Tue, Feb 05, 2013 - Page 7 News List

Keeping Timbuktu artifacts from militants’ clutches

SAVED FOR HUMANITY:Cultural artifacts in Timbuktu have faced many dangers over the centuries, yet many have endured after being hidden away for safekeeping

NY Times News Service, TIMBUKTU, Mali

He was intimately familiar with the many nooks and crannies in which the city’s residents have long hid their manuscripts. While expanding the family’s compound a decade ago, he found a trove of manuscripts hidden inside a wall.

“The previous owners had hidden them so well they forgot them,” he said with a shrug.

He took his family’s collection and hid it, declining to say where.

“We hid them, that is all I will say,” he said.

The manuscripts have been at the center of efforts to preserve Timbuktu’s history. The governments of South Africa and France, along with the Ford Foundation and others, have spent millions to build a new library to house manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Institute.

When the Tuareg rebels first arrived in Timbuktu in April last year, they looted and burned many government buildings, and the institute’s interim director, Abdoulaye Cisse, worried that the its sleek new library building would become a target.

However, when the Islamist rebels arrived a few days later, the library’s officials explained to them that it was an Islamic institution worthy of their protection.

“One of the Islamist leaders gave his mobile phone number to the guard and told him, ‘If anyone bothers you, call me and I will be here,”’ he said.

However, library officials began to worry that the Islamists would discover that the library received financing from the US, so in August they decided to move almost the entire collection, little by little, to avoid rousing suspicion Cisse said.

It turned out the worries were not unwarranted. In the chaotic final days of the Islamist occupation, militants stormed the library and set fire to whatever they could find.

Fortunately, they got their hands on only a tiny portion of the library’s collection.

“They managed to find less than 5 percent,” Cisse said. “Thank God they were not able to find anything else.”

None of the city’s libraries are in a hurry to return their collections from their hiding places, even though Timbuktu is back under government control.

The fighters have been chased, but no one is sure whether they will come back.

“We will keep our manuscripts safely hidden until we are sure the situation is safe,” Alpha said. “When that will be we cannot say.”

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