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Diary of Saad Eskander, Director of the Iraq National Library and Archive

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  • Diary of Saad Eskander, Director of the Iraq National Library and Archive

    10-16 November, 2006

    After seven months of postponement, I decided to accept an Italian invitation to visit Rome (9-11 November). The Baghdad International Airport was closed for three days, as the government feared the reaction of the pro-Saddam elements in the wake of a decision made by a special Iraqi court to sentence the dictator to death. I was lucky that the Airport was reopened on Tuesday, 8 November. It took me seven hours to leave Baghdad. I arrived to Rome from Amman on 9 November.

    Sunday, 10 November, 2006

    I participated in a well-prepared seminar organized by the Italian NGO, Un Ponte Per, and the Public Libraries of Rome. The purpose of the Seminar was to look for ways to assist Iraq National Library and Archive (INLA). Apart from me, several Italian librarians and state officials attended the Seminar, including the Italian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs.

    At the beginning of the Seminar, a 10-minute film was shown about the destruction of INLA in mid-April 2003, and the sincere efforts of the Italians to help with the process of its reconstruction. The President of Un Ponte Per and the representatives of several institutions, such as Florence's National Library and Rome's Public Library System, talked about the importance of protecting Iraq's cultural heritage and the ways in which Italy could help. The Italian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs talked about the willingness of her ministry to help with the reconstruction of INLA. I was given 40 minutes to talk about the state of culture and cultural institutions in Iraq in the last 35 years. At the end of the Seminar, I felt that my three-day visit was a success and not waste of time and efforts.

    11 November, 2006

    I left Rome to Amman, and the next day, I arrived to the Baghdad International Airport. It is well known that the highway, which links the Airport to the Baghdad City, is the most dangerous road in the world.

    For a security reason, I asked the taxi driver to drop me at the first military checkpoint, which is by car 3 minutes away from the Airport. One must not trust anybody, especially the Airport taxi drivers. At the checkpoint, my driver was waiting for me with his car. The security police asked us to leave the area immediately, as they were suspicious of abandoned car at the checkpoint. The highway was in a chaotic state, as everyone tried to leave the Airport area, including the policemen and the soldiers, who did not hesitate to point their guns at us, when our car slowed its speed in order to allow their cars to pass!!

    I asked the driver to take me to my office straightaway. Minutes after we left the highway, two terrorists bombed a police checkpoint in the Al-Yarmook district, killing 60 people and injuring 90 others. My driver and I decided to take another route via the Al-Karradah district. Once again, just as we entered the Al-Karradah district, two car-bombs exploded killing and injuring a lot of civilians. I decided not to go to my office, as the other main routes were extremely dangerous. Indeed, on the same day and in the very busy Al-Sa'adun area, two more car-bombs exploded, killing and injuring many people. It was a very nice welcome and back to reality.

    13 November, 2006

    I received bad news, as soon as I arrived to my office. In my absent, INLA was bombed twice and snipers' bullets broke several windows. Fortunately, no body was hurt. My staff withheld these information from me, when I contacted them. They claimed that they did not want me to be worried and to spoil my visit.

    I spent the rest of the week trying to advise a number of my employees what to do, as they got death threats. The Sunnis, who lived in Shi'i dominated districtwere given an ultimatum to abandon their homes and the Shi'is, who lived in a Sunni dominated district, had to leave their homes. So far, two of my employees were murdered, the first worked in the Computer Department, and the second was a guard. Three of our drivers, who worked with us by contract, were murdered and three others were injured.

    Sunday, November 20, 2006

    It was a very tense and noisy day.

    I heard several explosions; some of them were not too far from my office. Exchange of fires and siren of ambulances followed the explosions. My staff got used to these daily events and make some funny jokes.

    We did not have electricity before 9.30 a.m. I have been trying in vain to persuade the Ministry of Electricity to give us uninterrupted electricity supply between 8.30 a.m. and 3.00 p.m.

    Monday, November 20, 2006

    It was another tense day.

