TIMBUKTU, Mali – Timbuktu, the centuries-old Malian center of Islamic learning on the southern edge of the Sahara desert, is rebuilding after Islamist militants razed some of its most revered shrines built in the 14th and 15th centuries.
Reconstruction is taking place brick by brick, as workers use banco, a mixture of mud and straw, to restore 14 of the 16 mausoleums destroyed or damaged by Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar Dine, or "defenders of the faith." Those two groups follow Islam's Salafi movement that regards the practices of the Sufis in Timbuktu as sacrilegious.
"We have witnessed the destruction, we are now seeing the start of the reconstruction," the imam of the Djingareyber mosque, Abderrahmane Ben Essayouti, said. "To us, it is a new birth for Timbuktu."
The militants were driven out of what's known as the City of the 333 Saints in January last year after a 10-month occupation. The city, 438 miles north of the capital, Bamako, is protected by France's Serval intervention force, U. N. peacekeepers and Malian troops and police. The last attack on the Timbuktu occurred on Sept. 28 when a suicide bomber struck the Malian military barracks.
"By rebuilding these monuments, we will destroy the work of the jihadists," Andrzej Bielecki, the European Union's political counselor, said at a conference at Timbuktu's Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research.
So far, $3 million of the $11 million needed for the four- year rebuilding project has been raised, according to Lazare Eloundou, representative to Mali of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO. The main sponsors so far are France, the E.U., Norway and Switzerland, he said. Timbuktu is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
As local bricklayers laid the foundation stone of the Djingareyber mosque, Malian Minister of Culture Bruno Maiga pledged to restore the city's cultural icons.
While Timbuktu is generally peaceful today, there have been some attacks by militants in the surrounding countryside.
French forces intervened in Mali last year to prevent Islamist fighters from taking control of the northern part of the country. France, which has 50 soldiers in Timbuktu, is reducing the number of its troops in the West African nation to 1,000 from 1,600.
"It is a great honor for us to have this task. The mausoleums have been built by our ancestors, and we will rebuild them following the traditional way," said Alassane Hasseye, the head of a bricklaying team. "I cannot find the words to explain what it does to my heart."