Thursday, April 25, 2013
The great story of the Timbuktu´s manuscripts salvation
Haidara with his manuscripts in 2009.Brent Stirton/Getty Images
I´m sharing an excerpt of the great article by Yochi Dreazen that tells us the story of the old Timbuktu´s manuscripts salvation from Al Qaeda´s linked Islamist group, Ansar Dine, which for most part of last year ruled Timbuktu through terror.
he took a vow. Among the families of Timbuktu with manuscript collections (and the Haidaras had one of the largest), it’s traditional for one family member from each generation to swear publicly that he will protect the library for as long as he lives. The families revere their manuscripts, even honoring them once a year through a holiday called Maouloud, on which imams and family elders perform a reading from the ancient prayer books to mark the birth of the Prophet Mohammed.
“Those manuscripts were my father’s life,” Haidara told me. “They became my life as well.” That life came under serious threat last year, when a military coup ousted Mali’s democratically elected leader just as a loose alliance of Tuareg separatists and three Islamist militias began conquering broad swaths of the north. The rebels quickly routed the Malian army, and Timbuktu fell in April 2012. As the militias poured into his city, Haidara knew he had to do something to protect the approximately 300,000 manuscripts in different libraries and homes in and around Timbuktu.
Haidara had spent years traveling around the country negotiating with Mali’s ancient families to assemble thousands of texts for the Ahmed Baba Institute, which was founded in 1973 as the city’s first official preservation organization. “When I thought of something happening to the manuscripts, I couldn’t sleep,” he told me later.
The initial wave of invaders were secular Tuareg, but quickly the Islamist militia Ansar Dine asserted control, imposing a harsh regime of sharia in Timbuktu and other northern cities. The Islamists didn’t know, at first, about the manuscripts. But their indiscriminate cruelty and their tight-fisted control over the city meant that the texts had to be hidden—and fast. Haidara thought the manuscripts would be most secure in the homes of Timbuktu’s old families, where, after all, they had been protected for centuries. He assembled a small army of custodians, archivists, tour guides, secretaries, and other library employees, as well as his own brothers and cousins and other men from the manuscript-holding families, and began organizing an evacuation plan.
Starting in early May, every morning before sunrise, while the militants were still asleep, Haidara and his men would walk to the city’s libraries and lock themselves inside. Until the heat cleared the streets in the afternoon, the men would find their way through the darkened buildings and wrap the fragile manuscripts in soft cloths. They would then pack them into metal lockers roughly the size of large suitcases, as many as 300 in each.
At night, they’d sneak back to the libraries, traveling by foot to avoid checkpoints on the road, pick up the lockers, and carry them, swathed in blankets, to the homes of dozens of the city’s old families. The entire operation took nearly two months, but by July, they had stowed 1,700 lockers in basements and hideaways around the city. And they did it just in time, because not long after, the militants moved into the Ahmed Baba Institute, using its elegant rooms to store canned vegetables and bags of white rice. Haidara fled to Bamako, hoping the Islamists’ ignorance about the texts would keep them safe.¨
Read the article in full: