Over the past month, French military forces have pushed global jihadists out of almost all the major towns in northern Mali, freeing the area from the grip of al-Qaida linked fighters with the blessing of the U.N. and West Africa. On their way, these fighters have morphed more and more into the Taliban, destroying ‘idolatrous’ mosques and banning everything but big, bushy beards. Worst of all, while leaving Timbuktu late last month, they set fire to a building they believed contained 30,000 documents up to 800 years old.
Fortunately for the battle against colonialist ignorance and the advancement of world history, the majority of these documents were already in Mali’s capital, Bamako, their worst damage suffered from millet straws and rough, hurried hands. Their journey was organized by societies’ silent saviors, librarians.
The Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research, after four decades in construction limbo, was being watched over by interim director Abdoulaye Cisse when Islamist militants took over town last year.
Not trusting the word of the local militia leader, Cisse and 72 year-old Abba Alhadi began moving out documents in millet bags and wheelbarrows, to be ferried down the Niger River onto a 10-hour truck journey to Bamako.
In two weeks, they’d moved nearly 30,000 documents, though 2,000 remained in a newer section of the institute, which local jihadists had made into their bunker. These were never to be saved, though most had already been digitized. A number of local residents took documents into their homes as well, to safeguard until the departure of the militants.
These manuscripts are in a variety of global and local languages, including Arabic, Songhai and Hebrew, and are journals, textbooks and religious documents that paint a vivid picture of an ancient, dynamic city. Islamic extremists have a strong track record of despising local history; in March of 2001, the Taliban destroyed 100 feet-plus statues of Buddha in Afghanistan that were over 1,500 years old.
It is only with the arrival of French forces that Cisses’ heroic deeds have come to light; however, the documents are not yet ready to be returned. Collectors and others have voiced fears for the return of the jihadists, who conducted their first-ever suicide bombing in the past week.
When American forces liberated Iraq in 2003, looting of the Iraqi National Museum saw the destruction or loss of thousands of unique historical objects. The blame lay squarely on lax American security and low prioritization. Thus, if these manuscripts are to breathe once again, the incoming U.N. peacekeepers must work with the local archivists to ensure the survival of these irreplaceable documents.
“We lost a lot of our riches. But we were also able to save a great deal of our riches, and for that I am overcome with joy,” Cisse said. “These manuscripts represent who we are … I saved these books in the name of Timbuktu first, because I am from Timbuktu. Then I did it for my country. And also for all of humanity. Because knowledge is for all of humanity.”