A team from UNESCO has visited Timbuktu in Mali to make its first on-the-ground assessment of the damage caused by last year’s occupation by the Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith).
The group took over Timbuktu in April 2012 and imposed a harsh form of Shariah law. Believing the city’s famous shrines and medieval manuscripts to be against Islam, even though they were created by Muslims, they began to destroy them. Early this year a coalition of Malian and French forces pushed Ansar Dine out of the city and into the northern fringes of the country, where they remain a threat.
Now that the situation has temporarily stabilized, UNESCO sent a team to investigate the damage. They had some grim findings. While recent reports stated that the damage wasn’t as bad as originally thought, that turns out not to be true.
Expedition leader Lazare Eloundou Assomo of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre said, “We discovered that 14 of Timbuktu’s mausoleums, including those that are part of the UNESCO World Heritage sites, were totally destroyed, along with two others at the Djingareyber Mosque. The emblematic El Farouk monument at the entrance to the city was razed. We estimate that 4,203 manuscripts from the Ahmed Baba research center were lost.”
Thousands of other manuscripts were taken away from Timbuktu before the Islamists could get their hands on them. Most are now in the capital Bamako. While this saved them, Mr. Assomo told the BBC that they need to be returned to the controlled environment of the research center before the humid rainy season sets in and causes damage to the fragile pages.
Timbuktu in Mali is a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its many shrines to Muslim saints and its collection of some 300,000 manuscripts dating as far back as the beginning of the 13th century. They’re in several languages and cover everything from the history of the Songhai Empire to medical texts. They’re the biggest collection of texts from west Africa and are immeasurably important in our understanding of the continent’s past.
Sadly, the city got captured by the Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) last April as part of a war against the government. The Islamists enforced a harsh version of Sharia law and destroyed many of the shrines. It was also feared that they had destroyed all the manuscripts.
Now that Timbuktu has been liberated by French and Malian forces, it turns out the damage isn’t as bad as previously reported. Reuters reports that most of the manuscripts were hidden in private homes and secret caches. The people of Timbuktu have had to do this many times in the face of invaders, and so they got together to protect their heritage.
The two libraries that housed tens of thousands of the manuscripts were not significantly damaged. About 2,000 manuscripts are missing. Some were burned and others may have been stolen to be sold on the international antiquities market. Also, it appears that only “dozens” of the more than 300 shrines were destroyed or significantly damaged.
An Agence France-Presse report today states that some manuscripts were smuggled all the way to the capital Bamako in the south, where they were out of reach of the rebels. The furniture in one of the main libraries was looted and there’s a pile of ash on the floor from where the Islamists burnt some of the manuscripts, but the library and collection as a whole are fine.
So it looks like the ancient heritage of Timbuktu has survived another war. Hopefully soon the situation will stabilize and the famous city will once again become a destination for scholars and adventure travelers.
Timbuktu is now safe from the ravages of the Islamists of northern Mali, thanks to a French-led offensive that has been kicking some fundamentalist derrière for the past couple of weeks.
Since April 2012, the city had been under the control of Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) who imposed a harsh version of Sharia law, cutting the hands off thieves, flogging men for talking to women in public, and even banning smoking and television. Now Ansar Dine has retreated into the desert.
Sadly, the liberation of the UNESCO World Heritage Site comes too late to save many of its historic treasures. As we’ve reported before, many of Timbuktu’s medieval shrines have been destroyed. Ansar Dine vowed to destroy all the city’s medieval shrines of Muslim saints, which they say are contrary to Islam. They appear to have come close to achieving that goal.
Even worse, there are now reports that the priceless collection of medieval manuscripts of Timbuktu may have been burnt by the Islamists before they retreated. These manuscripts cover everything from history to medicine and in many cases are our only records of important periods of African history. Some date back to the beginning of the 13th century.
An early report in yesterday’s Guardian quoted Timbuktu’s mayor, who had fled to the capital Bamako but had been in contact with associates in Timbuktu. His associates said that two buildings used to house the manuscripts had been torched, including the Ahmad Babu Institute, a state-of-the-art research institute finished in 2009.
