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It was once a center of Islamic learning. Now Mali's historic city of Djenné mourns lack of visitors

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It was once a center of Islamic learning. Now Mali's historic city of Djenné mourns lack of visitors
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It was once a center of Islamic learning. Now Mali's historic city of Djenné mourns lack of visitors

2024-05-18 13:04 Last Updated At:13:11

DJENNE, Mali (AP) — Kola Bah used to earn a living as a tour guide in Mali's historic city of Djenné, once a center of Islamic learning known for the sprawling mud-brick mosque that has been on the UNESCO World Heritage in Danger list since 2016.

The Grand Mosque of Djenné — the world’s largest mud-brick building — used to draw tens of thousands of tourists to central Mali every year. Now it's threatened by conflict between jihadi rebels, government forces and other groups.

Bah says his income was enough to support his family, which now numbers nine children, and to pay for a small herd of cattle. But these days, few visitors come to the city, and he has been largely out of work. When he needs cash, he sells some of his cattle.

Speaking to The Associated Press outside his home in Djenné's old town, Bah said locals believed the crisis would come to an end eventually, and that business would pick up as before.

“But the more time passed, the more this dream proved illusory,” he said. “Things are really difficult now.”

Djenné is one of the oldest towns in sub-Saharan Africa and served as a market center and an important link in the trans-Saharan gold trade. Almost 2,000 of its traditional houses still survive in the old town.

The Grand Mosque, built in 1907 on the site of an older mosque dating back to the 13th century, is re-plastered every year by local residents in a ritual that brings together the entire city. The towering, earth-colored structure requires a new layer of mud before the rainy season starts, or it would fall into disrepair.

Women are responsible for carrying water from the nearby river to mix with clay and rice hulls to make the mud used to plaster the mosque. Adding the new layer of mud is a job reserved for men. The joyful ritual is a source of pride for a city that has fallen on hard times, uniting people of all ages.

Bamouyi Trao Traoré, one of Djenné’s lead masons, says they work as a team from the very start. This year's replastering took place earlier this month.

“Each one of us goes to a certain spot to supervise,” he said. “This is how we do it until the whole thing is done. We organize ourselves, we supervise the younger ones.”

Mali’s conflict erupted following a coup in 2012 that created a power vacuum, allowing jihadi groups to seize control of key northern cities. A French-led military operation pushed them out of the urban centers the following year, but the success was short-lived.

The jihadis regrouped and launched relentless attacks on the Malian military, as well as the United Nations, French and regional forces in the country. The militants proclaimed allegiance to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group.

Sidi Keita, the director of Mali’s national tourism agency in the capital of Bamako, says the drop in tourism was sharp following the violence.

“It was really a popular destination," he said, describing tens of thousands of visitors a year and adding that today, tourists are “virtually absent from Mali.”.

Despite being one of Africa’s top gold producers, Mali ranks among the least developed nations in the world, with almost half of its 22 million people living below the national poverty line. With the tourism industry all but gone, there are ever fewer means for Malians to make a living.

Anger and frustration over what many Malians call “the crisis” is rising. The country also saw two more coups since 2020, during a wave of political instability in West and Central Africa.

Col. Assimi Goita, who took charge in Mali after a second coup in 2021, expelled French forces the following year, and turned to Russia’s mercenary units for security assistance. He also ordered the U.N. to ended its 10-year peacekeeping mission in Mali the following year.

Goita has promised to beat back the armed groups, but the U.N. and other analysts say the government is rapidly losing ground to militants. With Mali's dire economic situation getting worse, Goita's ruling junta ordered all political activities to stop last month, and the following day barred the media from reporting on political activities.

Moussa Moriba Diakité, head of Djenne’s cultural mission which strives to preserve the city’s heritage, said there are other challenges beyond security — including illegal excavations and trash disposal in the city.

The mission is trying to promote the message that security isn’t as bad is it seems, he said, and also get more young people involved in the replastering ritual, to help the new generation recognize its importance.

“It's not easy to get people to understand the benefits of preserving cultural heritage right away,” he said.

The Associated Press receives financial support for global health and development coverage in Africa from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Trust. The AP is solely responsible for all content. Find AP’s standards for working with philanthropies, a list of supporters and funded coverage areas at AP.org.

