When American tanks rolled over the Kuwait-Iraq border in 2003, Eskander had lived in England for nearly 15 years. He'd become a citizen.
If he'd wanted, the quiet librarian could have lived the rest of his life without stepping foot back in Iraq. But in November 2003, he decided to contribute to Iraq's culture by developing the Iraq National Library and Archive. The new post not only placed him at the center of a violent conflict, but the library had been looted and virtually burned to the ground during the first month of the war. Rebuilding it would prove a massive undertaking.
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"I heard before visiting the National Library and Archive that it was damaged, but I did not know the extent of the damage," recounts Eskander. "I was astonished when I found it in a total ruinous state."
Arsonists trying to destroy potentially damning documents about the Baathist party burned the building twice within a three-day period, causing considerable structural damage. Looters absconded with equipment and furniture, and Iraqis whose family members had disappeared during Saddam's reign carried off documents that could offer any clue about what happened to their loved ones. The library lost approximately 95 percent of its rare books, 60 percent of the archival collections, and 25 percent of the book collection.
Eskander was also confronted by an unraveling security situation. If ever there was a place on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks – even by Iraqi standards – the National Library and Archive was it. It is sandwiched between Baathist militant strongholds, Al Qaeda hotbeds, and an American military base. Eskander has watched US helicopters rain down fire on targets just outside the library.
Even to the south, where the library is flanked by Baghdad's commercial district, there are regular car bombings.