An Archive of Despair

An Iraqi man carries books that survived looting in April 2003, following the U.S.-led invasion. Many rare texts and records at the library were stolen or destroyed.
An Iraqi man carries books that survived looting in April 2003, following the U.S.-led invasion. Many rare texts and records at the library were stolen or destroyed. (By Oleg Nikishin -- Getty Images)

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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 7, 2007

BAGHDAD

Saad Eskander sat behind his chocolate-colored desk, another day in a promising, but broken, place.

Sunlight peeked through bullet holes in the shattered bathroom window of his top floor office at the Iraq National Library and Archive, where he is director. Downstairs, power cuts took a toll on books. And earlier on the morning of March 5, he said farewell to an employee who was fleeing the capital. Her brother had been murdered.

To his right, glass bookcases contained the rarest books and manuscripts in the building. To his left, floor-to-ceiling windows provided a view of the world outside. At 11:40 a.m. the windows shook. "Every day we hear this," said Eskander, his soft voice hardening. Calmly, he stood up and gazed out at the fog of black smoke and white paper drifting toward the sky, half a mile away. "This is not the closest one. I've lost count of the bombs."

After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, looters pillaged and burned the library. Now, on the brink of the fourth anniversary of Saddam Hussein's fall, and several weeks into a new security offensive, Eskander and his staff are struggling to preserve the fragments of Iraq's ancient heritage at a place he calls the "historical memory of the country."

"What makes a Kurd or a Sunni or a Shia have something in common is a national library," he said. "It is where the national identity of a country begins."

The library today is humming with young employees. Religion and politics are checked at the door. But the same forces fracturing Iraq are slowing the library's progress: violence, bureaucracy, sectarianism, political rivalries and a lack of basic services.

Eskander walked away from his desk, where he keeps shards from mortar bombs as souvenirs, his eyes inspecting the glass bookcases. "Stay away from the windows," he urged.

He looked again at the smoke mushrooming in the distance. "I think it is coming from al-Mutanabi Street," he said.

Mutanabi Street was the intellectual heart of Baghdad, filled with booksellers and booklovers. Eskander often went there to add to the library's collection. He later learned that the car bomb he had just heard outside killed at least 26 people, including a bookseller he knew.

He ordered his guards to stop any staff from leaving the building out of concern for their safety. Through the windows, he watched the ambulances pass by. Over the next several days, he wrote his thoughts in an online diary ( http://www.bl.uk/iraqdiary.html).


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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