UNESCO removes Uganda tombs from endangered heritage list

The tombs of Buganda Kings were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001

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UN cultural agency UNESCO announced Tuesday it was removing the fire-damaged tombs of royal leaders in Uganda from its endangered heritage list, voicing satisfaction with restoration efforts.

The decision on the Tombs of Buganda Kings was passed by the World Heritage Committee at a meeting in the Saudi capital Riyadh from September 10-25.

Housed in grass-thatched buildings on a hillside in the capital Kampala, and revered as an important historical and spiritual site for the Baganda people, the tombs were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.

A traditional guard stands in front of one of the buildings belonging to the Kasubi Royal Tombs in Kampala, Uganda on June 13, 2023. – The World Heritage Committee, meeting in Riyadh until September 25, 2023 decided on September 12, 2023 to remove the Kasubi Royal Tombs from the List of World Heritage in Danger following the restoration work carried out successfully by Uganda in coordination with UNESCO. PHOTO/AFP

Devastating fire

But a 2010 fire devastated the site, and it was placed on the danger list while reconstruction began with the help of international funding.

It was completed in the summer of 2023 “allowing the site to return to its desired state of conservation”, UNESCO said in a statement.

“This reconstruction is a collective success: that of the Ugandan authorities, Ugandan heritage professionals, but also the local communities who were at the heart of the process,” said UNESCO director-general Audrey Azoulay.

A group of traditional artisans work on the reconstruction of one of the buildings belonging to the Kasubi Royal Tombs in Kampala, Uganda on June 13, 2023. PHOTO/AFP

Ahead of the decision, UNESCO had said removing the tombs from the endangered list would be a powerful symbol given that 50 percent of sites considered in danger are in Africa.

The fire destroyed a main tomb building described as an “architectural masterpiece” but UNESCO said it was happy with the restoration and that of other iconic structures.

“It was also satisfied with the establishment of an advanced fire-fighting system and the training of volunteer firefighters among residents in order to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.”

Uganda’s tourism minister Martin Mugarra says the restored tombs would be reopened to visitors.

“It is an exciting moment for the country, and those who cherish culture and our heritage,” he said.

Traditional artisans fix the circular rings at the ceiling of one of the buildings belonging to the Kasubi Royal Tombs in Kampala, Uganda on June 13, 2023. PHOTO/AFP

Buganda, one of four ancient kingdoms in the East African country, was first established in the 14th century on the shores of Lake Victoria and includes Uganda’s modern-day capital.

The Baganda make up the largest ethnic grouping in Uganda and their kingdom was granted considerable autonomy after independence from Britain in 1962.

But independence leader Milton Obote went on to outlaw the tribal kingdoms and forced the Kabaka into exile.

The bush war that brought Obote’s rival Yoweri Museveni to power in 1986 was successful largely due to support from Buganda.

Museveni still rules today, but relations between the Baganda people and the government have been strained in more recent times.

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