As French and Malian troops forced Islamist insurgents out of Timbuktu the Al Qaeda-affiliated rebels set the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Islamic Studies & Research and several other buildings ablaze. TV reporter Alex Crawford of Sky News, embedded with French troops, was the first reporter to enter Timbuktu when Franco-Malian forces liberated the town.
A force of 1,000 French infantrymen and paratroopers and 200 Malian troops seized control of the airport, surrounded the town to cutoff the escape of insurgents, and entered Timbuktu to be greeted by cheering crowds. They took the town Monday without firing a shot, Adama Diarra and others reported in a Reuters story. However, Luke Harding reported in The Guardian that the troops reached the gates of Timbuku and secured the airport on Saturday, only for the rebels to attack the airport on Sunday.
Islam spread through Saharan Africa through Timbuktu, the ancient trading post on the Niger River that is capital of one of Mali’s eight administrative districts, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The trading post became a seat of Islamic learning.
After the collapse of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime (the “Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya”) during the Libyan Revolution of 2011, ethnic Taureg mercenaries who had been in his employ returned to their homeland in the Sahara Desert. The Tauregs are a Berber people whose traditional lifestyle was nomadic or semi-nomadic.
In October of 2011, a group of Tauregs who desired independence for northern Mali, at least some of whom had fought for Col. Gaddafi, founded the MNLA (Mouvement national de l’Azawad, “National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad”). In April of 2012, MNLA rebels seized control of Timbuktu.
Their movement was soon hijacked, though, by militant Salafist sect Muslims who wanted to impose their version of Sharia (a strict Islamic law code) that authorized the stoning of adulterers and the amputation of a thief’s right hand, banned the playing of music and the smoking of cigarettes, and forced women to wear veils, as recounted by Sky News and Reuters. As Harding recounted in The Guardian, they belonged to “al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – the group responsible for the attack on the Algerian gas facility.” They destroyed Sufi sect Muslim shrines (tombs of people they consider saints) they considered to be idolatrous and un-Islamic. Ms. Crawford filmed piles of rubble that stood where formerly there were three shrines.
France is intervening in her former colony’s affairs at the request of the sovereign Malian government. [Before independence, the Republic of Mali was Soudan (known in English as French Sudan), part of Afrique occidentale française (French West Africa.] French troops took some pains to avoid damaging Timbuktu’s historic mosques and shrines.
The mayor of Timbuktu who fled to the Malian capital city of Bamako is referred to as Hallé Ousmani Cissé by The Guardian and TIME and as Ousmane Halle by Sky News and Reuters. He told journalists from The Guardian and Reuters that the insurgents had set the new library, the Ahmed Baba Institute, on fire, along with his office, the town hall, and the residence of a MP (member-of- parliament), a few days before the town was liberated, and shot dead a man who (prematurely) celebrated the liberation of the town. There are several libraries in town with manuscripts dating back as far as the 13th (Christian) Century.
Luke Harding reported on The Guardian’s Web site Mayor Hallé Ousmani Cissé said in a phone interview, “It’s true they burned the manuscripts. They also burned down several buildings. There was one guy celebrating in the street and they killed him…This is terrible news. The manuscripts were a part not only of Mali’s heritage but the world’s heritage. By destroying them they threaten the world. We have to kill all of the rebels in the north.”
According to Reuters, the Ahmed Baba Institute had approximately 20,000 manuscripts, some of them in subterranean vaults. According to TIME and Fred de Sam Lazaro, it had about 40,000 manuscripts.
In a report for the PBS program Religion & Ethics Newsweekly ten years ago (an excerpt of which the PBS News Hour re-broadcast on Tuesday night) Fred de Sam Lazaro stated that Timbuktu had thirty-two private libraries and the city was home to over 200,000 manuscripts and artifacts. According to TIME, the combined collections of Timbuktu amounted to 300,000 manuscripts.
