May 28, 2013

WHEN RADICAL Islamists stormed into northern Mali last year, they seized the ancient crossroads city of Timbuktu and began to impose their vicious intolerance on people and history. They enforced a strict form of sharia law, hacking off hands and feet for perceived violations of Islam; they burned or destroyed priceless artifacts, including manuscripts dating from when Timbuktu was at the center of Islamic study of science, culture and law.

There is no replacing the books and papers that went up in smoke before the radicals were pushed out of Timbuktuthis year by French military forces. But there is something to celebrate in a daring mission by several Malian preservationists, aided by a janitor and guard, to rescue about 278,000 pages of manuscripts by smuggling them away before they could be burned. The texts, many written by hand in Arabic and African languages, date to the 15th and 16th centuries, and they represent “the heritage of all humanity,” Abdel Kader Haidara, one of those who rescued the documents, told The Post’s Sudarsan Raghavan.

With about $1 million in backing from the Ford Foundation, an Islamic center in Dubai and the Dutch and German governments, the saviors of this irreplaceable repository managed to spirit the texts out of Timbuktu in 2,453 metal trunks without being caught by the Islamic radicals. The papers were at first carried by donkey caravans and then by trucks to the capital, Bamako, where they are safe from pillage.

The swift French military intervention drove the Islamists out of cities in northern Mali, and it was greeted warmly by those who suffered under months of onerous rule. The secret mission to save the manuscripts, which began last summer and was still underway when French troops arrived, shows that individuals, as well as nations, can make a difference in combating such narrow-minded extremists.

Mali is not out of the woods. Nearly a half-million people remain displaced in the north by the fighting and insurgency; the Islamists continue to carry out attacks. An international conference this month pledged billions of dollars in rebuilding aid based on a promise of elections, to be held July 28. But the situation is fragile. France has begun drawing down its troop presence as the United Nations prepares to deploy a peacekeeping force aimed at establishing stability and rebuilding the Malian armed forces. Whether all will go according to plan is anybody’s guess.

But it is not too soon to hail the courageous and inspired actions of a few people who saved the manuscripts of Timbuktu, an irreplaceable time capsule from hundreds of years ago. The rescue affirms a notion once voiced by Mikhail Bulgakov: that, in the face of tyranny, manuscripts don’t burn. This time, thankfully, they really didn’t.