One overcast morning my guide, Azima, and I drove eight miles south of Timbuktu to a decrepit port on the Niger River and boarded a pinasse, a 40-foot wooden cargo boat with an outboard motor. We traveled slowly downriver, passing desolate sand banks broken by solitary thorn trees. We beached at Toya, a fishing village of rectangular mud huts lined up for a quarter-mile along the sand. Women washed clothing in the shallows, and the rising sun cast a blinding silver glint across the wide, olive-green waterway.
In early January, the jihadists abruptly stopped all vehicle movement in and out of Timbuktu. “It was completely closed off, and we didn’t know why,” Haidara said. As he would later learn, the militants were secretly preparing a massive assault on government forces in the south and wanted to keep the roads clear of traffic. Haidara was obliged to seek out an alternate route: the river.
Haidara’s couriers began bringing footlockers filled with manuscripts by mule cart to Toya and ten other villages along the Niger. Mohamman Sidi Maiga, a village elder, led us up from the beach through warrens of mud-walled homes and showed us a windowless shed beside his house. “I hid plenty of manuscripts in there,” he told me. “We knew that they would be in danger from the jihadists, so everybody in the village offered to help.”
Despite the risks to their lives, Timbuktu’s boatmen were eager to transport the valuable cargo, both because they had been largely unemployed since the crisis began, and because they believed that the manuscripts “were their heritage, ” says Diakité. Haidara laid out the rules: each pinasse would have two couriers and two captains, so they could keep moving on the river 24 hours a day. No vessel could carry more than 15 footlockers, to minimize losses should any particular boat be seized or sunk. Just after the new year, 2013, the first vessels set off for Djenné, an ancient market town two days down the Niger, just beyond jihadist territory. Taxis met the boats in Djenné’s port and continued the journey to Bamako.
On January 9, 2013, a thousand Islamic militants in pickup trucks and 4x4s attacked Konna, in central Mali, the front line of the Malian Army. The government troops fled in panic, tearing off their military uniforms to blend in with the civilian population. Al Qaeda now threatened to seize the region’s main airport and possibly head toward the capital. Responding to the Malian government’s desperate plea for help, French President François Hollande dispatched 4,500 elite troops to Mali from bases in Burkina Faso on January 11. Helicopters blasted the jihadists in Konna, inflicting heavy casualties. Then, with the militants in retreat, the French began advancing toward Timbuktu. The endgame had begun.
The arrival of the French was a godsend for the population, but a potential disaster for the manuscripts. The jihadist leaders summoned Timbuktu’s Crisis Committee to City Hall. The city was preparing for the Maouloud festival, a weeklong celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday that includes the public reading of some of the city’s most revered manuscripts. “You need to bring us those manuscripts, and we are going to burn them,” the militant commanders said, “so that we can show the French that if they dare to enter the city, we will destroy them all.”
Haidara and Diakité were terrified. Nearly 800 footlockers remained hidden in safe houses in Timbuktu, and the money had all but run out. Diakité manned the phones in Bamako, raising several hundred thousand dollars from Dutch foundations in days—enough to finish the boatlift. “This was the most unpredictable, dangerous time,” says Haidara. It was during this period that the 20-boat flotilla was hijacked by gunmen near Lake Debo. And around the same time, a French helicopter circled a second convoy on the Niger. The pilots shone their spotlights on the skiffs and demanded that the couriers open the chests or be sunk on suspicion of smuggling weapons. The pilots flew off when they saw that the chests were filled with only paper.
Timbuktu was descending into chaos. French fighters bombed Al Qaeda’s barracks and Abu Zeid’s residence—a villa that once belonged to Qaddafi. At the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research, an $8 million library built by the South African government and used by militants as a dormitory since the previous April, the jihadists prepared for one final act of desecration. On Friday, January 25, they entered the restoration and digitization rooms, where experts had once scanned and repaired crumbling, thousand-year-old pages. With French ground troops just a few miles away, they put 4,202 manuscripts in a pile in the courtyard, doused them with gasoline and set them on fire.
Six months later, when I visited the center—a modern, Moorish-style complex—it still bore the scars of the jihadists’ malicious act. Curator Bouya Haidara (no relation to Abdel Kader Haidara), a slight man wearing a white skullcap and purple boubou, a traditional flowing gown, showed me a concrete column charred black from the inferno. “A local man saw all the smoke, and he rushed in, and at that very moment the jihadists fled,” he said, still agitated six months after the calamity. They were able to retrieve a few scorched pages from the inferno, but the rest had burned to ashes. “We lost manuscripts from the 12th to 16th centuries—about math, physics, all the sciences,” he said. The losses could have been far worse. During their ten months living at the Ahmed Baba Institute, the jihadists had never once ventured downstairs to the basement to inspect a dry, dark storage room behind a locked door. Inside were stacks containing 10,603 restored manuscripts, the finest in the Ahmed Baba collection. All of them survived.
I returned to Bamako from Timbuktu the next morning and met Abdel Kader Haidara at a French-style café in a residential neighborhood along the Niger. I had been eager to find out what had happened to the manuscripts when they arrived in Bamako, and Haidara, after some gentle prodding, had agreed to show me. We rode in his 4x4 through the rutted dirt streets to a large house behind a high wall. Haidara, resplendently dressed in a pale blue boubou and maroon skullcap, unlocked the door to a storage room and beckoned me inside. “Voilà,” he said. He gestured proudly to some 300 footlockers—large metal trunks and smaller ones made of silver-filigreed wood—stacked ten feet high inside the musty chamber. “There are 75,000 manuscripts in this room,” he told me, including works from the Bibliothèque Mamma Haidara and 35 other collections. Another 275,000 were scattered in houses across Bamako, held by a large network of friends and family who had resettled here after the jihadists seized Timbuktu and had volunteered to take in manuscripts. “They still don’t want their identities revealed,” he told me. “They aren’t convinced the war is over.”
Neither were many others. Though French and African peacekeepers were in control of Timbuktu, Al Qaeda militants were still active in more remote areas of northern Mali and sporadic kidnappings and killings continued to plague the region. Even so, Haidara was cautiously optimistic, and making plans to transport the works back to Timbuktu as quickly as possible. The humidity in Bamako—especially during the rainy season, when daily downpours turn the dirt streets to mud and a permanent dampness hangs in the air—was already bloating the ancient pages, he explained. Funds were trickling in from his Western benefactors to renovate Timbuktu’s libraries, most of which had fallen into disrepair during the chaotic past two years. As soon as the libraries were ready, Haidara would call upon his couriers again. “We’ll pack all the footlockers into boats and send them back up the Niger River,” he told me with a smile, opening a chest and reverently leafing through piles of restored manuscripts from his own collection. “It won’t be nearly as difficult as bringing them down.”