Walking through the streets of Timbuktu, you’ll breathe history, myth and mystery. This city, founded in the 12th century by the Tuareg of the Araouan region, has developed from the 14th century onwards economically and, even more, culturally. It reached its maximum splendor in the 16th century. It was home to 100,000 people. In the Sankore mosque and in another 180 Koranic schools, people did not study just the Quran and Islamic theology, but also geography, astronomy and law. The fabled ‘City of 33 Saints’ is ‘the crossroads of cultures and people, and it is the expression of a deep sense of tolerance’, says Salem Oul el Hady, a 75 year-old, retired teacher. ‘There is not some big racial divide here. We have never had apartheid here. People pray together, read together and travel together. Go around the markets and you will see white and back traders working side by side. Go back in history and you will find that it has been like that since the 14th century’, he emphasises.
But ten months of occupation by the Ansar al-Din and Al-Qaeda militants in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), who have imposed the strict Islamic version of Shariah, or religious law, forcing women to cover their faces, have put enormous strain on Timbuktu’s tradition of tolerance. According to El Hady, “Torching libraries containing thousands of priceless, historic manuscripts, was like burning the city’s history and a millennial tradition”.
‘What happened is very sad’ – Mayor Ousmane Halle has said. ‘They have burned ancient manuscripts , ancient books of geography and science. They have destroyed Timbuktu and its people’s history”.
Michael Covitt, chairman of the Malian Manuscript Foundation, called the arson a “desecration to humanity.” “These manuscripts are irreplaceable. They have the wisdom of the ages, and are the most important find since the Dead Sea Scrolls”, he said.
French troops expelled the jihadists from the city in January 2013. Since then, although there is collective relief that the radical Islamists and al-Quaeda militants’ occupation has ended, tensions are evident and there is deep resentment against those believed to have supported the jihadists.
‘There were differences in languages and traditions, but the communities coexisted relatively peacefully and mixed freely. That changed when the jihadists arrived’, residents say.
“The focus now is on reconciliation between the various ethnic groups and people”, says Diadiè Hamadoune Maiga who headed Timbuktu’s crisis committee during the Islamists’ rule, liaising with the rebel leadership. Now, he is working as a local peacemaker, steering meetings between different groups in Timbuktu. “Our history helps us in this work of pacification. There has never been racial division between us. What we need to do is bring people together for talking and listening to each other. The state does not have the experience and the sensitivity to run this kind of dialogue. It doesn’t know people’s customs and traditions. You can’t make a meal if you don’t know the ingredients. The state should simply be supporting those who know how to make peace’, he said.
Hamadoune Maiga’s approach is much more local, relying on religious leaders and community representatives to address their respective groups. This, he says, can contribute to a climate of peace and to ‘talking with real openness about what happened, what is acceptable and what is not’.
‘There were rebellions before, but they were against the central government of Bamako that has forgotten these regions for years”, Hamadoune Maiga adds.
The National Pact of 1992 is a set of peace agreements signed between the government and the separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). Promises were made which were not kept afterwards. The Tuareg expected it. And they waited for the right moment to take up arms again. In January 2012, the MNLA occupied the northern regions of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu and declared the independence of Azawad from Mali. The proclamation was never recognized and the region was disputed by both the Malian government and the Islamist insurgent groups. After the collapse of a short-lived accord, the MNLA and Ansar Dine continued to clash until the Islamist groups took control of the city. ‘Islamists arrived in the region with their own agenda, polluting trading routes and distorting inter-communal relations’, emphasises Hamadoune Maina. “It is important to have an inclusive dialogue and we must also remember that the MNLA do not represent all Mali’s Tuaregs. It is a small group of individuals who have been close to power. There is a huge gap between what they say and the reality on the ground’.
Last June , three armed groups from northern Mali have agreed to begin peace talks with the government aimed at resolving long-standing disputes in the country. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) are demanding “inclusive” talks with the Bamako government. In the declaration, the groups agreed to engage with the government on the path of “dialogue and negotiations”, in exchange for the release of prisoners and better conditions for the return of refugees. The head of the UN mission in Mali, Albert Gerard Koenders, said warned the entire region was in danger if peace was not restored to the north. “The region will be in danger if there is no reconciliation,” said.
Rebuilding of damaged mausoleums in the ‘City of the 33 Saints’ started last month. The reconstruction project is being financed by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), along with the help from several countries such as Andorra, Bahrain, Croatia and Mauritius.
(Drissa S. Saho)