One week after Islamic militants fled Timbuktu under French bombing strikes, preservationists are deeply uncertain about how to continue protecting the city’s priceless ancient documents — a conundrum that cuts to the heart of how treasures are safeguarded through political upheaval in places where locals have little trust in government.
When French and African forces rumbled into northern Mali’s ancient capital 10 days ago, Timbuktu’s mayor, who had little direct information, told journalists erroneously that the jihadists had destroyed “all the important documents” and that Malians needed to “kill all the rebels.”
In fact, Timbuktu’s residents and preservationists had told TIME early last year that they had rescued tens of thousands of manuscripts before the militants seized northern Mali. They agreed to talk on the condition that TIME kept their secret until the jihadists had been defeated. The operation was conducted by Timbuktu’s old families, which have looked after the city’s 300,000 or so ancient documents for centuries.