Ali ِAl-Baroodi remembers smelling the burning books from 500 meters away. 

“It was like hell,” ِhe told Global Citizen over the phone — reflecting on the day in December of 2016 when the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) burned stacks of books in what remained of the library at Iraq’s University of Mosul. 

The library, which was first ransacked by the extremist group in 2014, and further damaged by nine missiles from Iraqi army coalition jets, previously held an estimated 1 million books, historic maps, and old manuscripts

According to Al-Baroodi, 36,000 books survived that second fire, which ISIS had lit in order to create a literal smokescreen to protect themselves from the advancing Iraqi army. 

“When you study, when you teach, when you go over and over to the library, the library becomes part of your life, part of your personality,” said Al-Baroodi, a professor at the university and a photographer. 

Now, a group of volunteers, including Al-Baroodi, are working to restore the library to its former glory. Led by an anonymous blogger who goes by the name of Mosul Eye, these volunteers have collected thousands of book donations from around the world in the months since Mosul’s liberation from ISIS this past July, and saved what books they could from the rubble. 

Read More: This College Grad Is Leading the Way to Restore Destroyed Library in Mosul

Last week, ABC Australia reports, Mosul held a book festival — its second since May — that drew in an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 people. Attendees were asked to bring at least one book donation in order to attend the event, which was called, fittingly, “From the Ashes the Book was Born.”

In Mosul, life is slowly returning to normal after more than three years of ISIS occupation, and the open-air book festival might be the strongest sign yet of the city’s rebirth.

“Musicians are now playing their music back again in public in broad daylight, painters are painting, freedom is back again,” Al-Baroodi said, “but we need to be cautious.” 

The initial campaign to restore the University library was sparked by anonymous blogger Mosul Eye back in January of this year, when the university was liberated — several months before the liberation of Mosul, which was proclaimed on July 10

Read More: A Church in Iraq Was Destroyed by ISIS. Then Muslims Came to Help Rebuild

In July, the blogger sent out a call to universities and individuals around the world to donate enough books — 200,000 — to restock the library. 

“Rebuilding the libraries and filling them back with books is one of the most significant forms of rebuilding Mosul civilly [sic], we launch this international campaign to collect books and all types of printed products,” he wrote

After recovering thousands of books from the library that were not destroyed, they were transported to a temporary location, where they’re currently housed, according to Al-Baroodi. 

The library’s structure remains intact, but badly damaged. Al-Baroodi says that the library itself will also need to be rebuilt. 

“We need it back the way it was,” Al-Baroodi said. “Having thousands of donations will do nothing if we keep them in their boxes.” 


Defeat Poverty

Mosul’s University Library Was Destroyed by ISIS. Now, Volunteers Are Bringing It Back Book-By-Book

By Phineas Rueckert