UNESCO Reports Damage To Timbuktu Worse Than Previously Reported

Timbuktu
Emilio Labrador

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.

Islamists Renew Attack On Timbuktu’s Heritage

Timbuktu
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.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

People Of Mali Fight Back Against Fundamentalists Destroying Their Heritage

Mali, Timbuktu
We’ve been covering the turmoil in Mali for some time now. Three months ago, rebels in the north of the country took advantage of a coup in the capital to break away and set up the nation of Azawad. This new nation, as yet unrecognized by any other, was supposed to be a homeland for the Tuaregs, a people who complain of poor treatment from the central government.

All did not go as planned. The radical Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) took over part of the area and put it under harsh Sharia law. Their area of control includes Timbuktu, where they have been destroying the medieval shrines of Muslim saints they say are contrary to Islam. There are also fears they may burn the hundreds of thousands of early manuscripts in Timbuktu. Fundamentalists tend not to like reading much.

Now moderate Muslims are fighting back. Sufi Muslims, who are the majority in Mali and who honor the shrines, have created an armed band to defend them. They’re guarding the holy tombs at Araouane and Gasser-Cheick, close to Timbuktu.

This is the latest step towards conflict between the supposedly allied Ansar Dine and the other rebel groups. Ansar Dine has overstepped its bounds and insulted local religious feeling. They may soon pay the price.

With the world community doing nothing but wringing their hands and making sympathetic noises, it appears the only hope to save the ancient treasures of Mali is in the hands of the locals.

[Photo courtesy Emilio Labrador]

Azawad: Africa’s Newest Nation?

Azawad, MaliA Tuareg rebel group in Mali has declared the northern two-thirds of the country as a separate state.

The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) has kicked out government troops and declared the independent nation of Azawad. The region is marked out in green in this map courtesy Wikimedia Commons. The remaining part of Mali is in dark gray just below it.

The Tuaregs are a distinct desert culture living in several African nations. They have complained of being treated as second-class citizens by the Malian government and took advantage of a military coup in the capital last week to take over the Tuareg region.

So far no nation or international body has recognized Azawad as an independent state. There are a lot of politics behind this, beyond the fact that Azawad is home to at least four rebel groups, at least one of which rejects the declaration of independence. Since the coup leaders in the south plan to retake the north, it’s an open question whether Azawad will exist next month or next year.

This begs the question: when is a country really a country? I was once asked in an interview how many countries I’d been to. I answered, “29-31 depending on your definition.” I have been to 29 countries that are recognized by most or all of the world. I say “most of the world” because I’ve been to Israel, which is obviously a country even though it isn’t recognized by 32 other nations.

%Gallery-152666%I have also been to Somaliland, which, despite not having any international recognition, has a functioning government, police, elections, civil institutions and all the other things one associates with nationhood. Somaliland has had these things since it separated from the rest of Somalia in 1991. Ironically, all the world’s nations still consider it to be a part of Somalia, which hasn’t had a functioning government since 1991.

The other hard-to-define nation I’ve visited is Palestine. I know it’s politically incorrect to say anything in support of Palestine, but I consider it a country even if the US government doesn’t. The governments of 130 nations do recognize Palestine’s statehood and that’s good enough for me.

Just like with Palestine and Somaliland, Azawad has to travel a long, rough road between creation and recognition. Since several neighboring nations have offered to send troops to help Mali’s government fight the rebels, an independent Tuareg state is obviously something that scares them. A report that Islamic fundamentalists have taken over some of the northern towns doesn’t lend confidence either. I’ve spent a few months in the Sahara and I can tell you that life there is hard enough without a bunch of wackos banning music, movies and women’s faces.

But assuming Azawad fights off the Malian government and any other enemies, and assuming they get rid of the Islamists, it’s a country I’d love to add to my passport. It’s an adventure travel paradise. The Tuareg are a fascinating culture with their own dress, music, language and traditions. Azawad is also home to Timbuktu, an ancient center of trade and learning that’s home to an amazing program to preserve more than 100,000 handwritten manuscripts dating back as early as the 12th century. For people who like things a bit more modern, the region is home to two popular music festivals: Sahara Nights and The Festival in the Desert.

Now all that’s in danger because of a war. Hopefully the current crisis will be resolved with a minimum of bloodshed, either leading to Azawad’s independence or reintegration into a more egalitarian Mali. With so many outside interests staking a claim in the region’s affairs, however, it’s doubtful that either Azawad or Mali will be safe for travelers anytime soon.