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Preserving the priceless manuscripts of Timbuktu

A world of knowledge was nearly lost forever amid the al-Qaida occupation in Timbuktu five years ago. Many were burnt, but thousands of ancient manuscripts were smuggled away and saved, and now are being digitized. And yet time and money to finish the project is running out as other threats loom. Special correspondent Monica Villamizar reports from Mali.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Now,to the African nation of Mali and the ongoing efforts to preserve priceless records of the past from the library of the fabled city of Timbuktu.

    The city was overrun in 2012 by al-Qaida, who destroyed manuscripts dating back centuries. The militants are now gone, but the turmoil remains. And time may be running out to save these irreplaceable documents.

    From Timbuktu, special correspondent Monica Villamizar reports.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    These people are saving a world of knowledge, a world nearly lost forever.

    They are digitizing tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts rescued from near destruction during the al-Qaida occupation of Timbuktu five years ago. Al-Qaida destroyed monuments and libraries that were seven centuries old.

    The militants implemented Sharia law, and banned anything considered sinful, like the manuscripts, which were seen as pagan writings. Many were burnt.

    Despite the deadly conflict, Abdel Kader Haidara managed to save around 200,000 books.

  • Abdel Kader Haidara (through translator):

    We smuggled the manuscripts out very slowly, little by little, over a period of six months. We took them out of Timbuktu in 4×4 SUVs. We brought them to Bamako.

    We also stockpiled them in small boats about five miles outside of Timbuktu and took them 375 miles away.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Haidara, whose family also owns an important collection of manuscripts, has digitized 20 percent of nearly 200,000 documents.

    The originals are kept in this room, classified by family and year. They deal with myriad subjects, astronomy and physics, politics and magic.

    These gentlemen you see are reading page by page of each book, and they are making notes, like a summary of what it says.

    But time is running out. The books survived for centuries thanks to the dry desert of Timbuktu, but now live in the heavy, tropical climate of Bamako, Mali's capital.

    Timbuktu and Northern Mali, still plagued by conflict, remains a no-go area.

  • Abdel Kader Haidara (through translator):

    There is an urgency because we have used 20 percent of the funds already. It's a lot, but keep in mind we have hundreds of thousands of manuscripts.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    These books are relics. Some date back to the 13th century, and have survived for more than 700 years.

    This one was a little bit damaged by water.

    The fabled city of Timbuktu is an oasis of culture in the middle of the desert. For centuries, it served as the main transit point of the trans-Saharan caravans. Here, it can feel like time has stopped.

    The noble houses of Timbuktu have been holding book readings for decades, a sort of ancient version of book clubs. The men place books on their forehead, symbolizing the transfer of knowledge.

    And an imam or other spiritual authority explains the meaning of the mostly-religious texts.

    Ben Essayouti, Timbuktu's minister of culture, says the books should return to their city of origin.

  • Ben Essayouti (through translator):

    It was the base to spread Arab culture and Islam to black Africa. People came from South Africa to study here, and others came from Maghreb to bring manuscripts and books, especially to print them, because Africa didn't have printers, so everything was copied by hand here.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    But Timbuktu is not safe to return. The only way to get there is to fly with the United Nations. Roads are too dangerous.

    This city at night looks like any normal, city, but if you look right behind me, there is a heavy security presence. These soldiers are Blue Helmets, the U.N. peacekeeping forces, and they have been attacked many times before.

    The soldiers are not the only targets. Riccardo Maia, the head of the U.N. mission in Timbuktu, had his office attacked by gunmen eight months ago.

    A bullet went through here?

  • Riccardo Maia:

    Yes, it was supposed to go through my head. It only went through here.

    Well, I was lucky enough to survive that attack. Actually, I had stepped out of my office seven minutes before the attack occurred, which I never did at that time, so somehow I was protected, the Malians say by God.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    The U.N. has a rare mandate to protect the city's cultural heritage, including the manuscripts.

  • Riccardo Maia:

    They are important because they are a testimony of what has been going on here that we see today as a remote outpost in the Sahara, nine centuries ago, when this was a major cultural center, where there was a large university with, teachers and scholars coming from the Arab Peninsula.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Some of the families who owned ancient manuscripts refused to smuggle them out of the city during the al-Qaida occupation of Timbuktu. We managed to track one of them and we are going to ask why they wanted to hold on to the books.

    Haoua Toure owns a private library. She fled when al-Qaida took over Timbuktu, but hid her precious books before she left.

  • Haoua Toure (through translator):

    We couldn't take the manuscripts with us. The occupation took us by surprise, but people had to decide what to do. So people started to find ways of hiding their manuscripts before leaving. When everyone returned, it was time to find them.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Most of her manuscripts are inside coffers still hidden in an undisclosed location because she is not convinced that the city is safe yet.

    But she has unearthed one on the many chests to start organizing her private collection.

  • Haoua Toure (through translator):

    We know the exact coordinates of every one of our manuscripts, but we can't unearth many of them because it's still dangerous here, so we can't start organizing them yet. They will remain in hiding. It's really a problem, and it's much better that it remains a secret, for the security of all of us.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Moustapha Cisee, an archivist and family friend, has started to classify the manuscripts. The writings contain personal records of Toure's family, their finances, illness, even love affairs, so his job is to keep the secret's safe while making the other portions available to the public.

    Timbuktu, a city on the edge of the Sahara, is harder to access today than it was centuries ago. And much of its knowledge remains a secret, buried under the sand.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Monica Villamizar in Timbuktu, Mali.

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