When Islamist militants took control of northern Mali in 2012, they left their mark by vandalizing the sacred sites of Timbuktu. Now, an international effort is underway to repair the damages.
When the militants, known as Ansar Dine, captured Timbuktu for several months in early 2012, they smashed more than a dozen mud and wooden mausoleums using sledgehammers and burned thousands of ancients manuscripts kept in the “city of 333 Sufi saints.”
The Ansar Dine wanted to impose strict Sharia law in Mali, and considered as idolatry the Sufi Muslims’ reverence of their ancestral scholars in Timbuktu, said Lazare Eloundou Assomo, director of the Bamako, Mali-based Africa unit of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
The armed groups thought that destroying the sites of the buried saints would keep residents from going to them to pray, said Eloundou Assomo. “It was very traumatic for the communities,” but it didn’t stop them from visiting the crumbled remains.
After a French-led military operation drove out the Ansar Dine from Timbuktu, an international team led by UNESCO traveled there in the summer of 2013 to assess the damages to the earthen structures. They found 16 mausoleums destroyed and more than 4,000 ancient manuscripts burned.
On March 14, UNESCO and the Malian government formally launched the restoration operation with logistical support from the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali. The reconstruction of two of the mausoleums was completed this week.
Repairing all of the mausoleums will take about a year, and rehabilitation of the mosques and libraries in Timbuktu and Gao — another Malian city captured by rebels — is expected to take about four years, said Eloundou Assomo. He said about $3 million of the $11 million total cost has been raised so far.
The area “tells the long history of Mali and the heritage of humanity,” said Eloundou Assomo. At the ceremony marking its restoration, he said the locals called it “the rebirth of Timbuktu.”
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