Disaster and conflict often shows that the indispensable heroes are found in the integrity of locals
Of the many under reported stories of the conflict, the story of the destruction of Timbuktu’s manuscripts in January was a truly global event. For centuries Timbuktu had served as not only an epicentre in the trade of silk, salt, gold and slaves but Timbuktu was also a centre of the trade in knowledge, science and art. A medieval cultural oasis at the edge of the Sahara – the mysticism of this reputation still more or less lives on today. But the conflict and the destruction of these great works have changed this. It is hard to say whether Timbuktu will be imagined with the same majesty in years to come.
Social networks and international media mourned the loss of these precious pieces of world heritage. It was a curious moment that befalls during most human tragedies; when material, or non-human, losses are met with a great outburst of sorrow. Valid reasons for sadness, but always standing awkwardly next to the human death and misery of the wider war.
Very rarely do these outbursts eclipse the emotion felt for the deaths, casualties and terror of war. However, Romeo Dallaire – Force Commander of the UN force in Rwanda in 1994 – has always insisted, coldly and hopelessly, that if it had been the endangered mountain gorillas of the country that were being butchered with the aim of extinction then perhaps international help would have been more forthcoming.
In modern conflict, the line between combatants and civilians, allies and enemies, “good” and “evil”, terrorist and liberator can be significantly blurred. Understandably, withholding empathy can be a natural response to this. It can also be a rational one, for it is uncomfortable for anyone to have to back-track on the solidarity they felt for people overseas upon hearing news that they are perhaps not as innocent as first thought.
To want to wait and learn a bit more about the fighters in a conflict before you lend your support is a healthy attitude. Perhaps responding to the destruction of the manuscripts in Timbuktu was an opportunity for a no-strings-attached outburst for many of the world’s concerned people who had been struggling to hold back their humanitarian instinct. When these inanimate and entirely innocent scriptures, maps and works of art were destroyed so much of history went with them – and for what? It was an act of violence that symbolised the senselessness of the conflict as a whole. What explanation were we given? To the Islamist insurgents the scriptures were a violation of their severe interpretation of Shiria law. It illustrated quite how deranged the logic and the conviction of the Islamist militias were and how destructive they intended to be as a means of reshaping the Sahel in to fit their image.
It was indeed a poignant moment in the war.
But were the scriptures destroyed at all? Remarkably, in the months that followed, stories arose telling of a truly heroic micro-story of the conflict. Yes, the shelves and vaults of the libraries of Timbuktu lay empty. If you went and visited them now you would only find ash and empty leather cases as evidence that these ancient documents ever existed here. However if you did visit, you would also hear rumours – just as Yochi Dreazen of The Atlantic did. His article for New Republic explains the incredible story of how a Malian man called Abdel Kader, of the large and well respected Haidara family, foresaw the coming destruction that the artefacts faced at the hands of the militias. When he was 17, Abdel was the family member of his generation that took a vow to protect the library for a long as he lives. This tradition is replicated across Timbuktu in many families. He was one of his generation’s guardians and the madness of the last year pressed him into action. He had to protect the 300,000 manuscripts and fast, but how?
As Drezen’s article explains, Abdel fell back onto the only reliable thing he could – the networks between the families of Timbuktu who had all maintained the same values, ties and traditions that bound their society together. Steadily, and with immense danger, the artefacts were moved into the homes of many families in Timbuktu. They remained here till the conflict intensified and they then made their way to Bamako over a series of months.
No doubt without the assistance of some key, brave, individuals then none of the above could have happened. But the contributions of one group must be particularly emphasised. These are the families which took the scriptures in and then facilitated, organised and funded their arduous trickle to Bamako. Even here they still are not safe. Bearing the scars of a tough migration south, the more humid climatic conditions are starting to eat away at them now they are away from their multi-million dollar institute. A fund-raising campaign has been set up to support them “in exile”.
While conflict situations will forever attract the international development cavaliers and industrious thrill-seekers, Mali – with its networks between elderly heads of respected families – shows a rarely appreciated source of resilience in war-torn societies. Perhaps the lesson in the story of the manuscripts of Timbuktu is not only about what the world needs to do to nurture Mali’s unique cultural heritage. Actually, it is more about what Mali’s traditional societal characteristics can do to provide conflict resolution approaches for the current crisis, which in turn can be supported by the world.
We will return to the importance of Mali’s social heritage in my next post.