When Malian and French soldiers rolled into town in armored vehicles early Monday, they found what the preservationists had most dreaded: Timbuktu’s new Ahmed Baba Institute, an expensive adobe construction opened in 2010 — the city’s splashiest international project in years — had been torched by militants of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb last Thursday as they prepared to flee the French advance. From Bamako, Timbuktu’s Mayor Hallé Ousmane Cissé, who had fled his city nearly four weeks ago, told journalists that the militants had burned the center’s collection of about 40,000 ancient manuscripts, some of the 300,000 or so historic documents stashed in libraries in Timbuktu and the villages around it, mostly as family heirlooms. “The manuscripts were a part not only of Mali’s heritage but the world’s heritage,” Cissé told the Guardian. “By destroying them, they threaten the world. We have to kill all of the rebels in the north.” Reporting from inside the Timbuktu building itself, Sky News correspondent Alex Crawford told viewers that the jihadists had destroyed the center’s contents. Meanwhile, Cissé was quoted on the network’s website as saying, “They torched all the important ancient manuscripts.”
That is not so, according to those who’ve worked for months to keep the documents safe.
In interviews with TIME on Monday, preservationists said that in a large-scale rescue operation early last year, shortly before the militants seized control of Timbuktu, thousands of manuscripts were hauled out of the Ahmed Baba Institute to a safe house elsewhere. Realizing that the documents might be prime targets for pillaging or vindictive attacks from Islamic extremists, staff left behind just a small portion of them, perhaps out of haste, but also to conceal the fact that the center had been deliberately emptied. “The documents which had been there are safe, they were not burned,” said Mahmoud Zouber, Mali’s presidential aide on Islamic affairs, a title he retains despite the overthrow of the former President, his boss, in a military coup a year ago; preserving Timbuktu’s manuscripts was a key project of his office. By phone from Bamako on Monday night, Zouber told TIME, “They were put in a very safe place. I can guarantee you. The manuscripts are in total security.”
In a second interview from Bamako, a preservationist who did not want to be named confirmed that the center’s collection had been hidden out of reach from the militants. Neither of those interviewed wanted the location of the manuscripts named in print, for fear that remnants of the al-Qaeda occupiers might return to destroy them.