The plunder of Timbuktu: “What can we do against armed men?”

 On Sunday, the citizens of Timbuktu were once again powerless to stop the destruction of the city's famed mausoleums by Islamist militias. In the city of “333 saints”, the mood is one of resignation.   



On Sunday, the citizens of Timbuktu were once again powerless to stop the destruction of the city's famed mausoleums by Islamist militias. In the city of “333 saints”, the mood is one of resignation.


Video from our Observer Ousmane Ag Med Ousmane.


Three days after a UN vote specifying the terms of a military intervention in Mali's rebel-controlled north, members of the Islamist militia Ansar Dine destroyed the last mausoleums in the city of “333 saints” on Sunday, December 23.


In July, the same salafist militia had already pulverized seven of Timbuktu’s sixteen mausoleums and destroyed the door to the Sidi Yahya mosque. Two months before, the militia had destroyed and burned the tomb of the Muslim scholar Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar, one of the most respected Sufi saints.


These mausoleums hold the remains of saints and marabouts revered by Sufi Muslims. According to Mathieu Guidère, an Islamic studies expert, for centuries, the population has selected “pious, poor men” of “irreproachable morality” and turned them into “saints”. But these saints are considered heretical by radical Islamists.


On Friday, in neighbouring Algeria, the Ansar Dine movement pledged to negotiate a political solution with Malian authorities, but reaffirmed that it did not intend to renounce the application of Sharia law in the zones under its control.



“The Islamists went to the streets and the marketplaces to explain that the mausoleums were places of ‘idolatry'’”

Othman Agh Mohamed, a journalist for Sahara Media, lives in Timbuktu. On Sunday, he met with members of Ansar Dine.


Emir Abou al-Oualid, the chief of the Islamic police of the Ansar Dine movement, told me that he had no knowledge of the existence of these mausoleums, as they are located in remote areas.


Using pickaxes and shovels, the Islamic police destroyed five mausoleums, namely in the Cheik Bekkaï neighborhood and near the main market. They told me that these actions were not in response to the UN’s green-lighting of military action and that they would have destroyed these mausoleums a long time ago had they known of their existence.

This destruction did not surprise local residents. In fact, they expected it, because before the destruction, Islamist militiamen went to the streets and markets to explain that these areas were places of “idolatry” and so that they must be destroyed. The Islamic police also conducted several patrols throughout the city in the last few days, asking people to denounce any members of Ansar Dine that were guilty of abuses.




“What can we do against these armed men?”

Mahaman Dedeou is an employee of the Timbuktu city hall.



What can we do against these armed men? Already, last July, when the Islamists started destroying the mausoleums, the Timbuktu association of imams had counselled adherents not to fight back in order to avoid a swelling of violence. Today, people are very suspicious of the Islamists and try to limit all contact with them.


I personally view these actions as a taunt to the international community—a way of saying that the Islamists have decided to maintain control of Timbuktu and northern Mali.


That said, they are not completely reassured and are trying to gain the sympathy and support of the population in the event of a military intervention. Aside from the destruction of mausoleums, they had lessened the pressure of the population over the last few days, especially on women. I live very close to the jail and noticed that over the last two weeks, no women have been brought there. Up until then, they were harassed in the streets by the Islamic police and thrown in jail when their headscarves were not worn according to regulation. Now, when that happens,the women “only” receive a lecture.