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Story Publication logo October 3, 2014

Mali: The Unsung Hero of Timbuktu


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In 2012, Jihadists occupied two-thirds of Mali, creating the world's most dangerous terrorist...

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A librarian at Timbuktu's Ahmed Baba Institute displays the ashes from manuscripts burned by Al Qaeda militants in January 2013. Image by Joshua Hammer. Mali, 2013.

Of all the stories of calamity and courage that came out of northern Mali during the jihadist occupation, one man's tale in particular captured the world's imagination. Abdel Kader Haidara, a 50-year-old book collector and librarian, conceived a daring scheme to smuggle 377,000 priceless medieval manuscripts out of Timbuktu. But the unsung hero of the rescue was Haidara's nephew, Mohammed Touré. While Haidara oversaw logistics from the safety of Bamako, it was Touré, 25, who repeatedly put his life on the line in Al Qaeda-occupied Timbuktu.

Touré had been Haidara's deputy at the Mamma Haidara Library, responsible for giving tours to delegations of academics, diplomats, and journalists. The library's collection of 10,000 manuscripts, hand written in Arabic calligraphy, with flourishes of gold and pen and ink drawings of mosques and desert landscapes, was widely considered the finest private archive in the world.

"I had been working there since I was twelve years old, and I knew everything about the manuscripts," he told me, sitting in the courtyard of Villa Soudan, a French-run guest house along the Niger River in Badalabougou, a neighborhood of embassies and walled off villas in the Malian capital. Touré was wiry, intense looking man with a high-pitched voice and a distracted manner. His two cellular phones went off at regular intervals, prompting impassioned bursts of conversation in Arabic, French, Tamasheq and Sorhai.

After the rebels took over the city, he recalled, "There was no authority, there was no government, no law. There was nothing—somebody could rob from you, steal the manuscripts. We had to do something."

Touré began venturing into the markets, buying up footlockers, two or three at a time, and storing them at the Mamma Haidara and other libraries. At night, while the jihadists slept, Touré and other volunteers packed all 377,000 manuscripts. Then they carried them in the darkness to a network of safe houses around the city, owned by trusted friends.

It all went seamlessly, until the evening that Touré was caught in the act by one of the most feared Jihadist commanders in Timbuktu—Oumar Ould Hamaha, 50, known as Red Beard, a pinched-looking man with a distinctive henna-dyed goatee and the father in law of Al Qaeda leader Mokhtar Belmokthar. He shone a flashlight in Touré's face.

"What are you doing here?" he demanded.

"I'm sorry," Touré stammered, "but soon we're going to be moving, and I'm transferring these manuscripts to a place where they'll be better secured."

"No," said Red Beard. "You 're stealing them."

"Certainly not."

"You're moving them in the middle of the night, and who gave you the authorization to do so?"

"I . . . I didn't think I needed permission to move my own stuff."

Red Beard summoned the Islamic police. Three 4x4s filled with black-turbanned enforcers pulled up to the building. They too demanded to see Touré's authorization. When he failed to produce it, they arrested him.

"You are a thief," he was told. "We will cut off your hand."

Touré knew that the Islamists wasted little time between Sharia judgments and punishments. Somehow, he kept his cool. Grounded in Islamic scholarship, he cited Hadiths and Koranic verses stating that proof of a misdeed was required before punishment was meted out.

"The proof is there. You were robbing this library," Red Beard said.

"It belonged to me, and I was moving the books to a more secure location."

In Bamako, Haidara made phone calls, contacting imams, neighborhood leaders, and other librarians, who came forward with documents and affidavits attesting to Touré's affiliation with the library association. After holding him for 24 hours, the Islamic police released him- and Touré got back to work.

By the end of that month, Touré and his team had transported all 377,000 manuscripts from Timbuktu's libraries to safe houses around the city.

In September, Haidara decided that the manuscripts were no longer safe in Timbuktu, and ordered Touré to move them clandestinely by road to Bamako. After dawn one September morning, Mohammed Touré loaded a 4x4 with five chests filled with 1,500 manuscripts from the Mamma Haidara Library. He sat beside the driver, coolly greeting the turbaned fighters who manned the two checkpoints in jihadist territory, one on the outskirts of Timbuktu, the other four hours south. His real problems began just south of the border.

Malian troops—edgy, demoralized, and suspicious of anyone coming from the occupied north—stopped him at Sevaré. They threatened him with their rifles, broke the locks with their gun butts, made Touré remove the volumes, and flipped roughly through the fragile pages, one by one. He spent two days and nights in their custody.

Taking back routes to avoid more harassment from Malian soldiers, his driver repeatedly lost his way. The vehicle—riding low because of the extra weight—broke down twice. In Ségou, police arrested Touré on suspicion of smuggling. Released, he paid hundreds of dollars for a military escort to Bamako. After one week on the road, Touré arrived at one o'clock in the morning in the capital- where he was detained for the third time and held overnight in a squalid cell. Haidara freed him with a bribe.

"I didn't have any choice but to continue," Touré remembered. "It got a little easier over time. I paid them off repeatedly—the soldiers, the police—and they got to know me, and it became smoother."

Back in Timbuktu, Touré had begun spending his nights in the now-stripped exhibition hall of the Mamma Haidara Libary. One morning he answered an early morning knock at the front door. He confronted three men with a video camera and a sound boom. It was a documentary team from the Al Jazeera television network, invited by the jihadists to film in Timbuktu.

"You cannot come in," Touré told them, and blocked the door.

Half an hour later, the film crew returned. This time they brought an escort of jihadists, who insisted on entering. The jihadists led the crew through the library. Glass exhibition cases stood empty. The conservation rooms, where manuscripts were digitized, repaired, and stored in moisture proof boxes known as kitikata, were bare.

"Where are the manuscripts?" the militants demanded.

Touré played dumb. "I have no idea," he said. "The proprietors must have taken them all. I don't know what happened."

The film crew and their jihadist escorts left, and Touré never heard another word about the incident.

Touré knew that the jihadists were aware of the treasures in their midst. Dozens of fighters had taken up residence inside the $8 million dollar headquarters of the Ahmed Baba Institute, surrounded by 20,000 manuscripts in both basement stacks and in conservation workshops. Islamist commanders had even inspected several libraries in the midst of the packing, once taking a tour of the Mamma Haidara Library with Abdel Kader Haidara's brothers. (The Haidaras had been careful to place the footlockers out of sight.) Yet, for reasons that remained a mystery, they had not yet made a move to destroy the manuscripts. Touré suspected that the militants didn't grasp the scope of the collections or their significance, and were too preoccupied with the day-to-day business of running their Caliphate to bother with them. There was also the possibility that, unaware that the volumes were slipping from their grasp, they were biding their time, waiting for the right moment to strike.

Touré continued smuggling manuscripts out of Timbuktu until the jihadists fled on January 26, 2013, just ahead of the French army. Despite the constant threat of arrest, imprisonment, or amputation, he never thought of abandoning his post on the front line. Sipping a coke and relaxing in the courtyard of the Villa Soudan, he explained: "My life was nothing compared to the patrimony of Mali."


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