A more measured report by the Globe and Mail says that a Sky TV crew had discovered the institute intact, but that some individual manuscripts were destroyed or missing. An estimated 10,000 of the hundreds of thousands of manuscripts may be gone. There was no word on what had happened to the dozens of private collections around the city.
This BBC report from the scene today says that “hundreds” of manuscripts have been burned, but shows no footage of this.
So it remains unclear what happened to Timbuktu’s priceless collection of historic writings. Some may have been destroyed, and others may have been looted by Ansar Dine to sell on the illegal antiquities market. What is clear is that one of the historic jewels of Africa has been permanently damaged thanks to a bunch of fanatics.
The ancient treasures of Timbuktu have come under renewed attack by Islamists, the BBC reports.
The Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) has vowed to destroy all the city’s medieval shrines of Muslim saints, which they say are contrary to Islam. The city in northern Mali has been under the control of a coalition of Tuareg and Islamist rebels since April. They declared the independent state of Azawad and soon fought among themselves, with the Islamists gaining the upper hand and imposing harsh Sharia law.
Ansar Dine came under international condemnation when it destroyed some of the shrines earlier this year. Reports indicate they destroyed four more on Sunday. It is not yet clear what Ansar Dine will do with the hundreds of thousands of early manuscripts preserved in Timbuktu.
Timbuktu was a center of trade and learning from the 12th to the 17th centuries and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its many early buildings. It has long been a popular destination for adventure travelers but is far too dangerous to go to now. The BBC reports that Ansar Dine recently cut the hands off of two people they claim were criminals. It’s unclear what their crime was. Perhaps they didn’t want to see their Islamic heritage destroyed.
The BBC has an excellent slideshow of Timbuktu’s endangered treasures here.
I’m the kind of person who can conjure up an excuse to visit just about any place. I grew up in Buffalo, America’s most unfairly maligned city, and so I identify with underdog destinations – places with bad weather, crime, ugly people, rude people, you name it and I probably still want to go there.
But there are some places on this planet that even I do not want to visit. Places where you might be taken hostage and have your head chopped off; places where extremists shoot teenage girls in the head because they want to be educated; places where you could be stoned to death for having a child out of wedlock; places where terrorists plant bombs in churches, places so polluted the local fish have three eyes.
One can make an anecdotal case against visiting just about any place in the world. As we saw in Newtown, Connecticut, evil can happen anywhere. And today’s hellholes could be tomorrow’s next hot destinations. But you won’t find me in any of these places in 2013.Anywhere Near Somalia
In March, my colleague Sean McLachlan reported that the security situation in Somalia was improving, but I wouldn’t rush right out to your travel agent to book a holiday in what most people consider to be the world’s most dangerous country just yet. Mogadishu made our list last year, but after talking to Paul and Rachel Chandler, a British couple who were taken hostage at sea by Somali pirates a good 900 miles off Somalia’s coast in 2009, I would avoid a much wider radius than simply “Mog.”
There may have been some improvements in the security situation since the Chandlers were released after a year in captivity, but there are still plenty of reasons to stay away. In January, gunmen kidnapped an American man in the northern town of Galkayo, the same town where an American woman and a Dane were taken hostage last October. In February, the militant group Al-Shabaab, which has been pushed out of Somalia’s cities by the country’s U.N.-backed government but still maintains control of some rural areas, merged with Al-Qaeda.
The United Kingdom’s Foreign Office details at least nine other violent incidents since then in its most recent travel warning on Somalia. If you do brave the risks and visit Somalia, think twice before checking into the Jazeera Palace Hotel in Mogadishu. Al-Shabaab killed eight people there in a failed plot to assassinate the Somali president in September.
At least five million people were killed in the DRC in what’s been called Africa’s First World War from 1994-2003, and a proxy war, waged between rebel groups backed by Rwanda and the Kinshasa government, continued through 2008. Sadly the situation in the eastern part of the country has deteriorated this year as several armed groups like M23 continue to vie for control of this resource-rich part of the country.
