It's not all bad news!
On September 27th, judgment was passed on Ahmed al-Faqi al-Mahdi. He was sentenced to nine years in prison for his role in the destruction of nine mausoleums and a mosque door in Timbuktu. I wrote about this in an article for the BBC which you can read here. There are several unanswered issues relating to the trial. Firstly, why has Al-Mahdi not been charged with crimes of rape and violence (which he is alleged to have committed)? Secondly, why have more senior jihadists not been brought to justice? The Al-Mahdi trial represents a rare triumph for the International Criminal Court, and a legal template against which the vandals of Nineveh, Palmyra and many other places in the Middle East may eventually be judged; but as long as the more powerful jihadists remain at large, it's hard to believe justice has fully been served.
Talking to contacts and friends in Timbuktu around the time of Al-Mahdi's trial, I was surprised by the clemency many expressed. 'People know Al-Mahdi has asked for forgiveness,' said one. 'He wasn't the leader of Ansar ad-Dine,' said another. 'It is the leaders who are the real responsible ones.'
One reason for the lenient atmosphere is that many of the monuments destroyed by al-Mahdi and his cohorts have been restored. In an uplifting project, under the auspices of UNESCO, local masons have brought back several of Timbuktu's most beloved mausoleums, using traditional banco (a mixture of straw and clay) along with rice stalks and limestone. In order to make sure the reconstructed shrines matched the originals as closely as possible, they consulted Timbuktu's elders, as well as old photographs and descriptions of the ruined shrines. This is a big deal, in a culture where it is common to pray at the tombs of the dead, to ask for spiritual guidance, and to leave votive offerings. 'It is the coming back of people's identity,' said Abdramane, a friend from Northern Mali, who was visiting Timbuktu. Oumar, a student in Timbuktu, has sent me photos of some of the reconstructed shrines, including the official ceremony for the reinstallation of the sacred door of the Sidi Yahia Mosque (which, according to tradition, can only be opened at the end of days - you can see the pictures above and below this post). Serendipitously, this took place just a few days before Al-Mahdi's verdict. Considering all the bad news that tends to crackle out of Mali, it's heartening to see this rare example of really good news. Maybe one day Al-Mahdi himself will visit, and ask for atonement at the shrines he so recklessly destroyed...
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