Marie Rodet, an African history lecturer at Britain’s School of Oriental and African Studies, told Reuters Timbuktu’s library had one of the world’s greatest collections of Islamic manuscripts. She told Reuters, “It’s pure retaliation…These people are not interested in any intellectual debate. They are anti-intellectual.”
The Malian Government founded the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation & Research (also known by its French abbreviation CEDRAB) in 1973. UNESCO had held a conference in Timbuktu in 1967 to plan a multi-volume history of Africa.
Between 1973 and 1984, the founder, Dr. Mahmoud Zubayr collected 3,500 manuscripts. Subsequently, Abdul Kader Haidara, who worked for CEDRAB before he founded his own family library, collected 16,000 manuscripts between 1984 and 2002.
From 1984 to 1987, he acquired manuscripts in outer villages (sometimes purchasing them with money and other times trading livestock for them). In more than one case, he was able to acquire a couple of thousand manuscripts from a single village.
He acquired manuscripts in foreign countries, as well: Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Guinea, Niger, Algeria, and the Ivory Coast. The current director is Dr. Mohammed Gallah Dicko. According to the library’s own Web site, it has a collection of 30,000 manuscripts.
In Harding’s Guardian article, he stated there were two libraries, “an ageing library and a new South African-funded research centre, the Ahmad Babu Institute, less than a mile away. Completed in 2009 and named after a 17th-century Timbuktu scholar, the centre used state-of-the-art techniques to study and conserve the crumbling scrolls.”
Both buildings were burned down, according to the mayor, who said the information came from an informer who had just left the town. Asked whether any of the manuscripts might have survived, Cissé replied: ‘I don’t know.’
Former South African President Thabo Mbeki was inspired to found the Ahmad Babu Institute as a joint-South African-Malian project after he visited Timbuktu in 2001. Mbeki attended the opening ceremony in 2009.
The South African Government’s Tombouktou Manuscripts Project is supported by the Ford Foundation and the University of Cape Town. Essop Pahad, who chaired the Tombouktou Manuscripts Project, described the the library as one of the “greatest cultural treasure houses” of African and Islamic history.
On TIME’s Web site, Vivienne Walt wrote, “The center, financed by the South African government as a favored project by then President Thabo Mbeki, who championed reviving Africa’s historical culture, housed state-of-the-art equipment to preserve and photograph hundreds of thousands of pages, some of which had gold illumination, astrological charts and sophisticated mathematical formulas.”
Ali Baba, who had worked at the Ahmed Baba Institute, told Sky News that the men he described as “bandits” destroyed over 3,000 manuscripts and stole yet others, according to Reuters. Ms. Crawford found empty boxes that had formerly held manuscripts strewn about the place. “Some of the documents date back to the 13th century,” she said. “This was all the documentation they’d built up over centuries of life in Timbuktu – all either burned by the Jihadists or they have disappeared.”
According to Sky News, Mayor Ousmane Halle said, “They torched all the important ancient manuscripts. The ancient books of geography and science. It is the history of Timbuktu, of its people. It’s truly alarming that this has happened.”
Ms. Walt wrote in TIME, “That is not so, according to those who’ve worked for months to keep the documents safe.”
In interviews with TIME on Monday, preservationists said that in a large-scale rescue operation early last year, shortly before the militants seized control of Timbuktu, thousands of manuscripts were hauled out of the Ahmed Baba Institute to a safe house elsewhere. Realizing that the documents might be prime targets for pillaging or vindictive attacks from Islamic extremists, staff left behind just a small portion of them, perhaps out of haste, but also to conceal the fact that the center had been deliberately emptied. ‘The documents which had been there are safe, they were not burned,’ said Mahmoud Zouber, Mali’s presidential aide on Islamic affairs, a title he retains despite the overthrow of the former President, his boss, in a military coup a year ago; preserving Timbuktu’s manuscripts was a key project of his office. By phone from Bamako on Monday night, Zouber told TIME, ‘They were put in a very safe place. I can guarantee you. The manuscripts are in total security.’
