Ancient Timbuktu votes today amid need for healing, mud-plastering

Elections in Mali are especially significant in the north, in places like Timbuktu, where Islamists held sway and brought destruction.

Joe Penney/Reuters
Voters line up inside a polling place in Timbuktu, Mali, during Sunday's presidential election.

Last June the heritage sites and mausoleums of this ancient crossroads city came under threat by radical Islamists as they took over Timbuktu.

Local officials and a team of Islamic stone masons tried to reason with the radicals. But they turned the old Muslim gravesites into rubble and eventually burned a world heritage library, saying these treasures were out of sorts with their perception of correct Islam and Sharia law.

The town’s population could only watch the destruction in silence. “They were too strong,” Timbuktu mayor Ousmane Halle says of the insurgents.

But in January after a French-led military action, the radicals were tossed out. Now, six months later, the weary people of northern Mali, where the Islamists held sway, are going to the polls for elections. What citizens here want is peace, and a restoration of the ancient city that binds residents together. 

The elections are the first in Mali since the president, Amadou Toumani Touré, was ousted in a military coup last year. Questions linger about whether the country was logistically ready to hold the vote, with reports today indicating many registered voters are not appearing on the voter rolls. 

North feels neglected

Like much of Mali’s north, Timbuktu is struggling to recover from the effects of the ten-month long Islamist occupation.

In the remote desert town it’s not only the tombs, some dating back to the 16th century, that need rebuilding. The sense among town elders interviewed here is that Timbuktu itself must be rebuilt. While all of Mali needs help, the problems are more acute in the north.

Part of what sparked an ethnic Tuareg rebellion last year, which paved the way for a radical takeover, was a long-standing grudge that the Mali government in the capital Bamako, in the south, had neglected the north.

Fuel, banks, marketplaces, and basic government services, such as the town hall and judiciary, are still not fully functional. Electricity is on only from 7 pm to midnight each day, less than there was under Islamist occupation.

“There are no desks, no chairs, and no computers. The rebels took everything,” says Mr. Halle, adding that he had to buy the fixings of his public office from his personal holdings.

The rebels, who lingered behind when the armed groups were driven out of major towns, are still hiding in villages and rural areas not far from Timbuktu.

Some 80 percent of the town’s authorities have yet to return, and even when they do return it is unclear what work they can find.

“We need better schools and health care. Jobs for the youth and infrastructure, but first and foremost we need peace,” says Fatoumata Diakité, a Timbuktu inhabitant.

Patching up cracks, both physical and mental

Fundamentally, there are other, less visible but equally pressing problems, including a breakdown in the actual fabric of Malian society.

In Timbuktu, the need to restore the city’s feeling of amity and civility is tied up with restoring the ancient physical city. Restoring the ancient mausoleums or tombs, for example, is seen as part of patching up cracks created and widened between people by the armed groups.

“People take pride in the mausoleums but they also have a deeper meaning. They are not only something we show for tourists, but an important link to our ancestors,” says Hamou Mohamed Dedeou, a teacher and librarian at the Ahmed Baba Institute, housing Timbuktu’s old manuscripts, also on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.

Much of the physical restoration in Timbuktu falls to Alhassan Hassaye and his prized mud-molding skills.

Now a year past 70, Alhassan Hassaye is the first master of masons in Timbuktu. His family has maintained the monument sites since medieval times. He has been given the task to rebuild the ancient mausoleums that have been on UNESCO’s World Heritage list since 1988. He is also being tapped to restore the town’s three large mosques and remaining cemeteries and mausoleums.

Alhassan Hassaye squats down and picks up a piece of graying mud, gently holding it between the thumb and index finger, and sighs.

“I knew the mausoleums were in danger the moment the armed men entered Timbuktu,” he says. “The people of Timbuktu rely on me to reconstruct their heritage, the links to our ancestors. It’s a great honor.”

A delegation from UNESCO who visited Timbuktu in May estimates funds needed to restore the town’s battered World Heritage site at some $11 million.

“It’s a lot of money for a country like Mali,” says the minister for the preservation of Mali’s cultural heritage Lassana Cissé.

The organization has agreed to help restore at least 15 of the mausoleums.

Alhassan Hassaye is eager to get to work: “In life we are assigned many tasks. However, some are more important than others….The people of Timbuktu have suffered. I do not want to keep them waiting,” he says. 

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