Much of the academic world has been breathing easier now that officials and scholars have confirmed that many of Timbuktu's treasured manuscripts survived the wrath of Islamic militants. There are new concerns that ongoing violence, however, may mean it could be years before some manuscripts again see the light of day.
One of those sounding the warning is Moussa el Mouctar, an ethnic Tuareg from Timbuktu, who fled the fabled city about 10 months ago and saw the desperate rush to save the manuscripts from the advancing Islamist militants.
“Many families have manuscripts with them in their house," he said. "They keep them with them. And some people buried them in the desert."
Concerns about lost treasures
Mouctar spoke to VOA by phone from Burkina Faso, where he has stayed in touch with some of the Western researchers he used to work with during more peaceful times.
Moussa el Mouctar, an ethnic Tuareg from Timbuktu, with one of his camels, on the outskirts of Timbuktu, Mali, 2011-2012. (Douglas Post Park/Saharan Archaeological Research Association)
He fears that even with the Islamists gone, many manuscripts may never be recovered.
"In Timbuktu, they say there are many manuscripts that are buried in the city," he said. “If you don't have a family who knows where you have buried the manuscripts, nobody will get it. So now there is luck - some people know, some people don’t know.”
That problem may be even more dire since many families that fled from Timbuktu are reluctant to go back. Mouctar said the Tuaregs he has stayed in contact with in surrounding countries fear ethnic strife and reprisals, especially after seeing video of residents in Timbuktu and Gao turning on anyone they suspected of cooperating with the Islamists.
“When they see you and having an Islamic look, you are attacked," he said. "When they see you are Tuareg, you are attacked."
"I will not at any price go back to Timbuktu."
Moussa el Mouctar, an ethnic Tuareg from Timbuktu, with friends at a festival near Timbuktu, Mali, 2011-2012. Douglas Post (Park/Saharan Archaeological Research Association)
That could expose many of the manuscripts, often hidden in nothing more than a leather skin bag, to other dangers like termites.
Other residents who managed to take their manuscripts with them when they fled may eventually fall prey to the temptations of the black market.
"If you don’t work, if you don’t have money, it is difficult for you, you can sell the manuscripts to survive," said Mouctar. "So it’s very important now to save what we still have in Timbuktu.”
One of Mouctar's former colleagues, Saharan Archaeological Research Association [SARA] co-director Douglas Post Park, said he hopes all the publicity Timbuktu's manuscripts are getting will help lessen the risk of them falling into the hands of private collectors.
"It's really important to get the word out," Park told VOA via Skype. "The more these manuscripts are brought to light, the less likely that collectors will actually buy them... and the more likely those manuscripts will eventually be returned to their rightful home."
Manuscripts and scholarship
Photographer Alexandra Huddleston also is watching the situation very closely. She spent almost a year documenting life in Timbuktu
, focusing on the city's tradition of learning .
“The manuscripts of Timbuktu live hand-in-hand with the tradition of scholarship in Timbuktu. One doesn't exist without the other.”
Huddleston remains concerned that many of the issues that existed before the militant Islamists overran Timbuktu, like ethnic strife and anger over the disparities between the country's north and south, will make it difficult for the famed city to recover.
Still, she holds out hope that Timbuktu and its culture of learning will find ways to flourish.
"There is a belief that the written word, and especially the written word of God, has mythical and mystical sacred properties. So just by having a manuscript in your family, your family is going to be blessed," said Huddleston.