In a second interview from Bamako, a preservationist who did not want to be named confirmed that the center’s collection had been hidden out of reach from the militants. Neither of those interviewed wanted the location of the manuscripts named in print, for fear that remnants of the al-Qaeda occupiers might return to destroy them.
That was confirmed too by Shamil Jeppie, director of the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project at the University of Cape Town, who told TIME on Monday night that ‘there were a few items in the Ahmed Baba library, but the rest were kept away.’ …Jeppie said he had been enraged by the television footage on Monday of the building trashed, and blamed in part Mali’s government, which he said had done little to ensure the center’s security. ‘It is really sad and disturbing,’ he said.
When TIME reached Timbuktu’s Mayor Cissé in Bamako late Monday night, he tempered the remarks he had made to journalists earlier in the day, conceding in an interview that, indeed, residents had worked to rescue the center’s manuscripts before al-Qaeda occupied the city last March. Still, he said that while many of the manuscripts had been saved, ‘they did not move all the manuscripts.’ He said he had fled earlier this month after living through months of the Islamists’ rule, a situation he described as a ‘true catastrophe’ and ‘very, very hard.’ He said he expects to fly back home by the weekend on a French military jet. By then, perhaps, the state of Timbuktu’s astonishing historic libraries might be clearer.
A spokesman for the Thabo Mbeki Foundation told Harding Monday, “We haven’t yet heard anything concrete as to what the real story is, so at the moment we can’t really comment. We’re getting mixed stories.”
French troops liberated Timbaktu on Monday after liberating the town of Gao over the weekend. MNLA rebels managed to win control of a third town, Kidal, from Islamist fighters. Diarra and his co-authors wrote,
The French and Malians have encountered no resistance so far in Timbuktu. But they will now have to comb through a labyrinth of ancient mosques, monuments, mud-brick homes and narrow alleyways to flush out any hiding fighters.
The Islamist forces comprise a loose alliance that groups Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) with Malian Islamist group Ansar Dine and AQIM splinter MUJWA.
They have retreated in the face of relentless French air strikes and superior firepower and are believed to be sheltering in the rugged Adrar des Ifoghas mountain range, north of Kidal.
The MNLA Tuareg rebels who say they now hold Kidal have offered to help the French-led offensive against the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamists. It was not clear, however, whether the French and Malians would steer their offensive further towards Kidal, or hold negotiations with the MNLA.
At a press conference in Paris, French President Francois Hollande has said that once French troops had helped liberate strategic towns, Malian and other African troops would secure them and hunt down the rebels. At a summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, President Thomas Boni Yayi of Benin, the outgoing Chairman of the African Union, criticized his fellow heads-of-state for being slow to come to Mali’s defense.
Burkina Faso, Benin, Nigeria, Senegal, Togo, Niger and Chad are providing troops for the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA). Hundreds of Nigerian and Chadian troops are now occupying Gao to keep the town secure.
In a report for Independent Television News that PBS News Hour broadcast, Lindsey Hilsum revealed in Gao, members of the MUJAO, the Movement for Jihad and Unity, had removed the cross from the local Catholic church, closed a nightclub and blew it up with RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), and plundered and blew up banks. As Malian troops entered town Saturday, a jihadi fired into the jubilant crowd that waited to greet their liberators. An angry mob lynched him and tore him to pieces.
Today, January 30, 2013, the Tombouktou Manuscripts Project released a statement that read, in part, “Since the start of this week there are reports about the destruction of library buildings and book collections in Timbuktu. It sounds as if the written heritage of the town went up in flames. According to our information this is not the case at all. The custodians of the libraries worked quietly throughout the rebel occupation of Timbuktu to ensure the safety of their materials. A limited number of items have been damaged or stolen, the infrastructure neglected and furnishings in the Ahmad Baba Institute library looted but from all our local sources – all intimately connected with the public and private collections in the town – there was no malicious destruction of any library or collection.”