With reports of violence, especially rape, from Timbuktu following the occupation of the city by the radical Islamic group Ansar Dine, a blog post on buildings risks sounding frivolous. Nevertheless, I want to call attention to Director General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Irina Bokova’s warning to Malians of all stripes as well as the international community that Timbuktu is a World Heritage Site and that under the 1972 World Heritage Convention, governments are obligated to protect such places in times of war. Her UNESCO news release reminds that Timbuktu and other such sites in northern Mali are part of the universal heritage of mankind. Their damage or destruction would diminish all of us.
Timbuktu’s earthen architectural wonders include three mosques, numerous mausolea, and cemeteries. It might be thought that given Ansar Dine’s radical Islamic ideology, they would be safe. But the vagaries of war indicate otherwise. During the last round of Balkan wars, numerous architectural monuments were destroyed, and even Dubrovnik, also a World Heritage Site, was shelled at one point. And then there was the Taliban’s seemingly fanatical destruction of monumental Buddhist sculptures in Afghanistan.
So, Director General Bokova is right to remind combatants of their obligations toward World Heritage Sites, and, at the same time, to remind us that Timbuktu is part of our heritage, too.