Armed groups operating across Africa’s Sahel region are looting hundreds of cultural and archaeological sites in the same way as Isil did in Syria, experts have warned.
Over the last few years, government forces have retreated from vast areas of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger in the face of an onslaught of jihadist attacks.
As lawlessness has spread, armed groups — many of them allied to Al Qaeda and Islamic State — have gained influence in an area the UN describes as “potentially one of the richest [cultural] regions in the world.”
The Sahel boasts archaeological remains dating back to the Neolithic period. In mediaeval times, West African civilisation blossomed along the banks of the Niger River into a myriad of kingdoms and empires.
During the 13th century, the cities of Gao and Timbuktu rose as great centres of trade and learning. Kings grew fabulously wealthy from the gold and salt trade routes which crisscrossed the Sahara.
At a time when Europe was burning heretics at the stake, books became status symbols in the Malian Empire. Islamic scholars collected hundreds of thousands of manuscripts in libraries spread across the region, most famously in Timbuktu.
But experts say the region’s extraordinary heritage is under attack. Museums, tombs and villages have been raided for antiquities and photos show historical sites studded with newly dug holes.
It’s a disaster. Sites have been raided everywhere. We don’t know how many because we can’t get access to them. There are hundreds [of damaged sites] across the country,” says Samuel Sidibé, director of Mali’s National Museum in Bamako.
“You cannot estimate the value of what’s being lost. This is our history. When that goes you have nothing to bind you together.”
Solid details on the illicit trade artifacts are scarce. Historically, the Sahel has not received as much attention from archaeologists as North Africa and the Middle East. There are countless sites of historical significance that have been left unmapped and unprotected, according to Mr. Sidibé.
The armed groups and jihadists are not taking pictures of themselves [looting] like Islamic State did in Syria. But everyone assumes they are involved. It’s happening right across Mali and Burkina Faso,” one Western official told The Telegraph.
Local villagers often know the whereabouts of historical sites. But as the Sahel’s security situation continues to deteriorate, many are being forced either by poverty, hunger or armed groups to dig them up antiquities.
The raided artefacts — which include everything from statues and masks to mediaeval jewellery and dinosaur bones — often end up in auction houses and private collections in Europe, America and China.
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