    I could hear strong exchange of fires. It was just across the road. I learnt later that the convoy the Deputy Minister of Health, a die-hard Shi'i fundamentalist, was ambushed by Sunni extremists in the Al-Fadhel area (just 250 meters away from our building) The American soldiers intervened in the ensuing battle, which lasted for one hour.

    Two personal guards of the Deputy Minster were killed. Our guards took their position in and around our two buildings. My staff were instructed to stay away from the windows. Earlier, I warned my guards against taking part in any armed clash outside our building. I told them that the best way was not to draw any attention to ourselves.

    Tuesday, November 20, 2006

    It was by far the worst day of the year.

    As soon as my car arrived to the main building, I heard two big explosions. Sunni extremists shelled the medical city and the Ministry of Health by mortars. Both buildings 200 meters are away from our institution. The Minister of Health is a Shi'i extremist. His predecessor was the same. Both men replaced the senior and minor staff of the Ministry with their loyal Shi is. The Ministry of Health is now a Shi i stronghold, while the ministry of Higher Education is the stronghold of the Sunnis. The latter was attacked by Shi i extremists last week, and 100 of its Sunni employees were taken hostage. It is the war between these two extremist camps, which threatens our lives day and night.

    My secretary, Um Haitham, was a little horrified, as the two bombs landed 70 meters away from her car. Like other people, she talked about the incident for two minutes and then resumed her daily tasks.

    I heard another explosion 50 minutes later. The exchange of fire continued for one hour and thirty minutes.

    Nadia, a librarian who works at the Computer Department, did not show up. I was told that her father was injured yesterday. He had a bullet removed from his leg.

    I met the head of the Bibliography Department, Nadhal, and her supervisor, Jamal, to talk about their works.

    By 11.00 a.m. most of my Staff received their monthly salary. I toured some of the departments and talked to many of my staff. I am doing my best to keep their morale high.

    At 11.00 a.m. I received devastating news. I was informed that Ali Salih was assassinated in front of his younger sister. Ali was a bright young man. I sent him to Florence in Italy to be trained as a web-designer. Upon returning, he and Nadia began to construct and run our official web-site. He was the symbol of the modernization and reform process of the National Library and Archive. I employed him in January 2004, like many other young librarians and archivists. I hoped that the new generation could lead the way.

    It was a very sad day. All the people who knew Ali were weeping that day. All were depressed and morale was at its lowest. Amal, the head of the Computer Department where Ali used to work, could not control her sad feelings. When staff evacuated the building and went home, Amal was still in her office weeping silently. I was the last one to leave. But I had a strong feeling at the time that Amal was still alone in her office. So I decided to go to her. After 15 minutes talking, I was able to persuade her to go home. I did not hide from her my true feelings that I was extremely worried about the safety of the rest of my young staff.

    Before leaving, I held a meeting with the heads of all departments. I suggested that for security reasons we should divide the staff into three groups, each group would work only for two days and that the main reading rooms of the Archive and the Library should, as usual, remain open to serve our university students and researchers. All voted in favor of my suggestion. Some of my staff approached me, asking me to leave the country as soon as I could. They were very worried about me that I would be killed in vain.

    I returned to my home very depressed; I hugged my 6 months old son and remembered that Ali left behind him two sons, 6 months old and 3 years old.

    Wednesday 22 November 2006

    Around 8.30a.m. I received a call from my deputy Kamil. He informed that his eldest son Ahmad was badly injured by a car-bomb, which fortunately did not [fully] explode.

  • #2
    Diary for the week 10-15 Dec., 2006

    On Sunday, 10 Dec., the NLA was reopened, as we planned. Some of my staff were unable to turn up, as some roads were blocked by the army and American forces.

    On Tuesday, I met the manager of a company that would renovate remaining parts of our building, including the Periodical Department and the open-shelf-collections room. We agreed to be in close contact to coordinate our works for security reasons. We both were concerned about the safety of our staff. He gave me the numbers of the cars of his company. In addition, we agreed to my suggestion that his employees would had their own ID, which they had to show to my security guards upon arrival and departing.

    On Wednesday, I received more bad news. A terrorist group attacked the house of one of my staff. As a result, he and one of his sons (a university student) were injured, while the other son (a doctor) was murdered.

