He encourages the personnel to request advice from village elders. And failing that, Keita hands out a pocket-sized Cultural Passport, a cheat sheet of Mali’s sites and artifacts, complete with pictures, illustrated maps, and geographic coordinates. The training is vital, said Keita, “particularly when you see we are facing more and more situations in war where cultural heritage becomes a target.”
The class made an impression on at least one MINUSMA police officer on the patrol in Timbuktu. He carried a worn copy of the Cultural Passport, which included many of the iconic structures the officers would visit on their route. The police officer, who was not authorized to speak publicly and so cannot be named, said that patrolling these sites was not only urgent work, but it had also improved relations between the U.N. police and the local population.
Kalifa Cissé, a volunteer at Djinguereber Mosque like his father and grandfather before him, said MINUSMA had brought sand and lights to help repair an outdoor prayer area. For the moment, he said, he was not worried about its safety. Outside of Timbuktu, MINUSMA has also reported on cases of looting, helped to investigate the destruction of a monument, and supported the mapping of a site.
Meanwhile, Mali’s military has been building its own cultural training program. Since the occupation, the Ministry of Culture has helped host several workshops, bringing together heritage experts and military troops.
Army Colonel Nèma Sagara attended two of these workshops. She was initially skeptical about whether cultural protection should be a military concern, remarking that at one time, she would herself have brought down a historic building in order to achieve a mission.