Hidden beneath the rubble of the Damascus suburb of Darayya, an area besieged by conflict, lies a secret that very few Syrians know about.
Darayya is a suburb of the capital city of Damascus, lying 8 kilometres to the south of the centre.
Razed to the ground over the course of the civil war, Darayya has suffered heavy losses at the hands of Assad’s regime, including a devastating massacre in 2012 which saw over 200 men, women and children executed in cold blood.
The secret is a library. An underground cavernous basement filled with 14,000 books on every topic imaginable; from Shakespeare to medicine, that offers sanctuary for many of the residents of Darayya.
Ahmad, a former civil engineering student, has been collecting books since the start of the war along with a small group of dedicated citizens.
“We saw that it was vital to create a library so that we could continue our education” says Anas, who was forced to stop his studies when the war started.
Despite the dangers of being bombed or killed by snipers, Anas and his friends risk their lives to retrieve books from buildings that have been destroyed by bombs or shelling.
“We have to go through bombed-out buildings to hide ourselves from snipers. We have to be extremely careful because snipers sometimes follow us in their sights, anticipating the next step we’ll take.”
The location of the library is kept a secret by all who use it so as to protect it from being destroyed by government forces.
Because of the danger of trying to reach the library, children are discouraged from going there. However, Amjad, a 14 year old boy, visits the library every day as it is next door to his house. He has become such a regular there that he has been awarded the title of “deputy librarian”, much to his delight.
“When I first walked into the library, it was so exciting” Amjad told the BBC. “The library is very important for my education.”
Indeed, education seems to be one of the driving forces behind the initiative. Would-be teachers, doctors and dentists all come to the library looking for technical books that will help them further their knowledge and learning.
As the war rages on above ground, many the people of Darayya have moved underground, where few comforts can be found. Since the start of the siege four years ago more than 2,000 people have been killed and 8,000 have fled the town. Schools, hospitals and shops have shut down and the town has only received two aid convoys since the conflict began, leaving many of its residents starving and sick.
The library is one of the few respites from the constant worries and dangers of war. Anas says: “just as the body needs food, the soul needs books”.
Having the library has helped to keep the community together and give them something to focus on besides their significant troubles.
But as the town has now been surrounded by the government’s forces and allies, the future of the library remains unclear.
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