In 2012, ​tens of ​thousands of ​artefacts from the golden age of Timbuktu were at risk in Mali’s civil war. This exclusive extract describes the race to save them​ from the flames – and how lethal attacks could still threaten the town’s treasures

One hazy morning in 2012 in Bamako, the capital of the west African state of Mali, an ageing Toyota Land Cruiser picked its way to the end of a concrete driveway and pulled out into the busy morning traffic. In its front passenger seat sat a large man in billowing robes and a pillbox prayer cap. He was 47 years old, stood over 6ft tall, and weighed around 14st, and, although a small, French-style moustache balanced jauntily on his upper lip, there was something commanding about his appearance. In his brown eyes lurked a sharp, almost impish intelligence. He was Abdel Kader Haidara, librarian of Timbuktu, and his name would soon become famous around the world.

Haidara was not an indecisive man, but that morning, as his driver piloted the heavy vehicle through the clouds of buzzing Chinese-made motorbikes and beat-up green minibuses that plied the city’s streets, he was caught in an agony of indecision. The car stereo, tuned to Radio France Internationale, spewed alarming updates on the situation in the north, while the cheap mobile phones that were never far from his grasp jangled continually with reports from his contacts in Timbuktu, 600 miles away. The rebels were advancing across the desert, driving government troops and refugees before them. Haidara had known when he left his apartment that driving into this chaos would be dangerous, but now it was beginning to look like a suicide mission.

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