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Helping Protect a Nation's Heritage


Alhader Ag Almahmoud, a 30-year-old Tuareg herder whose right hand was amputated last month by an Islamist group imposing their interpretation of Shariah, displays his bandaged arm at an Amnesty International press conference in Bamako, Mali, September 20.

The ongoing turmoil in northern Mali has created a serious humanitarian crisis there.

The ongoing turmoil in northern Mali, where various armed groups, including Islamic militants, have exploited political instability in the West African nation’s capital, Bamako, to seize key parts of the region, has created a serious humanitarian crisis there. Tens of thousands have fled the region and those who remain struggle with rising food prices, lack of public services and adequate health care.


The conflict has spread beyond a struggle for territory, however. Sites that are important to the heritage of Malians and the entire world have come under attack as one group seeks to impose its vision of religious faith on others. The pillaging of important archeological sites, long a problem in remote areas, is believed to have increased with the resulting security vacuum and need among local residents for money.

To help protect these sites and Mali’s valuable archeological and cultural heritage, the United States is extending an agreement with the Malian government aimed at curbing the trade of high quality terra cotta figures, pottery and other materials looted from Malian sites. Strict restrictions are being kept in place on such items being imported to the U.S., a major antiquities market. Requested by the Malian government, the controls have been in place since 1993 and will now be extended for another five years.

The inland Niger River Delta, which includes much of Mali, has been inhabited since 250 B.C.E., or Before the Common Era. Cities such as Timbukto and Djenne were important trading centers between North Africa and the forest regions of the south. Enriched by waves of immigration and conquests, these communities became centers of Islamic learning and culture. Because of its dry climate, the area contains the second largest concentration of antiquities in Africa.

The pillaging of such sites destroys information about past cultures and places Mali’s cultural heritage in further jeopardy.

The United States strongly condemns the pillaging of Mali’s archeological sites, as it does the destruction of the nation’s shrines and holy places, and will continue taking steps to stop the illicit trafficking of looted materials.
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