Mali extremists torch Timbuktu library’s ancient manuscripts
By: Robyn Dixon Los Angeles Times
SEVARE, MALI—Priceless ancient manuscripts put to the torch. Desperate residents paid to snitch on neighbours for violations of a puritanical strain of Islam. Whippings, beatings and amputations meted out to those who disobeyed.
French-led forces entered Mali’s legendary desert city of Timbuktu on Monday as fighters linked to Al Qaeda fled, leaving a population terrorized by nine months of occupation and the fate of some of Africa’s most important cultural treasures in doubt.
The French troops, steadily advancing in their campaign against militant groups who seized northern Mali last year, blocked access to the Saharan city while government forces worked to flush out any remaining rebels, French military spokesman Thierry Burkhard told reporters in Paris. It was unclear whether the city was totally under their control.
“We have to be extremely careful,” Burkhard said. “But, in general terms, the necessary elements are in place to take control.”
Sources with Canada’s Defence Department say Canadian special forces are on the ground in Mali. Few other details are available but the sources say the soldiers are there solely to protect Canadian forces crews on Canada’s C-17 transport plane as it moves military equipment into the country in support of French troops.
The French assault came amid reports that the fleeing militants had set ablaze the Ahmed Baba Institute, a library where ancient manuscripts were stored, some dating to the 12th century. The collection totalled about 30,000 works by some estimates and is regarded as one of Africa’s most important cultural treasures.
The torching of the library, confirmed by Timbuktu Mayor Ousmane Halle to news agencies, followed the destruction last year of more than 300 ancient tombs that the militants deemed un-Islamic and smaller fires in which residents said they saw manuscripts burned.
Scholars had only recently begun to catalogue and scan Ahmed Baba’s vast trove of documents, hoping to gain insight into issues including ancient people’s response to climate change and the genesis of a more liberal, tolerant strain of Islam in West Africa.
If all the manuscripts are destroyed, it would represent “the greatest loss of the written word in Africa since the destruction of the library in Alexandria,” said Douglas Park, a visiting anthropology lecturer at Rice University.
Residents who fled Timbuktu while the city was still under rebel control described harsh rules, violent punishment and shocking acts of desecration.
Every week, the militants seemed to come up with something new to horrify and cow the population, said George Lansar, 40, a tour guide and mechanic who fled the city last month.
Timbuktu, famous for its mosques made of mud, ancient tombs, music and manuscripts, was Mali’s main tourist draw. Fatima Fatandou, 35, who worked at a radio station before the militants came, said so many foreigners once thronged the streets that, in her mind, it looked a bit like Paris.
She loved the mornings, when the streets bustled with people going to work and the market, and the evenings, when the desert sunset glowed and farmers ambled back from their fields on their donkey carts. “Everyone lived happily together,” she said.
But then Tuareg rebels seized the city from the collapsing Malian army, only to be pushed aside by militant fighters from the Al Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine. The Islamists’ hunger for information on transgressors of shariah, the Islamic law they imposed, brought out rivalries and petty grudges.
Lansar said the Islamists paid for information on violations of their strict code, and with the city’s tourist-based economy in collapse, many people told tales in return for the cash.
The first thing the Islamists did, Lansar and others said, was to destroy city administration buildings. They smashed bars and restaurants where alcohol was sold, banned smoking and outlawed music, dancing and soccer.
Lansar said the Islamists forced people to attend public floggings and other punishments. He saw a murder suspect blindfolded, tied to a tree and shot. He also saw a man accused of theft tied to a chair in the public square, his hand placed on a wooden plank, next to a copy of the Quran.
“He was shaking and screaming, ‘Help me, help me!’ ” Lansar said. A militant raised a machete high and brought it down with a crash, severing the man’s hand.
“I just didn’t know what to do. We had no power,” Lansar said.