First mission to northern Mali to assess damage to the region’s cultural heritage

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BAMAKO - Following the occupation by armed groups of parts of northern Mali, UNESCO, Malian and international experts have completed the first assessment of damage to cultural heritage in Gao. Their work addressed both heritage sites and the cultural practices of local people.
Lazare Eloundou Assomo, Director of UNESCO’s Office in Bamako, who took part in the mission said: “Urgent measures are required to safeguard the Tomb of Askia, a World Heritage Site, before the next rainy season. Concerning Gao’s heritage, we must address the trauma experienced by the local population following violent attempts by the armed extremists to destroy their cultural identity and practices, including traditional music. We must heal these wounds to pave the way for reconciliation and lasting peace in the region”.
During the visit, experts found that the local community had carried out work to repair the Tomb of Askia, to avoid further deterioration of the 15th century earthen monument. Young people of the town of Gao also took the risk of defending the site during the occupation, preventing the extremists from damaging it in the ways they damaged World Heritage sites in Timbuktu.
Despite community efforts, the experts found that the mosque’s prayer rooms require major conservation work before the next rainy season, to prevent further deterioration.
More damage was found to have been suffered by ninety percent of the archaeological site of Gao Saneye. The site which dates back to the 11th century had been pillaged by the extremists that took over the area.
In addition, the newly built Sahel Museum, meant to house historical collection, was used by the extremists as a residence for nearly one year, leading to the loss of equipment. This situation must be remedied before the collections can be transferred.
During extensive consultations with local community representatives, the mission heard of the difficulties endured by the inhabitants, especially cultural groups, musicians and dancers, who saw their instruments burned and their equipment and costumes destroyed. The Takamba, a popular Songhoy dance, as well as the Holey-Orey, the dance of the possessed, were prohibited. Women were forced to cut their traditional braids and stop wearing traditional ethnic costumes. The House of Artisans was vandalised, leaving artisans without sources of income.
UNESCO and the Malian authorities will now work together to produce a complete needs assessment of the cultural heritage of Gao and take measures to safeguard that heritage.