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How a group of Syrian residents assembled a secret library

In the midst of Syria's civil war, a group of residents in the war-ravaged town of Daraya risked their lives to assemble a secret library in the basement of a destroyed building. Those actions are now cataloged in a new book called, "Syria's Secret Library: Reading and Redemption in a Town Under Siege." Hari Sreenivasan recently spoke with author and BBC correspondent Mike Thomson to learn more.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In August of 2016, after four years of bombings, death and destruction in Daraya, Syria, rebel forces and the Syrian government agreed to a cease fire.

    Thousands of fighters and civilians were evacuated and relocated, leaving behind shattered homes and buildings in ruins. But underneath that rubble, in an abandoned basement, lay a hidden treasure: a secret library filled with thousands of books salvaged during the ravages of war by residents who risked their lives to save them.

    I recently spoke with B.B.C reporter Mike Thomson, author of the book "Syria's Secret Library: Reading and Redemption in a Town Under Siege"–which is coming out this Tuesday.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The idea of people risking their lives to somehow create a secret library. Tell me first of all what did this library look like? How did it survive while there were bombs dropping around it?

  • Mike Thomson:

    Well it was in a basement hurry so buried beneath the surface of the ground. In fact it was just below a building that had been half destroyed in an area almost totally destroyed that was picked deliberately because it would look from above as if there was virtually nothing left to bomb.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And so where did the books come from?

  • Mike Thomson:

    Well the books came from abandoned houses, bombed houses and and some bombed office buildings. And this group of young people who are behind it all, most of them former university students, had thought to themselves, look, instead of just sitting here waiting to die and extremely hungry as they were under siege, let's go and rescue books that we have heard about that are lying abandoned in buildings and getting ruined by the weather. And it was after they did that. That they realized instead of leaving them in boxes why did we read them. Why don't we create a library. And that's just what they went and did.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So how would people come to this library? I mean when the attacks were going on around them I mean it would be risky just to go read a book.

  • Mike Thomson:

    Well it was risky all around. It was risky getting the books because often they had to get into buildings that had demolished first floors, so they had to climb through the rubble often in the line of snipers who were in the high buildings along the front line between the rebel defenders and the government forces. And of course it was also as you say it was risky for people to get to the library because some days the bombing went on almost nonstop. And of course they couldn't announce where it was because obviously it's a secret library. So just word of mouth told people where it was they were very worried that if the government forces knew where it was they'd bomb it.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    It seemed like this was a little bit more, at least in the book, more than just about the books. I mean there was almost a sense of community coming around in finding the books keeping people interested and engaged, protecting the secrecy of the library.

  • Mike Thomson:

    Indeed you're quite right. It was so much more than just reading. There were practical purposes too. There was the fact that they managed to get lots of medical books that helped people who were doing medical studies that were interrupted by the war. People who who wants to teach the children who'd never done any teaching before, who found books like that. There was escapism from the sheer hell just a few feet above their heads in things like Shakespeare and Arabic poetry and even well all sorts of things. But also there was a feeling of community as you rightly said it was a place that they also held lectures on things like the bombing of Hiroshima and the London Blitz. They they learnt how people in other countries had survived being almost annihilated and thrived. And they also had discussions, book clubs about poetry and, and literature generally. And even soldiers took the books in small bags to the front line and held book clubs in their foxholes.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How did you keep in touch with these people? How did you get these stories out of Syria so to speak?

  • Mike Thomson:

    Well it took quite a bit of doing because the internet there was extremely poor and there were various contraptions that were rigged up and I asked them to explain to me once how they managed to do this. And they said it was all to do with pieces of wire and and that the tops of pans which were they'd all tied together and somehow managed to create a signal. Don't ask me how they did it because I really don't know. But they still managed to get to get their voices out through social media through WhatsApp, through Skype and other forms. And apparently the government forces could have done a little more to cut communications but that would also have cut communications for their soldiers who were fighting these people so they didn't.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What about the people that were doing this? You've kept in touch with them. Where are they now? How are they doing?

  • Mike Thomson:

    Indeed. Well just a short while after the book was commissioned the the the rebel defenders surrendered and that meant of course that they were all bussed out from where they were in Darayya to Italy. The last remaining rebel-held province which is under fire now they're all taken away from there. So of course I have to try and find everybody which was quite a difficult task. Eventually when I did find them I thought, "will the secret library still be so special to them." And now they've had to leave it and their town behind. And I was reassured immediately on contacting the first person Abdel Basset who told me, "Oh yes absolutely it's every bit as precious." In fact it kept us going then it kept us giving. It kept giving us hope then and now it still gives us hope. Ane day we're going to return and we're going to start that again.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Alright. Mike Thomson of the BBC. Thanks so much.

  • Mike Thomson:

    Thank you.

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