    On the same day, I met Ali's brothers and talked about his pension, and how the LNA could support his wife and two sons. The brothers gave some of information about the assassination of their brother. They said that Ali was in his car, when another blocked his way, after he had taken his younger sister to her university. The assassins were 4 men, who ordered Ali to get out of his car. After leaving his car, Ali discovered the 4 men were armed with guns and that they intended on killing him. Ali was a brave person, and had well-built body. He attacked the 4 assassins, succeeding in bringing down two of them. Unfortunately, one the assassins shot hem in the leg. After Ali fell on the ground, the assassins fired at his head, chest and stomach. Ali left on the pavement bleeding until he died. The street, the scene of the crime, was very busy that morning. But no one dare to intervene. It is highly likely that the assassins are members of one the militias that penetrated the security forces.

    Our main concern now is the snipers. There are two areas, which the snipers use to kill innocent people at random. The first area is the infamous Haifa Street, the strong hold of the Ba'athists and al-Qadda. The Haifa Street is located on the other side of the Tigris (1 km away from our building). The second area is al-Fadhal, which is only 1/2 km. away from our building. A number of innocent people, including women, were gunned down by the snipers. The Republican Street, which separates our building from al-Fadhal, is no go area.

    On Thursday, We, I and my driver, decided to change our route, as precautionary measure. As soon as we arrived to al-Sinak area ,we learnt that a group of terrorists had just kidnapped 40 people. The terrorists safely walked away, as the police and the guards of several government buildings refused to intervene.

    Diary for the Week 16-21 Dec.

    The security situation is deteriorating in our area and in the al-Haifa Street. From time to time, different armed groups attack civilians, houses and government buildings. Most of the roads leading to the NLA were blocked this week. I was told that a sniper killed a woman in the Republican Street.

    My staff received their monthly salaries on Thursday, owing to the bravery of two of my employees, who work at the Accountancy Department. The two young women transferred the salaries (81 Millions Dinar = US$60,000) from the Bank to our building in secret. It took them five days to complete the operation. The Bank is located in a dangerous area, where the terrorists can attack at any moment.

    Diary for the Week 23-28 Dec.

    It is another bad week for the NLA.

    On Sunday, I learnt that Ahmed Salih, who was on leave, was murdered by a Death Squad in his own house. Ahmed came from a poor family. After his father's death, he raised his younger brothers and sisters. He worked very hard to educate them. I also learnt that Ahmed was engaged to a girl two weeks before his death.

    On Monday, I received more bad news. The older brother of Maiadah, who works in the Periodical Department, was murdered by a group of terrorists.

    I learnt that some sniper fired at a car in the Republican Street, killing the driver and all the passengers.

    It was a Christmas period and the security situation was as bad as ever. We have four Christians in our institution. The first two, 'A' and 'B', work in the Archive, the third, 'C', in the Library, and the fourth, 'D', in my office. I gave them 5 day-break to celebrate Christmas. 'D' took just one day off. She continued to show up, even when the main roads were blocked. I advised her to cover her hair, when passing through dangerous areas (i.e. under the control of the militias and armed gangs). She said that she was wearing Hijab for some time to hide her identity (i.e. being Christian).

    I had a meeting with my Minister on Tuesday. As usual, we talked about the security situation and the safety of the staff. As we were talking, the head of the Minister's office, Mahmud, entered the room. He informed the Minister that the security situation became worse around the Ministry of Culture; the terrorists murdered two people near the cinema (around 200 meters away from the Ministry). As I left the Ministry, I heard that some suspected cars were roaming the area. The Ministry moved to its old building four months ago. The old building is located in al-Haifa Street, which is known to be the strong hold of the Ba'athists and al-Qa'ada. Just after I arrived to my office, I learnt that some armed groups blocked al-Haifa Street, and attacked a number of government buildings. The fighting between the armed groups and the guards of government building lasted for three hours.

    The NLA will be closed between 28 Dec. 2006 and 7 January 2007. I hope my staff will enjoy their Eid al-Atdha holiday.

    Diary of Saad Eskander, Director of the Iraq National Library and Archive

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