TIMBUKTU, Mali — Roofs are torn off, mud bricks are strewn about and walls barely rise from the desert dunes where Timbuktu’s storied mausoleums once stood and are now in ruins. Islamic radicals swept in and tore them apart as totems of idolatry, along with other symbols of the fabled city.
Now that the jihadists are gone, having been chased off by a French military intervention last year, masons are working to restore the mausoleums. The vandalized tombs serve as a bitter reminder to residents of this city, long known as a place of learning and of tolerance, of the savageries visited upon them during the almost yearlong rule of the jihadists who imposed Shariah law and carried out executions, public whippings and other punishments.
As the city rediscovers its normal rhythms, people who fled Timbuktu are now returning. Children walk to school again, even if all their teachers haven’t come back. Women have taken off the headscarves they were forced to wear. Men are back to smoking in the streets, and the bars have reopened. The faithful are also restarting their Friday pilgrimages to the cemeteries.
In the chaos following a March 2012 coup in Mali’s south, Tuareg separatist rebels took over parts of Mali’s north, though they were later kicked out by al-Qaida-linked extremists, who came to Timbuktu and attacked the mausoleums and destroyed some of the manuscripts the city is known for.
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The one-room mausoleums, most the height of a person, house the tombs of many of the city’s great thinkers, venerated as saints and the oldest date to the 16th century. But they are now barely more than a heap of mud bricks. The interiors, which by tradition were only accessible to the descendants of those interred, lay exposed to the sun.
Mohamed Maouloud Ould Mohamed, a descendant of one of the saints, remembers the day the jihadis came. A band of five or six heavily armed men arrived, and told him to leave the cemetery. When he refused, they dragged him out by a foot, until visitors intervened. The next day he returned to find the mausoleum in ruins.
“My heart hurt so much that I couldn’t help but cry,” said Ould Mohamed, in a white robe called a boubou and black headscarf. These days he is back at the mausoleum that he takes watches out for, and some visitors have returned.
Salem Ould Elhadjie, a city historian, said that because of “the destruction of the mausoleums, the city of Timbuktu is like a body without its soul.”
In mid-March, UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency, announced it would begin restoration, using local masons.
“The restoration of these mausoleums is interpreted by the people of Timbuktu as a sign of a return to peace, security and faith,” Ould Elhadje said.
But UNESCO has raised only $3 million of the $11 million it needs for several restoration projects in Mali, including rebuilding the mausoleums, said Lazare Eloundou, the head of UNESCO’s office in the country.
Some of the city’s masons say that trenches up to two meters (yards) deep were dug to assess the damage of some mausoleums and if the work isn’t finished by July, when the seasonal rains begin, water could fill the trenches and undermine the foundations.
“If UNESCO doesn’t do anything before the rainy season, we’re going to do something ourselves, as masons of Timbuktu, to prevent the destruction by the rains of what is left after the jihadis,” said Alassane Hassey, chief mason on the project. The masons typically always shored them up in advance of the rainy season.
The entire city of Timbuktu is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO because of its historical position as an ancient center for Islamic thought. 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. The U.N. cultural agency lists 16 mausoleums as part of the heritage site.
The U.N. agency predicted in March the restoration would take a month. But more than a month later, only two of the 14 mausoleums UNESCO plans to restore have been completed.
Eloundou said the agency is analyzing the data gathered from those first restorations to better plan the rest. Officials will ensure the monuments are protected, he said.
They are important to residents, underscored by the visit to one mausoleum in the city’s north on a recent day by Harber Almouctar, a 47-year-old tailor.
“I came to ask God, through the saint Alpha Moya, that I’ll find a beautiful house, money and other good things that will allow me live with dignity,” he said.