The streets of old town Djenne, Mali, once filled with tourists, stand empty, Thursday, May 9, 2024. The world's largest mud-brick building, the Great Mosque of Djenne used to draw tens of thousands of tourists every year to central Mali. Now it's threatened by conflict between Islamic rebels, government forces and other groups. (AP Photo/Moustapha Diallo)

The streets of old town Djenne, Mali, once filled with tourists, stand empty, Thursday, May 9, 2024. The world's largest mud-brick building, the Great Mosque of Djenne used to draw tens of thousands of tourists every year to central Mali. Now it's threatened by conflict between Islamic rebels, government forces and other groups. (AP Photo/Moustapha Diallo)

The campement hotel, the only working hotel left in Djenne, Mali, sits largely empty, in disrepair without running water, Thursday, May 9, 2024. The world's largest mud-brick building, the Great Mosque of Djenne used to draw tens of thousands of tourists every year to central Mali. Now it's threatened by conflict between Islamic rebels, government forces and other groups. (AP Photo/Moustapha Diallo)

The campement hotel, the only working hotel left in Djenne, Mali, sits largely empty, in disrepair without running water, Thursday, May 9, 2024. The world's largest mud-brick building, the Great Mosque of Djenne used to draw tens of thousands of tourists every year to central Mali. Now it's threatened by conflict between Islamic rebels, government forces and other groups. (AP Photo/Moustapha Diallo)

Former guide Kola Bah, who has been unemployed since Mali's conflict started and now sells from his small herd of cattle when he needs to make ends meet, poses for a photograph in Djenne, Mali, Thursday, May 9, 2024. The world's largest mud-brick building, the Great Mosque of Djenne used to draw tens of thousands of tourists every year to central Mali. Now it's threatened by conflict between Islamic rebels, government forces and other groups. (AP Photo/Moustapha Diallo)

Former guide Kola Bah, who has been unemployed since Mali's conflict started and now sells from his small herd of cattle when he needs to make ends meet, poses for a photograph in Djenne, Mali, Thursday, May 9, 2024. The world's largest mud-brick building, the Great Mosque of Djenne used to draw tens of thousands of tourists every year to central Mali. Now it's threatened by conflict between Islamic rebels, government forces and other groups. (AP Photo/Moustapha Diallo)

FILE- The world's largest mud-brick building, the Great Mosque of Djenne, Mali, awaits its annual replastering, Friday, May 10, 2024. The Mosque — the world's largest mud-brick building — used to draw tens of thousands of tourists every year to central Mali. Now it's threatened by conflict between Islamic rebels, government forces and other groups. (AP Photo/Moustapha Diallo, File)

FILE- The world's largest mud-brick building, the Great Mosque of Djenne, Mali, awaits its annual replastering, Friday, May 10, 2024. The Mosque — the world's largest mud-brick building — used to draw tens of thousands of tourists every year to central Mali. Now it's threatened by conflict between Islamic rebels, government forces and other groups. (AP Photo/Moustapha Diallo, File)

The U.S. military-built pier in Gaza was unloading humanitarian aid again Thursday after being removed for a second time last week because of rough seas, a U.S. defense official said. The pier was reattached to Gaza’s shoreline on Wednesday, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. military operations.

The pier, which cost the U.S. at least $230 million, was meant to deliver humanitarian aid into Gaza via the U.N.’s World Food Program. It has faced a number of setbacks.

Aid groups have decried the pier as a distraction that took pressure off Israel to open more border crossings, which are far more productive at bringing aid into Gaza as Palestinians are facing widespread hunger. The United Nations has suspended its cooperation with the pier project since June 9 and is conducting a security review.

With Israel’s war against Hamas now in its ninth month, international criticism is growing over the U.S.-backed campaign of systematic destruction in Gaza, at a huge cost in civilian lives.

Israeli ground offensives and bombardments have killed more than 37,100 people, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between combatants and civilians in its count. The war has largely cut off the flow of food, medicine and basic goods to Gaza, which is now totally dependent on aid groups.

Israel launched the war after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, in which militants stormed into southern Israel, killed some 1,200 people — mostly civilians — and abducted about 250.

