Timbuktu librarians protect manuscripts from rebels

Wed Apr 11, 2012 5:55am GMT

By Pascal Fletcher

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Malian scholars, librarians and ordinary citizens in the rebel-occupied city of Timbuktu are hiding away priceless ancient manuscripts to prevent them from being damaged or looted, a South African academic in contact with them said.

Cape Town University's Professor Shamil Jeppie said he was in daily contact with curators and private owners safeguarding tens of thousands of historic texts in Timbuktu, the fabled desert trading town and seat of Islamic learning overrun by Tuareg-led rebels on April 1.

Jeppie, involved in an internationally-funded initiative to preserve Timbuktu's "treasure of learning", told Reuters there had been no major losses so far to the main state and private manuscript collections, but he feared for the future.

"We hope it stays like this," he said, adding that Timbuktu was occupied by two main rival rebel groups: the "nationalists' of the MNLA movement who have declared an independent Tuareg homeland in northern Mali and are holding the city's airport, and the Islamists of the Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) group who had occupied the main military barracks.

"I have no faith in the rebels. They may have an educated leadership, but they are sending in footsoldiers who are illiterate and if they want something they will take it ... They won't have any respect for paper culture," Jeppie said.

He said that since the April 1 rebel occupation, armed fighters had stolen vehicles from the Ahmed Baba Institute, the Malian state library named after a Timbuktu-born contemporary of William Shakespeare that houses more than 20,000 ancient scholarly manuscripts.

But the gun-toting fighters did not enter the rooms and underground vaults where the priceless texts were stored at the library's new South African-funded building.

"The new building was defended by the public ... they stood in front of the gates," Jeppie said, repeating accounts given to him.   Continued...

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