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Timbuktu, Where There's ‘Justice for Monuments, but Not for Victims of Rape’

Timbuktu - Residents pass by Djingarey Berre Mosque, one of three UNESCO World Heritage mosques of Timbuktu, North of Mali. Photo MINUSMA/Marco Dormino

Timbuktu – Residents pass by Djingarey Berre Mosque, one of three UNESCO World Heritage mosques of Timbuktu, North of Mali. Photo MINUSMA/Marco Dormino

Georges, a Malian journalist and blogger, has made a heartfelt appeal, condemning the fact that while monuments have been meticulously restored in his country, the same care has not been taken to confront sexual assault and rape of women.

In his blog, which has the rather long title “Au Grin, Il se dit beaucoup de choses autour d’un verre de thé” (At the Grin, Much IS Talked About Around a Cup of Tea), he posted an article titled “Timbuktu: They are as innocent as the shrines!”. In it, he accused Malian and international judicial bodies of wanting to sweep the violence against women under the rug:

Si vous suivez l’actualité internationale la condamnation de Ahmed Al Faqi Al Mahdi à neuf ans de prison n’a pas dû vous échapper. La Cour Pénale Internationale (CPI) a reconnu coupable ce djihadiste malien de la destruction en 2012 de la  mosquée Sidi Yahia de Tombouctou ainsi que de 9 mausolées. Ahmed Al Faqi est le premier à être jugé pour des crimes commis au plus fort de la crise malienne, sous l’occupation des régions nord du pays.

Mais les crimes commis ne se limitent pas uniquement à la destruction de biens culturels. Les groupes armés qui occupaient les lieux ont aussi perpétré des viols ainsi que d’autres formes de violences sexuelles sur des femmes et des jeunes filles. Malgré les 171 victimes recensées et les 113 plaintes portées pour les crimes de violences sexuelles personne n’a été inquiété par la justice à ce sujet. Ces victimes sont aussi innocentes que les mausolées, comme la porte de la mosquée Sidi Yahia. Mais où est passé l’important ?…

Les mausolées détruits ont été restaurés et réhabilités avec l’aide de l’UNESCO. Il restait alors la porte de la mosquée Sidi Yahia, qui a elle aussi a été restaurée en septembre 2016 en présence de notables, d’habitants de Tombouctou, du représentant de l’UNESCO et de la MINUSMA … Je ne dis pas que la restauration de ces biens culturels, classés patrimoine culturel de l’humanité, n’est pas important. D’ailleurs je me réjouis pour la justice rendue aux édifices de Tombouctou. Mais ça ne doit pas se limiter à ça et s’arrêter là….

If you follow the international news, then you must have heard about Ahmed AL Faqi Al Mahdi’s condemnation to nine years in jail. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has found this Malian jihadist guilty of the 2012 destruction of Timbuktu’s Sidi Yahia mosque, as well as nine mausoleums. Ahmed Al Faqi is the first one to be sentenced at the peak of the Malian crisis, during the occupation country’s northern regions.

But the crimes committed are not only limited to the destruction of cultural assets. The armed forces occupying the area have also committed rapes as well as other types of sexual abuses against women and young girls. Despite the 171 reported victims and the 113 complaints made on the account of sexual abuses, no one has been questioned by judicial authorities about this issue. These victims are as innocent as the mausoleums, or the Sidi Yhia mosque door. But, what is more important?…

With the help of UNESCO, the destroyed mausoleums have been restored and renovated. The only thing left was the Sidi Yahia mosque door which was restored in 2016 in attendance of notable residents of Timbuktu, the UNESCO and MINUSMA representatives…I’m not saying that restoring these cultural assets which are classified as world heritage sites is unimportant. It actually gives me great pleasure to know that justice has been served for the sake of Timbuktu buildings. But it shouldn’t be limited to these things, and stop there…

The crimes against women Georges is referring to stem from a rebellion in the north of Mali in 2012 that left some areas under militant jihadist occupation for many long months. On 22 March 2012, President Amadou Toumani Touré was ousted in a coup d'état over his handling of the crisis.  As a consequence of the instability following the coup, Mali's three largest northern cities—Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu—were overrun by rebels. A newly formed government of Mali asked for foreign military help to re-take the north.

By early 2013, the jihadist-held territory had been re-taken by the Malian military. Still, the conflict has resulted in Mali's worst human rights situation, as reported by Amnesty International with documented instances of gang rape and executions. On the other hand, Human Rights Watch report human rights abuses committed by the Malian army in the central Malian town of Niono. Tuaregs and Arabs were especially targeted. An International Criminal Court investigation in Mali is investigating the crimes that have happened during the conflict. Only one person has been indicted since the court has been in place — for offenses related to the destruction of ancient monuments in Timbuktu.

After recalling the various crimes committed against women, such as rape, by the jihadists during the occupation, Georges added:

Comme l’atteste un rapport établi en 2012 par le Haut Commissaire des Nations Unies aux droits de l’homme sur la situation des droits humains au Mali. L’ONG Wildaf-Mali (Women In Law and Development/ Femme – Droit et – Développement en Afrique) a recensé 171 femmes victimes de violences sexuelles venant des régions du nord du Mali. Selon Bintou Bouaré, présidente de Wildaf-Mali« sur ces 171 femmes, 113 ont accepté de porter plainte. En trois ans, 30 femmes seulement ont été écoutées par le procureur de la commune 3 de Bamako ».

As evidenced by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in the 2012 report on the human rights situation in Mali, the Wildaf-Mali NGO (Women in Law and Development) has identified 171 women who have been the victims of sexual abuse in the northern regions of Mali. According to Bintou Bouaré, president of the Wildaf-Mali organization: “Among these 171 women, 113 have accepted to come forward and press charges. In three years, only 30 women have been listened to by the chief prosecutor of Bamako’s III Municipality.”

In order to understand the problem these women face in their community in the north of Mali, he wrote:

Le viol est un sujet tabou au Mali. Les lèvres des victimes sont scellées par le regard de la société. Parmi les 171 femmes et filles victimes recensées de violences sexuelles, 58 n’ont pas voulu porter plainte. “Certaines se sentent responsables de leur sort. Tandis que d’autres ont peur de témoigner parce qu’elles vivent dans la même localité que leurs violeurs qui errent librement dans la nature” me confie Bintou Bouaré, présidente de l’ONG Wildaf-Mali.

In Mali, rape is a taboo subject. The victims’ lips are sealed by society’s gaze. Among the 171 women and girls, victims of sexual abuse, 58 refused to press charges. “Some think they are responsible for their fate, while others are afraid to testify because they live in the same area as their rapists who are still at large,” says Bintou Bouaré, president of the Wildaf-Mali NGO.

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