UNESCO needs more money to restore Timbuktu’s cultural treasures

Islamist radicals destroyed Timbuktu’s storied mausoleums and other Malian cultural treasures two years ago

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UNESCO is more than two-thirds short of the $11 million needed to fulfill its promise to help restore Timbuktu’s storied mausoleums and other Malian cultural treasures destroyed by Islamic radicals two years ago, the U.N. cultural agency said Friday.

Three months after announcing the project, UNESCO has raised only $3 million, said Lazare Eloundou, the head of UNESCO’s office in Mali. That figure that has not changed since April.

The director of UNESCO’s New York office, Vibeke Jensen, said raising $8 million may not seem difficult, but it competes with appeals for help on horrific humanitarian crises such as those in Iraq and Syria.

“It shouldn’t be a big issue. I mean, $8 million. But competition is very hard. You see what is happing in Iraq, in Syria,” she said at a news conference.

Islamic radicals who overran Timbuktu in 2012 destroyed 14 of the city’s 16 mausoleums, one-room structures that house the tombs of the city’s great thinkers. The mausoleums are now barely more than heaps of mud, reminders of the brutal rule of the jihadists, who imposed Shariah law on the fabled city, forced women to wear veils and carried out executions and public whippings. The extremists were driven after nearly a year by a French military intervention.

Two of the mausoleums have been rebuilt through the project, which is being carried out by local masons with guidance from international experts. Although UNESCO initially predicted the restorations would take a month, Eloundou said the first two reconstructions ended up being a pilot phase that revealed technical and cultural complexities. He said each mausoleum is the responsibility of different family, which chooses a specific mason for the restoration.

“We want the community to rebuild their own heritage. It’s not just about rebuilding stones. It’s also about keeping the cultural significance and keeping the role that the mausoleum had in structuring the life of the community,” he said.

Eloundou said the next phase will start in September after the rainy season ends, but he can no longer estimate if the project will take months or years.

Eloundou said UNESCO has addressed one pressing concern of some masons: That trenches dug to assess the damage to the mausoleums be refilled by July to prevent water from flowing in and undermining the foundations. Eloundou said UNESCO officials met with the masons and the holes have been filled completely.

Eloundou also announced an international conference in October in the capital of Bamako to develop a strategy for returning ancient manuscripts to Timbuktu. The meeting will bring together top world experts with Timbuktu librarians to exchange ideas.

The Islamic radicals destroyed 4,000 manuscripts during their occupation but the vast majority was saved by the library’s custodians, who spirited tens of thousands of documents out in rice sacks, on donkey carts, by motorcycle, by boat and other vehicles. The manuscripts, dating back to the 13th century, are being stored in Bamako, but the southern city’s humid climate is not ideal for their preservation.

The entire city of Timbuktu is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. At the peak of its influence in the 15th and 16th centuries, Timbuktu counted 180 schools and universities to which thousands of students from all over the Muslim world flocked.

Eloundou said the manuscripts have for centuries been vital to Timbuktu’s economy, drawing academics from around the world and providing jobs for those involved in safeguarding them.

“Without the manuscripts in Timbuktu, Timbuktu is not Timbuktu,” he said.

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