In the U.S. State Department’s recent travel warning on the DRC, travelers are cautioned against the continued presence of Lord’s Resistance Army thugs and armed groups who are “known to pillage, steal vehicles, kidnap, rape, kill, and carry out military or paramilitary operations in which civilians are indiscriminately targeted.” The DRC is rated dead last in the U.N.’s Human Development Index for good reason: it’s a basket case in danger of becoming a full-on failed state. Other than aid workers, diplomats, mercenaries and shady businesspeople, no one in their right mind is traveling to the eastern DRC, and the rest of the country isn’t exactly the South of France either.
Syria, with its ancient capital, said to be the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city, historic souks, castles and impressive archaeological sites, was once a popular destination for backpackers. Now, nearly two years into a bloody civil war, the tourists are long gone with seemingly little hope of them returning anytime soon. More than 30,000 people have been killed in a conflict that has created nearly 500,000 refugees and about 2.5 million internally displaced people. But when peace returns to Syria, the tourists will certainly return to this interesting and hospitable country.
Last year, we recognized Kandahar Province as a distinctly violent, nasty place we had no intention of visiting in the near future but given the fact that nearly twice as many ISAF Coalition troops have perished in neighboring Helmand Province, extremists there could make a strong argument that they were snubbed.
And Helmand isn’t just a dangerous place for Coalition troops. A recent AP story asserted that despite a vigorous effort by the U.S.-led Coalition to rid the province of insurgents, residents are still afraid to go out after dark when bands of marauding criminals roam the streets. The province is a hotbed of poppy production, which finances the insurgents’ campaigns, and many residents support the Taliban.
And if you find yourself in Helmand, perish the thought; don’t expect the police to help you either. In 2012, at least 62 Coalition troops and 86 Afghans have been shot dead by Afghan police or soldiers, including fatal incidents in Helmand in August, September and October. Only a complete lunatic would plan a trip to Helmand Province, but Trip Advisor, God bless them, does indeed have a page entitled “Helmand Province Vacations” under the tab “Helmand Province Tourism” as though such a thing existed. Not surprisingly, there are no hotels, restaurants or things to do listed.
Mali, home to the legendary city of Timbuktu and one of the richest cultural and music scenes in West Africa, took several turns for the worse in 2012 and is now off limits to any traveler hoping to go home in one piece. Mali has had not one but two coups in 2012, and in April, Tuareg rebels declared an independent state called Azawad in the north of the country.
Before you rush out to apply for a tourist visa to Azawad, be warned that the territory’s economy revolves around kidnapping, most of them carried out by the thugs who run the place. There are ten European and three Algerian hostages currently being held in Northern Mali and there have been several other hostage-taking incidents involving tourists and diplomats in recent years, including an incident involving a Frenchman in Southwest Mali in November.
Edwin Dyer, a British tourist, was taken hostage and then beheaded in 2009, and Michel Germaneau, a 78-year-old French aid worker was taken hostage in neighboring Niger and was then reportedly killed in Mali in 2010. In the north, Islamists are known to administer rough justice. In one case, a police chief sawed off his own brother’s hand, and in July, in the northern town of Aguelhok, a couple was stoned to death for having a child out of wedlock.
Mexico gets all the bad press for its drug and gang violence, but on a per-capita basis, Honduras may be even more violent. Tourists flock to Roatán and other safe, idyllic beach getaways in Honduras, but San Pedro Sula ranks first in the world in per capita murders (1,143 murders in a city of just 719,447 in 2011) and Tegucigalpa ranks fifth. The Honduran districts of Yoro – with 110 murders per 100,000 – and Morazán – with 86 per 100,000 – both in the interior of the country, are also plagued by violence.
According to a 2011 UN Report, Honduras has the highest murder rate of any country in the world, with 86 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. I have a friend who used to teach English in San Pedro Sula in the ’90s and he said that the city used to be reasonably safe prior to Hurricane Mitch, which wreaked havoc on the country in 1998.
Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group that seeks to establish an Islamic state under Sharia law, is one of the nastiest terrorist groups in the world. Their late leader, Mohammed Yusuf, told the BBC in 2009 that he believed the earth was flat and said that education “spoils the belief in one God.”
Their targets have included the Nigerian military, the police, opponents of Sharia law and foreigners. Their tactics have included planting bombs in churches, attacking a UN compound in Abuja, taking hostages and engaging in extrajudicial assassinations. Boko Haram militants killed at least 186 people with a series of gun and bomb attacks near their base in Kano in January 2012 alone. On Christmas Eve this year, gunmen shot dead six Christians and set fire to their church in the northern province of Yobe.
And Boko Haram aren’t the only troublemakers in the region. Another Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist group killed two hostages, one from Britain, and one from Italy, in the town of Sokoto in March, and a German engineer that was being held hostage in Kano was killed in a rescue attempt along with five others in May. According to the State Department, criminals have abducted at least 140 foreigner nationals in Nigeria, including seven U.S. citizens, since January 2009.
Intrepid, some would say ill-advised, travelers can now visit Chernobyl, and some hard heads have even returned to live in the off-limits Fukushima exclusion zone in Japan, but the area around the primary testing venue for the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal, called “The Polygon,” remains closed, more than 20 years after Kazakhstan became the first country to voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons in 1991. The Soviets used the steppes of eastern Kazakhstan to test more than 400 nuclear bombs during the Cold War and to this day, residents of the city of Semipalatinsk (renamed Semey) suffer disproportionately from cancer and birth deformities blamed on continuing radiation.
Although the Polygon itself is technically off limits, it’s an area the size of Belgium with poorly marked boundaries and farmers allow their animals to graze there, according to The Telegraph. Stay away and avoid ordering horsemeat from eastern Kazakhstan if at all possible.
“It’s not that I love grossness itself, but I did come to love many of the polluted places I visited,” he told the New York Times. “And I object to the outright disgust these kinds of places get saddled with, because once that disgust becomes entrenched, we’re more likely to give up on them.”
In his book, Blackwell even defends Linfen, a coal town in Shanxi province, China, which was named the most polluted city in the world in 2006 by the Blacksmith Institute, and was subsequently put at or near the top of every top ten most polluted places list all over the net. (Last year, a city called Ahvaz in Iran topped a World Health Organization air pollution list.)
But it turns out that the Blacksmith list wasn’t rank ordered, but rather alphabetized by country, so Linfen was merely one of the ten nastiest places in the world and not necessarily the nastiest. Still, even Blackwell had to admit that the dust and pollution gave him a nasty cough.
“Chronic respiratory disease and even lung cancer must stalk the city’s boulevards and alleyways,” he wrote.
Pound-for-pound the Swat Valley and the seven semiautonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) near the border with Afghanistan might have more ignorant, violent extremists than any other place on the planet. One could fill a large volume with horror stories about bad things that have happened in this part of northwest Pakistan, but exhibit A of the brutality and extremism that pervades this area is the October 9 assassination attempt on 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai that wounded her and two others perpetrated by vermin who personify the word evil.
Yousafzai, who was shot in the head on a school bus and is now recovering in Britain, became a target for advocating on behalf of locals girls who want to be educated. In recent years, thousands of Pakistanis have died in terrorist attacks in the northwest and despite the U.S. drone strike campaign, which has pushed U.S. favorability ratings in Pakistan down to 12%, the region is still a hotbed for extremists.
Pockets of ignorance and extremism exist in other parts of the country as well. On December 18 and 19, gunmen shot dead seven people working on a U.N.-backed polio vaccination drive, four were killed in Karachi, and the others perished in the northwest, most from gunshots to the head, fired at close range.
Notes: Special thanks to Jay Dunne and Bernard Londoni, security analysts at iJet, a risk-management firm based in Annapolis, for providing me with intel on some of the locales listed above. A previous version of this story incorrectly noted that Robert Fowler was taken hostage in Mali. He was taken hostage in neighboring Niger.