In May 2012, Haidara moved with his family to Bamako; the Internet had collapsed in Timbuktu, as had most phone service, and communication with the outside world was becoming difficult. Haidara “held out hope,” he says, that the manuscripts could remain in the safe houses. But that hope was dashed when the jihadists seized all power in Timbuktu and began turning the desert outpost into an Islamic caliphate.
One August morning, in the middle of Mali’s rainy season, I set out in a four-wheel-drive vehicle for Timbuktu to see what the jihadists had wrought. Three Timbuktu natives joined me for the two-day, 450-mile journey: Baba Touré, my driver; Azima Ag Mohammed Ali, my Tuareg guide; and Sane Chirfi, Timbuktu’s tourism director, who had requested a lift home after a year in Bamako.
We spent the first night in Mopti, a riverside town that had been a popular backpackers’ destination before radicals began kidnapping and killing Western tourists. At dawn the next morning we followed a cratered dirt road that devolved into a track through the sand. A light dusting of green covered the normally desolate landscape. After ten grueling hours, the track petered out at the Niger River; we caught a rusting ferry to the other side and followed a paved road for the last eight miles to our destination.
Chirfi stared pensively out the car window as we drove down near-deserted streets lined by mud-brick houses. At the Sidi Mahmoud Cemetery, a bleak expanse of sand dunes on the outskirts of Timbuktu, we stopped before a ten-foot-high pile of bricks and stones. On June 30, 2012, Islamic militants had destroyed this Sufi saint’s tomb with hammers and pickaxes, along with six others, a desecration that horrified the population. Al Qaeda’s leaders “told us that we had deviated from Islam, that we are practicing a religion full of innovations, and not based on the original texts,” said Chirfi. “It alerted us that the manuscripts would also be in danger.”
In Bamako, delegates from Unesco, the United Nations’ Paris-based cultural protection agency, were also worried about the manuscripts. The team wanted to organize a public campaign to draw attention to the extremist threat, and pressed Haidara to participate. Haidara believed that it was a foolish idea. Up to this point, the militants had barely mentioned the manuscripts, except for a brief televised address in which they promised to respect them. Haidara was afraid that if Unesco focused on their value, the jihadists would try to leverage them for political gain. “We wanted Al Qaeda to forget about the manuscripts,” he told me. The U.N. officials agreed to back off, but it wasn’t clear how long they would do so.
Other events created a sense of urgency: Lawlessness was on the rise in Timbuktu, and armed men were breaking into houses, grabbing everything they could get their hands on. “We suspected that they would move from house to house, searching for manuscripts to destroy,” said Abdoulhamid Kounta, who owns a private library in Timbuktu with 5,000 volumes. “They never did that, but we were afraid.” And in August 2012, ultraconservative Islamists in Libya burned down a library containing hundreds of historic books and manuscripts. “I was shocked,” Haidara said. “I realized that we could be next.”
The tipping point came when the jihadists—signaling that they were feeling more secure militarily—removed most of the roadblocks in their territory. Stephanie Diakité, the American manuscript-restoration expert who found a life’s calling in Mali when she first saw the manuscripts during a trip to Timbuktu more than 20 years ago, told Haidara that they had no time to lose. “We’ve got to get them out now,” she said.
Early on a September morning, two of Haidara’s couriers loaded a 4x4 with three footlockers filled with hundreds of manuscripts and set out for the long drive through jihadist territory. They hit the first checkpoint just outside Timbuktu, exhaling with relief as the armed guards waved them through. One more checkpoint, in Douentza, lay between them and the government border. Again, they passed without incident. Two days later, they arrived safely in Bamako.
Soon afterward, however, Al Qaeda guards stopped a 4x4 heading south, discovered a trove of manuscripts in the back and ordered the vehicle at gunpoint to go back to Timbuktu. Islamic police turned over the cache to Abdelhamid Abu Zeid, the Al Qaeda commander, a soft-spoken murderer who sensed that something valuable had dropped into his lap. Timbuktu’s Crisis Committee—a group of elders who represented the town’s population—pleaded with him to release them. “We guarantee that the manuscripts are simply being taken out of Timbuktu for repairs,” a committee member told the terrorist chief. “And then they will be brought back.” To the rescuers’ relief, Abu Zeid allowed the manuscripts to leave after 48 hours.
The close call shook Haidara, but it didn’t deter him. Every morning for the next three months, his couriers—often the teenage sons and nephews of Timbuktu library owners—made the same perilous journey. Over 90 days, they evacuated an average of 3,000 manuscripts a day. “We were scared for our couriers, they were just kids,” says Diakité. “We could not sleep a lot of the time the evacuations were going on.”
The trip through the jihadist zone was harrowing, but government territory could be just as stressful. The Malian Army, on the lookout for weapons being smuggled into the south, had set up 15 checkpoints between the edge of the jihadist zone and Bamako. “They would open up everything,” Haidara said. “The manuscripts are fragile, and if you rifle through the chests you can easily destroy them. We had to spend a lot of money to calm the situation.”
To that end, and to pay Haidara’s legions of couriers, the Prince Claus Fund, a longtime patron, contributed $142,000. An Indiegogo crowd-sourcing campaign raised another $60,000.
Then, without warning, the situation on the ground changed, and Haidara had to come up with a new plan.