Currently:

— The fate of the latest cease-fire proposal hinges on Netanyahu and Hamas’ leader in Gaza.

— A rare public rift appears between Israel’s political and military leadership over how the war in Gaza is being conducted.

— The leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group warns archenemy Israel against wider war.

— Hundreds died during this year’s Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia amid intense heat, officials say.

Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Gaza at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war

Here's the latest:

JERUSALEM – Israel remains opposed to allowing the International Committee of the Red Cross access to detention facilities accused of harshly treating Palestinians from Gaza and is working on creating an internal inspection system, state lawyers said Wednesday.

The Red Cross had access to Israeli detention facilities holding Palestinians until Oct. 7, when Israel sealed them off from external observation. Since then, testimonies have mounted from released Palestinians of brutal treatment at the detention centers, where they are held incommunicado and without trial.

The government lawyers wrote that Israeli lawmakers are examining a proposal to form an internal body that would visit the detention facilities, hear prisoners’ complaints and communicate the information to Israeli authorities.

The body is “expected to fulfill the purpose that the Red Cross has fulfilled until now,” the lawyers wrote. They were responding to a coalition of rights groups asking Israel’s highest court to grant the Red Cross access to the detention facilities.

In response, the main rights group petitioning the court said internal Israeli examiners could not substitute for international observers.

“Mounting testimonies reveal Israel has turned its detention facilities into a black hole for Palestinian prisoners enduring appalling conditions,” said the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, adding that the government was “investing a far-fetched mechanism in order to replace the accepted arrangement by the world.”

Since the Hamas attack Oct. 7, Israel has taken at least 4,000 Palestinians from Gaza into custody in Israel, interrogating them for potential ties to the militant group. Over 1,500 have been released, according to state figures.

Hamas has rejected Red Cross appeals to visit some 120 hostages it is believed to be holding. Israel has already pronounced 43 of the hostages dead.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. military-built pier in Gaza was unloading humanitarian aid again Thursday after being removed for a second time last week because of rough seas, a U.S. defense official said. The pier was reattached to Gaza’s shoreline on Wednesday, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. military operations.

The pier, which cost the U.S. at least $230 million, was meant to deliver humanitarian aid into Gaza via the U.N.’s World Food Program. It has faced a number of setbacks, operating for only about a week before getting blown apart by high winds in May. The U.S. military detached the floating causeway and moved it to an Israeli port last week so it wouldn't break apart again.

Aid groups have decried the pier as a distraction that took pressure off Israel to open more border crossings, which are far more productive at bringing aid into Gaza. Israel's war against Hamas has caused widespread devastation and made domestic food production nearly impossible, leaving Gaza totally dependent on aid groups for food, medicine and basic goods. Palestinians are facing widespread hunger.

Meanwhile, the United Nations has suspended its cooperation with the U.S.-led pier project since June 9. U.N. officials say they want to evaluate whether the Israeli military used the area around the pier in a June 8 hostage rescue that left more than 270 Palestinians dead, and whether any such use — or even a perception of it by fighters and ordinary people in Gaza — makes their continued role in the project untenable.

The U.S. and Israeli militaries say no part of the pier was used in the raid.

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Cyprus’ Foreign Ministry said Thursday the U.S. military-built pier in Gaza is up and running again after being detached for a second time last week because of rough seas.

Cyprus plays a key role in the pier because a security and inspection station it built screens the international aid destined for Gaza. There was no immediate confirmation from the U.S.

Theodoris Gotsis, a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry, said the pier and the causeway in Gaza were both functioning. He said over the past 40 days, Cyprus has screened and loaded onto boats some 10,000 tons of aid for Gaza.

The U.S. military detached the causeway last week to prevent it from breaking apart again, as it did late last month when it was hit by bad weather.

The pier, used to deliver humanitarian aid into Gaza, has faced a number of setbacks since it was erected. It was operational for only about a week when it was blown apart by high winds in May and then removed again earlier this month.

The U.N.’s World Food Program, one of the main aid agencies to make use of the pier, had paused its distribution of aid coming from it earlier this month over security concerns. WFP could not immediately be reached for comment on whether it was resuming distribution.

NICOSIA, Cyprus — A spokesman for the European Union’s executive arm says any threat against Cyprus is a threat against the bloc’s 26 other member nations.

