diverse and different experiences which is something that is very key to the Ukrainian identity, because we live in a country which is incredibly diverse.

“Anyone can be in the project, anyone can be a part of the community, anyone can be Ukrainian. It means something different to every person.”

On 24 February, Russia invaded Ukraine and it changed everything. As a Kyiv resident, Gorski escaped it by a whisker. With tensions increasing, she had decided to relocate to Paris to continue her studies on 23 February (because she was worried about direct flights being cancelled, she travelled to France via a train journey to Poland). Her friends thought she was overreacting. “The general sentiment was that something was going to happen but it was going to be in the east, or at least it wasn’t going to happen as fast, it wasn’t going to be the whole country being bombed,” she recalls. “So I made this rash decision, and a lot of my friends were telling me, ‘why are you leaving, don’t worry, it will be fine, a few days won’t change anything’.” Gorski crossed the border about an hour before the bombing started. Her family in Kyiv had to make a different escape. “They left the first day and they went westwards,” she says. “It was a very difficult couple of days because they were on the road for three days and the cities that they were staying in, they were getting bombed constantly.” Her sisters are now in safety in Germany.

The experience was profoundly dislocating for Gorski. “For me it was a huge shock just because I saw [Kyiv] the night before. It was alive. I was out, I was doing things… it was basically business as usual.”

With the invasion, the work of the Shadows Project was cast in a new light. Russia literally threatened to wipe Ukraine off the map. In a televised address on 21 February, Putin had spoken about how “Ukraine never had a tradition of genuine statehood.” A column for state news agency RIA Novosti claimed that Ukrainian national identity was synonymous with Nazism. “Denazification is inevitably also deukrainisation,” it said. “Ukrainian culture is literally under fire, it’s very much like we’re fighting for its survival,” Gorksi says. “We’re not only fighting Russia in terms of our physical territory and terrain, but also on the cultural front.”

By chance, she happened to be studying at a university with someone who knew all about cultural warfare. Unable to return to Mosul, Mohammed now teaches Middle East history and cultural heritage diplomacy at Sciences Po. Gorski had previously been introduced to him when working on a university assignment, but when Mohammed became aware of the Shadows Project, he “reached out”.

Mohammed believes it is essential that Ukrainians hang on to their culture. “He who controls your past will control your future,” he warns. “If you are unable to build your own narrative, no violent battle will actually defeat your enemy. It’s only if you have a strong narrative.” Preserving every cultural site possible is critical. “The visible elements of your identity, that’s what defines you, that’s what actually represents your past, present and future,” he says. “You can rebuild a hospital, you can rebuild a street, you can rebuild a house. You can rebuild everything. But how could you actually restore the memory and the identity of a historical site that you have been living in all your life?” Working on the recovery of Mosul since it was liberated in 2017, Mohammed says that economic and religious life have returned to the city. The hardest “struggle” is to now restoring the “cultural representation” of different groups.

Gorski says Mohammed’s advice has been invaluable. “I reach out to him a lot just for guidance and some direction as to how we should be dealing with this, because his knowledge is very extensive.”

One of the main priorities of the Shadows Project since the invasion has been to bolster efforts to preserve Ukraine’s art and historical artefacts. The group has raised money to buy fireproof safes and blankets, generators, and other supplies for Ukrainian museums. One of the co-founders, Catarina Buchatskiy, has taken a leave of absence from her studies at Stanford University in the US and moved to Poland so she can coordinate the flow of materials across the border.

Unfortunately, not everything can be saved. What is destroyed has to be recorded. Mohammed – who revealed to the outside world what was happening in Mosul under ISIS – says it is “very important” for Ukrainians to “document what’s happening now”. It’s essential to sustaining the narrative he talks about – “a narrative that is not based on false information” but “facts, the truth, on the records”.

On its Twitter profile, the Shadows Project post pictures of cultural destruction, from bombed out architectural gems to a monument to Ukraine’s national poet, Taras Shevchenko, riddled with shrapnel holes. Gorski has sources on the ground helping her to document the damage. Samuele Minelli, a fellow student of Gorski’s at Sciences Po, has joined the group to create an interactive map which is updated daily to chart the cultural destruction in the country.

A monument to Taras Shevchenko in the city of Borodyanka (Photo: Hennadii Minchenko/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

Given the appalling loss of human life in Ukraine, it is understandable that culture is not necessarily at the forefront of people’s minds. But Mohammed says it cannot be overlooked. Ukrainians will need it when the war does eventually end. “I struggled honestly during the time of Daesh to find people – of my people, in Mosul – who can think about tomorrow,” he says. “Some people will just decide, ‘why would I care about my culture?’ They will just seek a new life. And rightly so – people need to live their life. But how could you rehabilitate your nation without history, without visible heritage?

“Why would we ask people to think about cultural heritage when there are hundreds of people getting killed? But you have to take the responsibility, you have to sacrifice something, someone has to do something, because history is in the making and it’s actually not about the past. History is about our tomorrow.”

Looking at initiatives like the Shadows Project, he feels heartened that Ukraine’s “future is going to be safe”.

When asked what the Shadows Project wants from the international community, Gorski says first and foremost that Ukraine is not forgotten. As the war drags on, there are concerns it will slip down the news agenda. But the group also want increased recognition of Ukraine’s cultural contribution to the world. Earlier this month, the National Gallery altered the title of Edgar Degas’ drawing Russian Dancers to Ukrainian Dancers. The Shadows Project are campaigning for galleries to stop referring to Ukrainian-born Kazimir Malevich as a Russian artist.

Gorksi is optimistic about the future. “A lot of people say ‘Ukrainians are so strong, you’re so brave’, but for us it’s very natural,” she explains. “We’ve always had this understanding that we always have to fight for our freedom, and that’s the only way we’re going to get it… as long as we have our land we’re going to rebuild everything.”

Mohammed says what plays out in Ukraine will reverberate around the world and long into the future. “They are actually under existential threat,” he says. “Russia is threatening to uproot their identity and if the world actually allows this, we will allow other things to happen. We will allow more demolition of cultural heritage to happen.”

“What the Ukrainians are saying is ‘Look, this is our identity, we want to preserve our identity… we are not using it to attack you, we are not using it to hate you, it is our identity, we want to enjoy it.’

“Is that too much to ask?”

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