It was early in the summer of 2012, and at theMamma Haidara Library in Timbuktu, a clandestine operation was under way. Night after night, a team under the direction of the library’s founder, Abdel Kader Haidara, quietly packed the ancient works of astronomy, poetry, history, and jurisprudence into metal chests, then spirited them out of the library in mule carts and 4x4s to safe houses scattered around the city.
It was part of a last-ditch attempt to protect the country’s most significant collection of historic manuscripts from falling into the hands of militants allied to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Over nine traumatic months, Haidara and his team rescued 350,000 manuscripts from 45 different libraries in and around Timbuktu and hid them in Bamako, more than 400 miles from the AQIM-controlled north.
But the face-offs with the jihadists kept coming. AQIM operatives stopped, searched, and arrested Haidara’s couriers. Bandits captured a boat full of books on the Niger River and held it for ransom. Malian government soldiers often broke open trunks full of manuscripts in a search for weapons, roughly pawing through the fragile volumes.
In the last phase of the rescue, during the French military intervention of January 2013 that drove AQIM from northern Mali, a French helicopter nearly fired missiles at a boat bringing manuscripts downriver—the pilots suspected that Haidara’s assistants were smuggling guns.
“Abdel Kader feels as close to the manuscripts as he does to his children,” says Stephanie Diakité, an American attorney who became entranced by the works 20 years ago during a visit to Mali and decided to make their preservation her life’s calling.
She worked side by side with Haidara in Bamako to raise $1 million from benefactors in Europe, the U.S., and the Middle East to finance the rescue effort. Adds Diakité: “He feels as much responsibility for them as he does for his own family.”