Ten years ago this week, British forces entered Iraq’s second city, Basra, as part of the U.S.-led invasion of the country.
No one remembers that decisive event more so than librarian Alia Baqer.
Known locally as a cultural hero, Baqer moved to rescue the contents of Basra’s central library before everything was lost.
“At the beginning of the war on Iraq, the governor [of Basra] took the library over as a headquarters for himself and his guards, mounting machine guns on top of the building. So, we asked the governor if we could take the important books to our homes, but he rejected the idea. Eventually we took the responsibility ourselves to transfer the books, without the governor’s approval,” she said, looking back ten years.
As U.S.-led forces took over the country, security broke down and looting spread.
Baqer and her staff moved fast to carry the most precious books to safety, transporting them in curtains to the Hammdan restaurant next door.
“About ten days after the troops entered [Basra], the library was completely burnt down. We carried about 30,000 books to the restaurant and to our homes. Then, we transferred them from the restaurant to our homes in my own car and in cars belonging to the employees. Most of these books and manuscripts were rare and important ones. Regrettably, we lost a lot of books in the fire,” she said.
Despite the heroic efforts of library staff, more than 50,000 books were burnt when the building was set on fire.
But Baqer explained how she managed to keep the rescued books stored in her home.
“In one room of the house, two rooms, I put the heaps of books. I also kept some of the books in an old refrigerator that I had,” she said.
Baqer has already been the subject of two books herself: ‘Librarian of Basra’ by American author Jeanette Winter, and ‘Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq’ by American cartoonist and children’s book writer, Mark Alan Stamaty.
The library has also seen a turnaround in its fortunes and is once again a thriving cultural hub.
“The library opened on October 10, 2004, after it had been renovated. The building was completely renovated and supplied with the equipment that the library needed. We brought the books back from our homes, and life has returned to the library.
A lot of gifts and grants from many countries were presented to the library, including the American library association and the British consulate. We received books for children and we established a library for children. Furniture and books for children were donated by European associations,” said Baqer.
Although Baqer says the library is still short of books and equipment, Basra’s youngsters and future generations will all be able to enjoy a key local facility, thanks to the dedication of one librarian and her staff.