“US Army: Return Our Documents To Iraq”

Please crosspost far and wide.  Dr. Eskander is relying on concerned Americans to support the efforts to return Iraq’s cultural history and treasures to their rightful home.

This evening, the Boston Public Library hosted a talk by Dr. Saad Eskander, the Director General of the Iraqi National Library and Archives, which is the equivalent of the US Library of Congress and National Archives.  His story is devastating, and yet, through it all, he will only repeat, “I’m just doing my job.”  His story is unknown to most Americans, and it is in this retelling that I hope to remedy at least a small part of that. The link is to his 6 month long blog via the British Library which chronicles some of what he experienced and what has happened to the Iraqi National Library and Archives.  It’s s story of almost total and complete devastation, the beginnings of restoration and reparation and continued violence and terror against the staff and patrons, but which have only stiffened the resolve of them to continue to forge a new future of democracy and open and secular culture in rebuilding what has been lost and creating a preferred national future.

First off, you must understand what was lost during the first week of the American invasion of Iraq:

  95% of the rare book collection – lost, looted or destroyed
  25% of the manuscripts destroyed
  60% of the national archives gone

Historically, Dr. Eskander emphasized the extreme oppression and censorship under Saddam’s regime, and that this influenced the limited diversity and cultural identity of the collections and the archives.  Not all books were allowed to be added to the collections, and those that were approved were very conservative, lest Saddam become angered at those who were proposing purchases.  The National Library was also chronically and deliberately underfunded, and the infrastructure was of poor quality.  The air conditioning and ventilation system was removed around 1990, and the working temperature was often 50 degrees Celsius in the summer (normal body temperature is 37.5 for comparison).

Librarian salaries were approximately $6 per month, and librarians tended to be older and undertrained, having spent their entire careers under an oppressive dictatorship. Restoration and book binding facilities ceased in 1990, and the collections were deteriorating in the heat, and poor conditions.

April 2003 – The U.S. Invasion

“Americans are occupiers, but they did not come to Baghdad to destroy our cultural buildings and collection,” Dr. Eskander emphasized.  He made a point to explain that Iraqis were the ones who looted the collections and who committed arson to destroy the Iraq Republican collections, which would have shed light on who was accountable for what transgressions during Saddam’s rule.  over the first two days of the invasion, arson was committed twice, and furniture, equipment and the collections were looted and destroyed.  The photographs of the exterior and the interior of the building showed almost complete devastation with many books and documents simply ash or burned beyond recognition.  The rooms showed clear evidence of the arson with marks of accelerants which had been used.

Dr. Eskander related that there had been three categories of looters:

Saddam supporter arsonists, who had been instructed to burn incriminating documents
Professional thieves, who stole and sold items on the black market – mostly to surrounding countries and Europe, where they are showing up on the internet for sale and
Ordinary looters, no political agenda, looking for goods to use or to resell

The Coalition Provisional Authority tried to hire (contracted) guards, purchase guns and ammunition, but all security services were contracted.

The CPA had identified these purposes:

Records protection in the collection
Identify a new site for the national library and archives
Establish a reconstruction program

They failed to do the first and the second.  They reconstructed the library in its burned out shell (library staff continued to work in it, wearing masks and gloves – sweat streaming down them in the heat and burned stench).  The CPA did not acquire sufficient staff to return and to make the library and archives fully functional.

In late 2003, Dr. Eskander pursued a new direction for the national library and archives, and his list of achievements is absolutely remarkable. And I’m going to make you wait to read that in a separate post.

The problem now is that the US Army took possession of about 25,000 Iraqi documents which have been moved to Washington, and which have not been returned to the Iraqi National Library and Archives, despite Dr. Eskander’s request and the request of the Iraq National Government.

Iraq and the US have no discrepancy in the ownership of the documents, but still they are being held, and Dr. Eskander wants Americans to understand that these documents are critical to the understanding of Iraqi culture and history.

To that end, Ms. Elizabeth Adkins of the American Archivist Society has been lobbying on the Iraqi National Library and Archive’s behalf, and the International Council on Archives in Paris has also been assisting.

But each of us needs to contact our senator and representative and demand that these documents be returned immediately.  Iraqi members of the audience described this as a war crime theft.  Another example was that of museums which acquired items illegally and now are returning them.

The State Department and the Department of Defense may also be contacted to demand the return of Iraqi archival treasure to its rightful home.

You will probably be amazed when yo learn that the bulk of library resotration assistance and funding has come from the Czech Republic, the Italian government, and to a lesser extent, the Japanese government.  The ritish Library and the Ohio Geneological Associatio have lent support and donated equipment and supplies.  Whoop-de-doo, America.

We can do better.  We MUST do better.

And five of Dr. Eskander’s staff have been kidnapped, tortured and/or executed.  Some Shi’a, some Sunni – it’s an equal opportunity terror situation.  The library is located only 200 meters away from a Ba’athist and an AlQuaeda headquarters.  Way to go in the relocation to a secure place, CPA.  Dr. Eskander showed photograph after photo of US Apache helicopeters which take off and fly directly overhead just in front of the small library garden.  He showed a picutre of US fighter jets releasing bombs.  And then there are the walls filled with mortar hits and bullets – the many library windows shattered with bullets, the bullet at the top of the driver’s side of Dr. Eskander’s car, and on and on.

The National Library attracts 400 patrons monthly, despite all of this risk and ongoing terror. 

So please – consider asking your local and academic library to conduct a fundraiser for the Iraqi National Library and Archives.  Contact your elected representative and demand that the US Army return all of the Iraqi documents and artifacts to Iraq promptly. 

And don’t ever take a book, a historical document or a manuscript for granted again.  For those are the stuff countries are made of.

Thanks for reading, and now, please take action and pass the word. You may email me at aek2013 at columbia dot edu for Dr. Eskander’s contact information.


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  1. Please, please cross post everywhere.  Librarians are the most under-represented heroes there are.  Who do you think is holding the thugs at bay regarding our fourth Amendment rights?



  2. Would someone please consider putting this up at DailyKos and at FireDogLake? And any other of the big group blogs?

    As per usual, no traditional media has covered this.

    Thanks again, gotta go….

    • Alma on November 9, 2007 at 2:49 am

    My Sis and I noticed a long time ago that librarians do a hell of a lot more than most people give them credit for.  Everything from challenging this criminal administration, to hiding a lot of the books in Iraq during the invasion, to keep them safe, and then the world librarian foundation came together to help Iraq too.  They are wonderful sentinals of culture. I’ve always wished that more librarians would run for office.

    • Tigana on November 9, 2007 at 7:44 am

    This and other museums and libraries were always in the landscape of my life. A great tragedy.
    Great job, aek. Thank you.

  3. then it will get syndicated wide

  4. Editors and Publishers

  5. little interest in this.  I don’t have any more resources to give it.  But it speaks volumes about the commitment or lack therof that it didn’t get more amplification.

    If I can get bacl to a computer today, Ill submit it to other sites.  Thanks for the suggestions.

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