Syria: How besieged city's underground library gave hope amid war

Story highlights

  • Amid chaos of war, an underground library thrived
  • Daraya residents braved the bombing threat to read

Damascus, Syria (CNN)Driving into Damascus in the past couple of years, one of the first things you would see was plumes of smoke rising up from the suburb of Daraya.

They came from Syrian army shelling on the rebel-held district, which for years was surrounded and pounded from all sides.
    Those trapped inside were subjected to severe shortages of food, water and medical supplies on top of the everyday violence.
    "There was a lot of shelling and a lot of destruction. And so much fear of course. We had a lot of fear," said Amjad, a 14-year-old boy who endured the siege for almost four years.
    Teenager Amjad was chief librarian at Darayya's underground library
    But inside this besieged city an extraordinary project took shape.
    In the midst of the fighting, several people -- some rebel fighters, some civilians -- banded together to start an underground library.
    They collected books, sometimes from the ruins of bombed-out buildings, to create a space of calm and quiet in the midst of the mayhem.
    CNN's Fred Pleitgen found the remains of the library in Darayya
    "The existence of these books, these masses of books in one place, is in and of itself a great achievement," Omar Abo Anas, a front line rebel fighter, said in an opposition-produced video when the library was in service.
    Abo Anas, who was later killed in battle, said the library atmosphere encouraged others to work and read.

    Constant danger

    Getting to the library was dangerous. Leaving your house could spell instant death as shells could fall on Daraya at any time.
    Amjad quickly became a regular at the underground library, eventually becoming its chief librarian. He cataloged books, keeping track of the ones that were loaned out and then returned.
    "I would work four hours in the library. I would go at one and come back at five. I was responsible for everything," Amjad told me.
    Daraya was under siege for more than four years. In the end, only a few thousand people remained in this once bustling suburb of the Syrian capital.
    At the end of August, the regime and the rebels inside Daraya made an agreement.
    Syrian troops cleared the library of its books
    The fighters were allowed safe passage to opposition-controlled areas in the northwest of Syria, the civilians were taken to centers for displaced people, and Syrian government forces moved into Daraya.
    We found the library just as Syrian troops were clearing out the books, loading them on to pickup trucks.
    It was now half empty, and many of the books lay strewn across the floor. The signs depicting the various sections of the library -- science, religion, and so on -- were still in place, but there was no electricity, adding to the gloomy atmosphere inside.
    We found Amjad with his family in a center for displaced people south of Damascus. His eyes lit up when we asked him about the library and showed him photos of it, demonstrating just how special it was to many people trapped in Daraya -- especially the children.
    "I liked the place and I learned things," Amjad told me. "I liked to read. I could read things I could understand. I would go with my friends."
    Amjad is not in danger from shelling and machine gun fire anymore. He is not hungry like he and so many other people were when the siege of Daraya was still underway.

    Life changing

    Amjad, the Darayya librarian, taught his mother (left) to read
    But despite all the hardship Amjad went through, his time in the underground library has changed his life, he said. It allowed him to grow as a person. He even taught his mother how to read.
    "I cried last time I was here. I used to love it so much," he said as we bid him and his family farewell.
    The siege of Daraya killed thousands, and scarred the survivors -- some physically, all of them psychologically.
    Amid the daily destruction, it was the underground library that kept many of the locals sane. And although it's been shut down, and its books removed, the library will continue to live on in their hearts and their minds.