At 5am on a Sunday morning, Mohamed Diagayeté was disturbed by an urgent banging on the door of his house in Timbuktu, on the southern edge of the Sahara desert. It was a friend from the army: a heavily armed group of rebels had arrived at the city boundary, he told him; he'd done everything he could and must leave the city immediately. The soldier ran off to ditch his uniform and returned a few minutes later in civvies, intent on taking refuge in Diagayeté's house. Shortly afterwards, the first gunshots rang out over the city. "We could hear them firing. Bok! Bok! Bok," Diagayeté, an archivist, remembers. Before noon, a convoy of rebel pick-ups swept into the undefended town.
So began the 10-month occupation of Timbuktu, first by Tuareg separatist rebels, then by their fellow-travellers Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), a jihadist affiliate of al-Qaida. It was a time of devastation in northern Mali: first the rebels pillaged the town, then the jihadis imposed a brutal form of sharia law on the population. Women were beaten for walking in the company of men. Music, a vibrant part of Malian culture that has been exported all over the world, was banned. Suspected thieves had their hands or feet chopped off after summary trials.
The largely moderate Muslims of Timbuktu were terrified. "When [the rebels] entered the city, people said if you were an artist they would cut out your tongue, because they hate music and want to ban it," Bintu Dara, a singer, tells me in the Malian capital, Bamako. "One of my cousins was beaten in front of me, given 100 lashes from the jihadis," she says. "My drum player was caught and put in jail. One of my relatives' sons was the first guy to have his hand cut off." Dara fled soon after, along with an estimated two-thirds of Timbuktu's citizens.
Timbuktu is a Unesco-listed world heritage site and the spiritual capital of sub-Saharan Africa; agonisingly, many of the cultural artefacts that gave the city its identity were destroyed or damaged. The shrines of Sufi saints were hacked to pieces and some priceless medieval manuscripts were burnt or stolen from the state archive. After the jihadists fled in the face of advancing French and Malian troops in January last year, the mayor of Timbuktu, Hallé Ousmane Cissé, revealed that the city's precious archive had been torched. What Cissé didn't know, however, was that, while several thousand manuscripts had been destroyed or looted, hundreds of thousands more had been smuggled to safety by an unlikely band of bibliophiles.
Abdel Kader Haïdara is a tall, 50-year-old librarian who wears a moustache and a pillbox kufi prayer cap. Over sweet mint tea in his office at the end of a red-earth road in the south-west of Bamako, Haïdara tells me the story of how he masterminded the smuggling of the manuscripts to safety from under the noses of the jihadists. "Before the hour of their arrival, we didn't think the rebels would come to Timbuktu," he says. "People were a bit scared but they didn't feel there was any great danger. They didn't make any kind of preparations.
"The first week of the occupation, there was a lot of shooting. The fighting was intense and everyone stayed in their houses." When he felt it was safe, he took a walk around the town and was shocked by what he saw. "I saw something that made me very, very afraid," he says. "I saw total insecurity. There were people of all ages looting the buildings, taking tables, chairs, air-conditioning units, anything they could find. What they didn't take they were smashing up. "It was a great catastrophe. I knew that, if people continued like that, one day they would enter our library and smash up everything."
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