Mali's artists fight to save the country's ancient cultural treasures

A little girl smiles for the camera in Bamako, Mali's capital, less than a mile from the palace of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. Keita was elected on his promise to unify the country after a rebellion, a coup d'etat and an Islamic insurgency that plunged what was one of Africa's most stable democracies into chaos. Photo by Molly Raskin

The Northern part of Mali in West Africa has come under attack repeatedly since 2012, when al-Qaida-linked militants seized two-thirds of the country. French and Malian forces re-took the north in 2013, but the violence continues. This weekend, terrorists launched two separate attacks, killing eight people and injuring more than 20. It was the first-ever attack in Bamako, Mali's capital, sending the city into shock.

Chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown just returned from Mali for a series called "Culture at Risk," where he reported on the critical role the country's cultural heritage is playing in the peace process.

On the trip, Jeff visited Bamako, where some of Mali's top musicians performed a concert calling for an end to the violence. He also explored the ancient, storied city of Timbuktu. Once a crossroads of Islamic scholarship, desert trade and West African music, Timbuktu is still recovering from 10 months of terror under the occupation of militant jihadists who seized the city and imposed a brutal form of Sharia law. They banned any form of artistic expression and destroyed many of the city's cultural treasures, including mosques, shrines and music studios.

Today, as U.N.-led peace talks progress, Mali's artists and scholars are joining in the fight for reconciliation and the preservation of the music, art and scholarship at the heart of their country.

The skyline of Mali's capitol, Bamako, is punctuated by the blue minarets of a large mosque. Muslims currently make up 90 percent of the population in Mali. The constitution mandates freedom of religion and defines the country as secular. Sadly, northern Mali has been under attack since 2012 by religious extremists who espouse a brutal form of Sharia law. Photo by Molly Raskin

Mali ranks among the world's poorest countries — almost half the population lives below the poverty line. As a result of the conflict, food insecurity remains a critical issue and malnutrition is one of the leading causes of death among children under the age of five. Photo by Molly Raskin

Bassekou Kouyate is one of Mali's greatest musicians and a master of the ngoni, a traditional West African lute. Bassekou — pictured here on the rooftop of a music school he's building in Bamako — has toured around the world and shared the stage with global legends like Bono; the two played together at the famed Festival in the Desert in Timbuktu just weeks before the 2012 conflict began. Photo by Molly Raskin

U.N. troops patrol the heavily secured roads surrounding the airport in Timbuktu. Peacekeeping troops in the north have come under continual attack by militants since French and Malian forces re-took the area in early 2013. Last weekend, an attack on a U.N. compound in the city of Kidal killed three, including two children and a U.N. peacekeeper. Photo by Molly Raskin

Children play soccer on a sandy square next to the University of Timbuktu, once one of the greatest centers of Islamic scholarship. Just two years ago — on this very square — Islamic militants carried out brutal public punishments on those who did not comply with their form of Sharia law. Photo by Molly Raskin

A donkey walks on the sandy streets of Timbuktu. Still a common mode of transportation in northern Mali, donkeys often carry food and other goods. In 2013, they were part of a dramatic rescue mission, helping to carry thousands of ancient manuscripts out of Timbuktu to the safety of Bamako after jihadists seized the city. Photo by Molly Raskin

A small girl stands in a desolate alleyway of Timbutku. The city is struggling to recover in the aftermath of the militant occupation and still feels empty; more than half its 50,000 residents fled and have yet to return. It's a sad chapter for a city that once bustled with trade, scholarship and tourism. Photo by Molly Raskin

Abdrahamane Ben Essayouti, the Grand Imam of Timbuktu and the famous Djingareyber Mosque, witnessed the destruction of his hometown at the hand of the jihadists. Today he's thankful his city was rescued, but also concerned about its future as the jihadists continue to threaten the area. Photo by Molly Raskin.

The Djingareyber Mosque, built in 1327, is a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site. The mosque's central minaret is the tallest landmark in it's city's skyline. During the occupation, the militants took over the mosque and destroyed many of the city's holiest sites, including two tombs at the mosque, which they smashed using pick axes. Photo by Molly Raskin

The Djingareyber Mosque is made almost entirely out of mud. It serves as a prayer space for up to 2,000 people. Photo by Molly Raskin

Young people in post-war Timbuktu are suffering; the conflict interrupted the delivery of food and other staples to the city, weakened health care and education and forced many to flee or seek exile. Photo by Molly Raskin

A woman in Timbuktu sweeps the sand away from the front of her doorstep. Because Timbuktu sits on the edge of the vast Sahara desert, sand encroaches everywhere. Photo by Molly Raskin

The ancient, prized manuscripts of Timbuktu, one of the largest written records of Islamic and African history from the 13th to 18th centuries, have long been housed in the city's libraries. However, the collection was moved to Bamako by a team of historians after militants occupied Timbuktu and threatened to burn the manuscripts. Photo by Molly Raskin

Once crowded with shoppers and stalls, Timbuktu's main market is now eerily quiet. Peacekeeping forces patrol its streets, and shop owners are struggling, praying for the return of peace to their city. Photo by Molly Raskin

The jihadists raided the craft market in 2012, looting and destroying many of its treasures and the livelihood of its patrons. This tailor told us the militants smashed all his sewing machines, leaving him to work now only by hand, and driving away customers who remain afraid. Photo by Molly Raskin

African peacekeeping troops have come under constant attack since they retook Timbuktu in 2013. Today, only certain parts of the city are considered safe, and Western travelers are cautioned not to visit the city until the violence abates. Photo by Molly Raskin

A boy floats down the Niger River on a pirogue, a traditional wooden boat used for transport and fishing. Plagued by frequent droughts, Mali survives largely because of its access to the Niger, the third longest river in Africa. Photo by Molly Raskin

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