A recent surge in violence in northern Mali that saw an attack on a MINUSMA convoy kill six Burkinabe peacekeepers and forced hundreds of Malians to seek refuge in neighboring Mauritania has served as a disquieting reminder that much work remains in the struggle to achieve lasting peace in the region. But earlier this week, the international community and the people of Timbuktu celebrated a small but significant step in rebuilding northern Mali, as UNESCO announced that local masons in their employ have completed the reconstruction of eight mausoleums destroyed by insurgent Islamist groups that occupied much of northern Mali in 2012 and 2013. At this fraught point in Mali’s history, UNESCO’s commitment to rebuilding Timbuktu’s cultural heritage is an important symbol of the international community’s continued commitment to rebuilding the region as a whole.
The UNESCO-led rebuilding project employed local masons trained in traditional methods to restore the mausoleums, which are integral to Timbuktu’s cultural identity as well as holy sites for many of the Sufi communities in the region. In a ceremony Sunday celebrating the successful completion of the project, Director-General of UNESCO Irina Bokova underscored the importance of reconstruction as a symbol of the city’s commitment to remaining a site of “tolerance, dialogue, and peace,” adding that the people of Timbuktu’s “endeavor to safeguard essential elements of your history is proof of Mali’s recovery, rallying and regained confidence.”
The mausoleums represented Timbuktu’s role as a cultural, religious, and economic locus for much of Muslim Africa. At its peak in the 15th and 16th centuries, Timbuktu was a gathering point for traders and intellectuals alike, a university city with an active role in the busy trans-Saharan trade in gold and ivory and a large community of religious scholars from across the Muslim world. The city, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, had sixteen mausoleums and three mosques that UNESCO designated as protected sites. Timbuktu also housed countless invaluable Islamic manuscripts dating as far back as the 16th century.
This heritage suffered immensely in the aftermath of a coup in Bamako that weakened the Malian security forces’ grasp on the country in 2012. In the wake of the coup, several Islamist extremist groups used the opportunity to seize control of large parts of northern Mali. Ansar Dine, a group with ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), seized control of Timbuktu and occupied the city until a combined French and Malian force drove them out of the city in 2013. During the occupation of Timbuktu, Ansar Dine destroyed fourteen of the UNESCO-designated mausoleums and desecrated a sacred mosque on the grounds that the sites were idolatrous. UNESCO referred the destruction of Timbuktu’s holy mausoleums to the International Criminal Court in 2012.
Northern Mali continues to face challenges. The restored mausoleums are still inaccessible to tourists, once the economic lifeblood of this community, due to the continued threat of sporadic attacks from extremist groups that remain active in the vast desert regions of northern Mali. Violence and forced displacement continues in the region. And while Mali looks to post a second consecutive year of economic growth, the rate of poverty remains high–above 42% for the country as a hole. Economic activity has been slow to resume in the region, even after the end of the occupation, as many trade routes across the northern Sahel have become untenable.
Given the trying economic circumstances and continued threat of military insecurity for the people of northern Mali, the international community must remain committed to the region’s recovery. UNESCO and the local masons of Timbuktu have taken an important step in preserving the religious and cultural heritage of an historic city. Yet the rebuilt mausoleums must also symbolize a sustained effort from the international community to work with the government and people of northern Mali to restore its economic livelihood and ensure the security of its people.