Peter Stano made the remark Thursday in response to a question regarding Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s threat that Cyprus could be implicated in a wider conflict if the island nation allows Israel to use its ports and airports to target Lebanon.

Stano said the EU fully supports Cyprus and that the trade bloc is in contact with “a number of partners in the region," including Lebanon and Hezbollah, in order to de-escalate tension.

Cyprus has enjoyed increasingly tight relations with Israel in recent years, spawned by the discovery of undersea natural gas deposits in waters between the two neighbors. Cyprus has hosted joint Israeli-Cypriot military exercises, but has not ben involved in any military operations.

Cyprus government spokesman Konstantinos Letymbiotis repeated that any suggestion that Cyprus – either through its infrastructure or territory - would be involved in any military operation in Lebanon is “totally groundless.”

Letymbiotis reiterated that the island nation “is not part of the problem” but “part of the solution” thanks to its regional diplomatic footprint.

The Hezbollah militant group said at least three of its fighters were killed in Israeli strikes on Wednesday.

Lebanese state media reported multiple Israeli strikes along the border and in an area north of the coastal city of Tyre, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the frontier. The Israeli military said two Hezbollah launches damaged several vehicles in northern Israel.

The fighting came as Amos Hochstein, a senior adviser to U.S. President Joe Biden, returned to Israel after meeting with officials in Lebanon on Tuesday. There has been no word on whether he has made progress in his efforts to avoid a devastating regional war.

Kamel Mohanna, the head of the Amel Association, an NGO providing health services in Lebanon, said the group’s primary health center in the town of Khiam was hit and damaged by Israeli shelling.

Hezbollah began attacking Israel almost immediately after the Israel-Hamas war erupted on Oct. 7. There have been near daily exchanges of fire, though most of the strikes are confined to an area within a few mostly confined to the area around the border.

But the fighting has escalated in recent weeks, raising fears that the clashes could boil over into a full-blown war. Israel’s army announced late Tuesday that it has “approved and validated” plans for an offensive in Lebanon.

Israeli strikes already have killed more than 400 people in Lebanon, most of them Hezbollah fighters,

Buildings are seen in Kiryat Shmona, a city next to border with Lebanon, northern Israel, Wednesday, June 19, 2024. Hezbollah began attacking Israel almost immediately after the Israel-Hamas war erupted on Oct. 7. There have been near daily exchanges of fire, though most of the strikes are confined to an area within a few mostly confined to the area around the border. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Buildings are seen in Kiryat Shmona, a city next to border with Lebanon, northern Israel, Wednesday, June 19, 2024. Hezbollah began attacking Israel almost immediately after the Israel-Hamas war erupted on Oct. 7. There have been near daily exchanges of fire, though most of the strikes are confined to an area within a few mostly confined to the area around the border. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Hussein, son of senior Hezbollah commander Taleb Sami Abdullah, 55, who was killed last week by an Israeli strike in south Lebanon, speaks during a ceremony to commemorate the death of his father, in the southern Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh, Lebanon, Wednesday, June 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Hussein, son of senior Hezbollah commander Taleb Sami Abdullah, 55, who was killed last week by an Israeli strike in south Lebanon, speaks during a ceremony to commemorate the death of his father, in the southern Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh, Lebanon, Wednesday, June 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

An Israel flag hangs on an area backdropped by buildings in Kiryat Shmona, a city next to border with Lebanon, northern Israel, Wednesday, June 19, 2024. Hezbollah began attacking Israel almost immediately after the Israel-Hamas war erupted on Oct. 7. There have been near daily exchanges of fire, though most of the strikes are confined to an area within a few mostly confined to the area around the border. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

An Israel flag hangs on an area backdropped by buildings in Kiryat Shmona, a city next to border with Lebanon, northern Israel, Wednesday, June 19, 2024. Hezbollah began attacking Israel almost immediately after the Israel-Hamas war erupted on Oct. 7. There have been near daily exchanges of fire, though most of the strikes are confined to an area within a few mostly confined to the area around the border. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Hezbollah supporters raise their fists and cheer as they watch a speech given by Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on a screen during a ceremony to commemorate the death of senior Hezbollah commander Taleb Sami Abdullah, 55, who was killed last week by an Israeli strike in south Lebanon, in the southern Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh, Lebanon, Wednesday, June 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Hezbollah supporters raise their fists and cheer as they watch a speech given by Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on a screen during a ceremony to commemorate the death of senior Hezbollah commander Taleb Sami Abdullah, 55, who was killed last week by an Israeli strike in south Lebanon, in the southern Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh, Lebanon, Wednesday, June 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

