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A Future For Timbuktu's Ancient Books? Conservation And Digitalization

Mali's "mysterious city" welcomes a new class of students trained in looking after ancient books. From conservation to digitization of these works, a colossal task awaits them to preserve this endangered heritage and the secrets they contain.

Updated Nov. 13, 2023 at 6:30 p.m.

TIMBUKTU — In the workroom of the Ahmed-Baba Institute of Higher Studies and Islamic Research, time seems to have slowed down. As the dust and the sound of brushes on paper float by, six students hold in their hands one of the most precious heritages of the region.

Ceremoniously, they repeat the same gestures: lifting the pages, one by one, with the tip of a thin wooden spatula, then, with the flat of the brush, ridding the inks and the centuries-old papers of dust.

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Inside France's Secret War Against Jihadists Of Mali

French commandos are practically invisible as they carry out high-tech operations across Mali to track down Salafist fighters and other terrorists.

BANDIAGARA — The Twin Otter plane flies full speed over the battlefield, though low enough to almost scrape the tops of acacia trees. At one point its wingtips seem dangerously close to smashing into the jagged cliffs. But there's a reason for these maneuvers: The pilot is trying to avoid being shot.

This is Dogon Country, in south-central Mali, but the pilot is French — a "flying ace" from the Poitou territory in northwest France. He's part of a transport squadron assigned to move people and supplies for special-ops commandos, wherever and whenever, and regardless of the conditions or weather. That means arriving on time — always — and landing just about anywhere, even if all there is for a landing strip is a bit of hardened ground.

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Mauritania, The Last Stronghold Of Slavery

Among the Berber slaves of Mauritania, property of Arab masters despite their shared Muslim faith.

NOUAKCHOTT — Mauritania is one of the few countries, perhaps the only one, where slavery still exists. Not slavery in the more modern sense of the word, implying some form of economic exploitation, but slavery of the ancient kind — what we in the West believe was abolished long ago. Yes, in Mauritania, slaves are the property of their masters who control their destinies from childhood. They can be lent and traded, and the children of slaves are condemned to the same fate for the rest of their lives.

In this sparsely populated desert country in northwestern Africa, slaves are exclusively Haratins, dark-skinned Berbers who make up around 40% of Mauritania's population. Laws on the books prohibit slavery, but that is little consolation to a defenseless group subjected to a life of suffering without recourse. Slavery does not officially exist in Mauritania, yet slaves do, and all they can do is tell the world about their misery.

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The Next Target In Al Qaeda's African Recruitment Campaign

Across the border from Mali, the former French colony of Mauritania is prime territory for Islamist leaders, as poverty and radical preachers lay the groundwork for Jihad.

NOUAKCHOTT - Cheick Boya doesn’t think much of al-Qaeda. Of course he’s heard that the self-proclaimed holy warriors are recruiting in Nouakchott, and promising good money. The recruiters are mainly from Mali, the country that borders the Islamic Republic of Mauritania to the east.

"But I wouldn’t do it, not if they offered me a million dollars," says the 24-year-old in an orange T-shirt and white rubber boots. Then again Boya has something that makes him less susceptible to radical Islamists – a job. He is standing on a dune that protects the coastal Mauritanian capital, located partially below sea level, and its estimated million inhabitants, from the Atlantic.

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Christophe Châtelot

In Mauritania, The Fight To Abolish Slavery Runs Into Radical Islamism

In the northwestern African nation, anti-slavery activist Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid is accused of burning pages from a holy book that promoted slavery, prompting a call for his execution and a return to Sharia Law.

NOUAKCHOTT - Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid, a prominent anti-slavery activist in this northwestern African nation, is sitting in jail. The president of the Initiative for the Resurgence of Abolitionism (IRA) in Mauritania was arrested on April 29 with ten other people – relatives, IRA leaders and ordinary activists -- accused of "violating Mauritanian Islamic values' after an anti-slavery demonstration.

Though denied by authorities, slavery is still a common practice in Mauritania. Amnesty International is asking for the release of these "prisoners of conscience."

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Isabelle Mandraud

Al Qaeda And Drought Drive West Africa's Mauritania Back Into Dire Poverty

A devastating drought has only made matters worse for residents in the northwestern African nation of Mauritania, where Jihadist attacks and kidnappings attributed to Al Qaeda had already killed off the local tourism industry.

CHINGUETTI -- The innkeeper at the Blue Moor, a hotel perched along the scenic Adrar plateau, looks sad as he waters the plants. "It took so much time to make this garden grow," he says with a sigh.

Here in northeast Mauritania, this innkeeper is alone. He hasn't seen a single tourist arrive for more than two years. Like the other 35 inns in this former medieval trading city of Chinguetti, which was designated in 1996 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Blue Moor is now closed down.

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