Teachers and volunteers in a rural Daraa town are braving bullets and airstrikes to rescue books from beneath the wreckage and stock a new public library.
ISTANBUL — The sight of people sifting through rubble, searching for survivors of an attack or rummaging for belongings, is not uncommon in rebel-held parts of Daraa province. But in the southern Syrian town of Inkhil, about 34 miles (55km) north of Daraa city, volunteers are scavenging for something else entirely.
Since the start of this year, teachers and volunteers have collected roughly 7,000 books from houses and libraries destroyed by Syrian government attacks in the rural town. Rather than letting them wither away in moldy cellars or stuffy storage rooms, the rescued volumes are being used to stock the newly founded Ajyal Public Library.
"The main goals of the library are to fight the regime with education … and serve college students in opposition-controlled areas," Loai Abu Abdou, a 34-year-old math teacher and one of the founders of Ajyal, or Generations in Arabic, told Syria Deeply.
Rebel-held parts of Daraa, the site of protests in 2011 against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, have been the target of an intense government campaign over the past two months. About 600 barrel bombs, 200 airstrikes and 91 napalm bombs have been dropped on the province in the first two weeks of June alone, according to estimates by Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets.
Inkhil, classified by archeologists as one of the most important ancient towns in the Houran plateau and one of it oldest inhabited cities, has been hit hard by the government's aerial campaign. But residents cling to life as they dodge shells and bullets to preserve what remains of the town's cultural legacy.
Qassem al-Jabawi, a 40-year-old judge, was among the dozens of volunteers who helped collect books in Inkhil. He told Syria Deeply that the books were collected from dangerous areas "where the bombing rarely stops," and that the volunteers' goal was to preserve the books and protect them from damage.
The library helps students navigate the maddening maze of book-hunting in war-torn Syria, particularly in Daraa's countryside, where libraries are scarce.
According to Jabawi, most of the books currently in the library were rescued from the Inkhil Cultural Center, which he said had been devastated by years of war.
Syrian troops used the center in 2012 as a base for operations against Inkhil's rebel groups. Videos posted on social media networks in 2012 showed sniper positions set up on its roof and along its walls. Another video published in 2013 by a rebel-run media outfit showed the damaged center after it was captured by opposition groups, who went on to use it as a military base.
By last March, just three months after collection efforts began, volunteers from the Dawn of Syrian Women Association and the Ajyal Educational Foundation managed to gather 7,000 books from the center and other damaged areas. The Ajyal Library was opened that same month, carrying books on a wide variety of subjects. And volunteers continue to dig through the rubble to salvage yet more texts.
The library helps students navigate the maddening maze of book-hunting in war-torn Syria, particularly in Daraa's countryside, where libraries are scarce. The conflict makes it difficult for students to travel between different parts of the province to get the resources they need. This pressing need for reading material among students in Daraa's countryside was the main impetus behind the initiative.
"The project began when a college student was looking for sources to write a paper for a class, but could not find what he needed," Hayat al-Abd, director of the Dawn of Syrian Women Association and another of the library's co-founders, told Syria Deeply.
"People can now borrow books for free. An identification card is deposited until the book is returned to the library. The center relies solely on volunteers, and is open from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.," she explained.
While students may be the primary target of this initiative, teachers in rural Daraa have also benefited from the project.
"In light of the scarcity of libraries in the liberated areas in rural Daraa, and because it is very hard to download books online due to poor internet connections, this library is a gem for me," said Abdul Rahman al-Naser, a 31-year-old Arabic teacher.
Naser added that the library had attracted many people from other villages in the area, especially students from the nearby city of Nawa, roughly 12 miles (20km) south of Inkhil. The library stocks books on Arabic grammar and syntax as well as classical Arabic literature, but Naser came for books on Roman, Greek and Islamic civilizations. "I am interested in the history and traditions of old civilizations," he said.
The library also organizes workshops and seminars for students in rural Daraa province.
In June, the library's Facebook page announced a number of summer classes and seminars for high-school students in the area, covering topics such as chemistry, math, English, communications and Arabic, among others. The seminars and courses were scheduled to start on June 18 and will run for most of the summer.
The founders now hope to further develop the library by securing missing volumes and equipping the center with additional tables and storage, to make it easier and faster for visitors to find the books they need.