afrol News, 29 January - Reports from the historic town of Timbuktu after the French-Malian re-capture are contradicting. Some claim most of the town's unique historic manuscripts may be lost for ever, while others claim most is in safe hands.
The French Ministry of Defence yesterday reported that French and Malian forces had taken control over the most famous icon of Mali, the historic town of Timbuktu. The few remaining citizens accordingly were celebrating in the streets after the extreme Islamists had been chased out of town after a full year of terror.
Already shortly after the Islamist invasion, it became clear that historic monuments in Timbuktu were systematically torn down. Especially mausoleums and graveyards of Muslim scholars and "saints" from the medieval age and Timbuktu's heydays were targeted. These monuments were on UNESCO's list of world heritage, and their destruction stirred anger in Mali and beyond.
The medieval mosques of Timbuktu, the landmark and greatest tourist attractions of the town, however did not seem to have been vandalised by the Islamists. Also the mosques are central on the World heritage list.
But meanwhile, there was always an uncertainty about the greatest treasure of Timbuktu. The town and its hinterlands houses an estimated 700,000 (or between 200,000 and a million) historic documents - including everything from loose sheets to entire books - from the 13th to the 19th century. The documents are anything from religious analyses, scientific reports and poetry to simple receipts and short notes. They are seen as the most important source to the history of Western Africa.
The Timbuktu manuscripts are share among a number of private libraries, most being managed by leading family clans for generations. Since the 1970s, however, a growing number of manuscripts have been bought by government and centralised at the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu. The project was to catalogue, restore and digitalise the sheets.
A larger development aid project, mostly sponsored by South Africa, prepared the collections of the Ahmed Baba Institute to move to a large, new and modern compound centrally placed in the old town of Timbuktu in 2009.
There, real progress was made. Until last year.
As the Islamist troop conquered Timbuktu, most of the institute's employees escaped to the capital, Bamako, or abroad. First news from the institute after the Islamist occupation indicated a looting had been ordered. The intruders mainly took vehicles and technical equipment, it was reported. However the Tombouctou Project at the University of Cape Town claimed several boxes of manuscripts had been carried out and possibly destructed.
The leader of the Tombouctou Project, Shamil Jeppie, keeping in contact with colleagues that had escaped to Bamako, early warned
MNLA guerrilla in Mali, as they portray themselves
about the danger of vandalism. Mr Jeppie in mid-2012 had been informed that the documents at the Ahmed Baba Institute mostly had been left untouched but had become exposed to weather, pests and robbery. He expressed fear the manuscripts may be confused as "un-Islamic" items by the fundamentalists and destroyed.
Several private library owners in Timbuktu further reported to Malian media that they had brought their manuscripts to safety at secret stores before and during the terrorist attack. They quoted fears of destruction orders and looting.
Even shortly after the liberation by French troops, there emerged little concrete information about the state of the Timbuktu manuscripts. The French Defence Ministry did not issue any information about the Ahmed Baba Institute. Soldiers were concentrating on the airport, communication in and out of Timbuktu and the possible disarmament of munitions and explosives, Paris reported.
But first reports from Malian media were dramatic. It was said the Ahmed Baba Institute was lit afire by the Islamists before fleeing the town. The mayor of Timbuktu, Hallé Ousmane, who remains at his Bamako refuge, confirmed these reports to 'Radio France Internationale' (RFI).
The first journalists arriving Timbuktu with French troops gave a somewhat less dramatic picture, but confirmed documents had been relocated from the institute or burnt a few days ago. Only empty binders were left. Locals meanwhile reported the Ahmed Baba Institute had been used as a dorm by the Islamist warriors.
The Director of the institute, Gallah Dicko, today even made more positive statements, saying that only a limited part of the manuscripts had been transported to the new building. Many were still in the old home of the institute and there were no reports of vandalism at that location. According to Mr Dicko, the hard discs with digital copies of the manuscripts had been taken to Bamako, meaning that there would be copies of most of the lost originals.
According to the 'BBC', which had been interviewing employees of the Ahmed Baba Institute in Bamako, most of the original manuscript should even be safe. An estimated 28,000 old manuscripts had been smuggled to Bamako by workers prior to attack, and "only" some 2,000 had been left in the Timbuktu central.
But this is still to be confirmed by other sources. Malian media still report that most of this cultural treasure has been burned. No employees as yet have returned to Timbuktu, and neither the institute's international partners nor UNESCO have sent missions to town.
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