The wanton and horrifying destruction of a World Heritage site — the Sidi Yahia mosque — and several ancient tombs at Timbuktu by radical Islamist insurgents in Mali is another grim reminder of growing intolerance towards cultural symbols in conflict areas. Eleven years after the Bamiyan Buddhas were pulversised by the Taliban and 19 years on from the demolition of the Babri Masjid by Hindutva fanatics, it is clear that existing international conventions and the protective measures they offer to heritage structures are ineffective. Timbuktu is not, as the English-speaking world conditioned by Orientalist imagination conjures, an insignificant place located in the back of beyond. Rather, it is a historic city of captivating beauty. Saddled between the desert and the irrigated areas of the river Niger in north Mali, Timbuktu, founded by Tuaregs in the 11th century, flourished as a trading city during the 15th and 16th centuries, and also as a centre of learning. The mosques of Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia, built more than 400 years ago, attest to its great past. These exquisite examples of earthen architecture along with 16 cemeteries are World Heritage sites. Ansar Dine — the radical Islamist militia which has taken control of the area — considers the mosques dedicated to Sufi saints and structures over graves as idolatrous, and has barbarically ravaged them with pickaxes.

What Malians fear more is the condition of about 300,000 ancient manuscripts. In the past, Timbuktu hosted thousands of students who came to learn about Islam. Books on religious and other subjects were written, copied and traded. Libraries and institutions there such as the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research still preserve and use many of them. If these precious documents meet the same fate as the monuments, the loss would be irreplaceable. Sadly, the World Heritage Convention and the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its two protocols have turned out to be toothless. They could not bind the radical militia. Hope now lies in two places. The statute of the International Criminal Court includes as war crimes the deliberate destruction of cultural properties. Such legal provisions could be improved in scope to become effective deterrents. A proactive empowerment of local communities to care for and guard their heritage during conflict is another avenue to explore. UNESCO’s assistance to local guards in Congo during the time of conflict (2001) to save the world natural heritage sites there was reassuring. Timbuktu needs more of such support and it needs this urgently.

More In: Editorial | Opinion