A damaged building, from previous shelling attacks from Lebanon, is seen in Kiryat Shmona, northern Israel, Wednesday, June 19, 2024. Hezbollah began attacking Israel almost immediately after the Israel-Hamas war erupted on Oct. 7. There have been near daily exchanges of fire, though most of the strikes are confined to an area within a few mostly confined to the area around the border. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

A damaged building, from previous shelling attacks from Lebanon, is seen in Kiryat Shmona, northern Israel, Wednesday, June 19, 2024. Hezbollah began attacking Israel almost immediately after the Israel-Hamas war erupted on Oct. 7. There have been near daily exchanges of fire, though most of the strikes are confined to an area within a few mostly confined to the area around the border. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Palestinians mourn their relative Tamer Mohsen killed in the Israeli bombardment of Nuseirat refugee camp, at the morgue of al-Aqsa Martyrs hospital in Deir al Balah, central Gaza Strip, Wednesday, June 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Saher Alghorra)

Palestinians mourn their relative Tamer Mohsen killed in the Israeli bombardment of Nuseirat refugee camp, at the morgue of al-Aqsa Martyrs hospital in Deir al Balah, central Gaza Strip, Wednesday, June 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Saher Alghorra)

In this combination image, Hamas' leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, speaks on April 13, 2022, in Gaza City, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks on June 18, 2024, in Tel Aviv. The fate of the proposed cease-fire deal for Gaza hinges in many ways on Sinwar and Netanyahu. Each faces significant political and personal pressures that may be influencing their decision-making and neither seems in a rush to make concessions to end the war. (AP Photo)

In this combination image, Hamas' leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, speaks on April 13, 2022, in Gaza City, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks on June 18, 2024, in Tel Aviv. The fate of the proposed cease-fire deal for Gaza hinges in many ways on Sinwar and Netanyahu. Each faces significant political and personal pressures that may be influencing their decision-making and neither seems in a rush to make concessions to end the war. (AP Photo)

A man drives his motorcycle past a damaged building, from previous shelling attacks from Lebanon, in Kiryat Shmona, northern Israel, Wednesday, June 19, 2024. Hezbollah began attacking Israel almost immediately after the Israel-Hamas war erupted on Oct. 7. There have been near daily exchanges of fire, though most of the strikes are confined to an area within a few mostly confined to the area around the border. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

A man drives his motorcycle past a damaged building, from previous shelling attacks from Lebanon, in Kiryat Shmona, northern Israel, Wednesday, June 19, 2024. Hezbollah began attacking Israel almost immediately after the Israel-Hamas war erupted on Oct. 7. There have been near daily exchanges of fire, though most of the strikes are confined to an area within a few mostly confined to the area around the border. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Palestinians mourn their relative Tamer Mohsen killed in the Israeli bombardment of Nuseirat refugee camp, at the morgue of al-Aqsa Martyrs hospital in Deir al Balah, central Gaza Strip, Wednesday, June 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Saher Alghorra)

Palestinians mourn their relative Tamer Mohsen killed in the Israeli bombardment of Nuseirat refugee camp, at the morgue of al-Aqsa Martyrs hospital in Deir al Balah, central Gaza Strip, Wednesday, June 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Saher Alghorra)

Palestinians mourn their relative Tamer Mohsen killed in the Israeli bombardment of Nuseirat refugee camp, at the morgue of al-Aqsa Martyrs hospital in Deir al Balah, central Gaza Strip, Wednesday, June 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Saher Alghorra)

Palestinians mourn their relative Tamer Mohsen killed in the Israeli bombardment of Nuseirat refugee camp, at the morgue of al-Aqsa Martyrs hospital in Deir al Balah, central Gaza Strip, Wednesday, June 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Saher Alghorra)

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