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People of Timbuktu save manuscripts from invaders

Tuesday - 2/5/2013, 6:34am  ET

FILE - In this Friday, Feb. 1, 2013 file photo, Abdoulaye Cisse, who lives in the Timbuktu area, holds open a book at the Hamed Baba book repository, one of the world's most precious collections of ancient manuscripts, in Timbuktu, Mali. Islamists claimed they burned most of the holy books there, and for eight days the fire alarm blared inside the repository. But because of the ingenuity of the people of Timbuktu, who hid manuscripts in millet bags, the al-Qaida-linked extremists succeeded in destroying only 5 percent of the collection. (AP Photo/Harouna Traore, File)

RUKMINI CALLIMACHI
Associated Press

TIMBUKTU, Mali (AP) -- For eight days after the Islamists set fire to one of the world's most precious collections of ancient manuscripts, the alarm inside the building blared. It was an eerie, repetitive beeping, a cry from the innards of the injured library that echoed around the world.

The al-Qaida-linked extremists who ransacked the institute wanted to deal a final blow to Mali, whose northern half they had held for 10 months before retreating in the face of a French-led military advance. They also wanted to deal a blow to the world, especially France, whose capital houses the headquarters of UNESCO, the organization which recognized and elevated Timbuktu's monuments to its list of World Heritage sites.

So as they left, they torched the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research, aiming to destroy a heritage of 30,000 manuscripts that date back to the 13th century.

"These manuscripts are our identity," said Abdoulaye Cisse, the library's acting director. "It's through these manuscripts that we have been able to reconstruct our own history, the history of Africa . People think that our history is only oral, not written. What proves that we had a written history are these documents."

The first people who spotted the column of black smoke on Jan. 23 were the residents whose homes surround the library, and they ran to tell the center's employees. The bookbinders, manuscript restorers and security guards who work for the institute broke down and cried.

Just about the only person who didn't was Cisse, the acting director, who for months had harbored a secret. Starting last year, he and a handful of associates had conspired to save the documents so crucial to this 1,000-year-old town.

In April, when the rebels preaching a radical version of Islam first rolled into this city swirling with sand, the institute was in the process of moving its collection into a new, state-of-the-art building. The fighters commandeered the new center, turning it into a dormitory for one of their units of foreign fighters, Cisse said. They didn't realize only about 2,000 manuscripts had been moved there, the bulk of the collection remaining at the old library, he said.

The Islamists came in, as they did in Afghanistan, with their own, severe interpretation of Islam, intent on rooting out what they saw as the veneration of idols instead of the pure worship of Allah. During their 10-month-rule, they eviscerated much of the identity of this storied city, starting with the mausoleums of their saints, which were reduced to rubble.

The turbaned fighters made women hide their faces and blotted out their images on billboards. They closed hair salons, banned makeup and forbade the music for which Mali is known.

Their final act before leaving was to go through the exhibition room in the institute, as well as the whitewashed laboratory used to restore the age-old parchments. They grabbed the books they found and burned them.

However, they didn't bother searching the old building, where an elderly man named Abba Alhadi has spent 40 of his 72 years on earth taking care of rare manuscripts. The illiterate old man, who walks with a cane and looks like a character from the Bible, was the perfect foil for the Islamists. They wrongly assumed that the city's European-educated elite would be the ones trying to save the manuscripts, he said.

So last August, Alhadi began stuffing the thousands of books into empty rice and millet sacks.

At night, he loaded the millet sacks onto the type of trolley used to cart boxes of vegetables to the market. He pushed them across town and piled them into a lorry and onto the backs of motorcycles, which drove them to the banks of the Niger River.

From there, they floated down to the central Malian town of Mopti in a pinasse, a narrow, canoe-like boat. Then cars drove them from Mopti, the first government-controlled town, to Mali's capital, Bamako, over 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) from here.

"I have spent my life protecting these manuscripts. This has been my life's work. And I had to come to terms with the fact that I could no longer protect them here," said Alhadi. "It hurt me deeply to see them go, but I took strength knowing that they were being sent to a safe place."

It took two weeks in all to spirit out the bulk of the collection, around 28,000 texts housed in the old building covering the subjects of theology, astronomy, geography and more.

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