Dr Abdel Kader Haidara had just returned to Bamako from a business trip in April 2012, when he heard that fighters from one of al Qaeda’s African affiliates, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb had taken control of Malian city, Timbuktu.
Even though he feared for his life, he was equally worried about several collections of historic manuscripts that would be destroyed if they fell into the hands of the Islamist militants.
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The manuscripts contained valuable information about the golden age of Timbuktu, in the 15th and 16th centuries, and the great Songhay empire.
The militants had vowed to destroy anything they viewed as haram (forbidden), according to their harsh interpretation of Islamic practices.
Knowing that this collection of rare and precious books would be their target, Haidara, who is also a librarian and a book restorer, made the risky journey to Timbuktu, where he later met with his colleagues at the office of the Timbuktu library association, a body he had formed 15 years ago.
At the meeting, Haidara and his team made the decision to take out manuscripts from the huge buildings and libraries and disperse them around the city to family houses.
With a $12,000 grant meant for studies from the Ford Foundation office in Lagos, Nigeria and some funding from the Dutch, Haidara began the journey of keeping these precious materials from the hands of the jihadists.
Night after night, Haidara and his colleagues quietly packed the ancient works of history, astronomy, poetry, mathematics, occult sciences and medicine into metal chests and wooden trunks, and then carried them by donkey to safe houses scattered around the city and other hiding places.
For eight months, they managed to smuggle the manuscripts, some of which were coming out of Haidara’s own private collection, out of Timbuktu by road and by the river to Bamako.
But this was not without challenges such as running into jihadists, checkpoints, ransom demands and vehicle breakdowns.
After the French troops invaded the north in January 2013, the militants had destroyed only 4,000 of Timbuktu’s almost 400,000 ancient manuscripts.
“If we hadn’t acted, I’m almost 100% certain that many, many others would have been burned,” Haidara said.