Timbuktu’s uncertain future

2012-08-04 14:32

It’s the people – not relics – who pay the real price, write Khadija Patel and Azad Essa

In March, for the third time since independence, Mali fell victim to a coup.

This time, however, the coup was a death knell to the Malian state as we know it.

While the army battled to win control of the capital, Bamako, an unlikely alliance of Tuareg rebels and a ragtag bunch of armed Islamist groups alleged to be the spawn of al-Qaeda, took control of Northern Mali and declared an independent state, Azawad.

As the international community dithered on how exactly to respond, the rebel alliance splintered.

Secular Tuaregs and the sharia law-compliant Islamist fighters, mostly under the guise of a group called Ansar Eddine (Helpers of the Faith), clashed over the ideological make-up of Azawad.

The situation, grave as it was, appeared to be nothing more than an addendum to the basket-case syndrome of West Africa.

In a region where coups are engineered like a puerile game of musical chairs, this particular coup was hardly novel.

Few people paid attention even as the Tuaregs and the Islamists turned their guns on each other in Kidal and Gao.

But then the shrines of Timbuktu were attacked.

Ansar Eddine went on an unholy rampage, “cleansing” the fabled city of its Sufi relics and destroying historical sites deemed incongruous to its Salafist ideology.

Reports indicate that at least eight of the 16 listed mausoleums in Timbuktu have been destroyed.

Then the world sat up and noticed.

Unesco called it “wanton destruction”, while the International Criminal Court chimed in, saying that the destruction of undefended civilian structures constituted
“a war crime”.

Most commentators likened it to the destruction of Buddhist statues by the Taliban in 2001.

Residents of Timbuktu reportedly took to the streets in protest, but ultimately succumbed to the intimidation and the heavy weaponry of the marauding rebels.
The few pictures that snuck out from one of the most remote areas on the globe told a torrid tale of intolerance.

Nothing can legitimise this destruction. The tapestries, mausoleums and manuscripts of Timbuktu are critically important to human history.

They tell us the story of another time, one with more respect for learning, of a more hopeful chapter in human history.

And though the destruction of Timbuktu is unconscionable, the hysteric chorus of indignation against this insult to history rings alarmingly hollow.

The more mundane tale of Malians living through this conflict has failed to rouse the same passion, let alone the same kind of attention as the destruction of ancient relics in the last few weeks.

It seems convenient to forget that at least 350 000 people have been uprooted in this conflict.

While the destruction of shrines elicited condemnation in early July, Amnesty International, as far back as May, levelled a litany of allegations against the rebels, including of extrajudicial killings, rape and the use of child soldiers.

Unicef reported that from May to July, at least 175 children were forced to take up arms in this conflict.

If the political insecurity was not compelling enough, there is also the matter of a crippling food shortage in the Sahel region of West Africa. As severe drought bites the region, 20% of Mali’s population are said to face food shortages. Northern Mali is also likely to be worst affected.

But the story does not stop there.

There is also evidence to suggest that both the US and Algeria have allowed these armed groups to exist, serving firstly to justify the encroaching American military presence in the region while at the same time providing a convenient front for a multibillion-dollar narcotics trade flourishing between South America and Europe, with West Africa as a conduit.

US Senator Charles Grassley said in May that between 60 and 250 metric tons of cocaine passed through West Africa with a profit bigger than many of the region’s economies.

It is beguiling that this spiral of violence, helped along by rival armed Islamist groups who have existed in the region for years, has only reached a peak in public consciousness with the destruction of unarmed civilian buildings.

The shrines are deemed un-Islamic, because they are thought to encourage idolatry.

It is ironic, then, that it would take their intolerance to expose our bigotry since public consciousness has specifically chosen, as a greater concern, objects made of wood and stone over the more human story of this conflict.

The crisis in Timbuktu is not just about a bunch of rabid Islamists threatening to expunge the remnants of historical tolerance, coexistence and peaceful resolve.

And despite the nature of these crimes, the manner in which the crisis is exported, as a narrative, will dictate how the international community approaches North Mali. We really could do without a botched intervention and, indeed, another Somalia.

Timbuktu will suffer in the coming days, but the spirit of the ancient city might as well have been destroyed, especially if we refuse to see it as any more important than the sum of its surrounding humanity.

Patel is a columnist and journalist at the Daily Maverick

» Essa is the author of Zuma’s Bastard (Two Dogs Books)

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