Al Jazeera World

The Love of Books: The Brave Librarians of Sarajevo

In the midst of war, library staff in Sarajevo risked their lives to rescue over 10,000 precious books and manuscripts.

Filmmakers: Sam Hobkinson, Nidal Magrabi and Nicolas Kent

“Protecting a library is not an easy task,” says Mustafa Jahic, “especially during wartime.”

It was 1992, the siege of Sarajevo had begun, and Jahic – then the director of the Gazi Husrev-Beg public library – had in his care a priceless, ancient collection of hand-written books and illuminated manuscripts.

“The Gazi Husrev-Beg library contains the memories of all the generations of the last 1,000 years. More than 100,000 items. Everything from manuscripts to printed books,” says Osman Lavic, the library’s keeper of manuscripts.

The books are as important as people. They are the most important things in the city of Sarajevo.

by Dzehva Dudo, cleaner

“Some were written by Arabs, perhaps in Fez or Baghdad, and then rewritten by a Turk living in the Caucasian Republic and then purchased by Bosnians. So if you followed the trail of the books you’d see the beauty in their diversity, their multi-ethnic and multicultural nature,” he says.

But when the city was attacked by the Serbian army, the preservation of books and manuscripts became the least of peoples’ problems.

Bosnia‘s National Library was shelled and burned to the ground, its entire contents destroyed. 

“The culture of our people, the identity, the history of Bosnia, for centuries in one place. And suddenly it was being swallowed by the fire and the flames,” says firefighter Ismet Tucak, who responded to the blaze at the National Library.

Fearing the Gazi Husrev-Beg library would be attacked next, Jahic’s staff took the momentous decision to move their most precious works to safety.

Dodging Serbian snipers and street violence, the small band of book-lovers – including the cleaner and the Congolese nightwatchman – moved the manuscripts, one box at a time, to preserve a valuable part of their written history.

AJW: The Love of Books
The staff dodged fighting and snipers to move the manuscripts [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

“As we were carrying the boxes, Sarajevo was under shell fire,” cleaner Dzehva Dudo recalls. “We were running from one building to another.”

Jahic remembers the team working “discretely, without much talking”.

“The conditions of war are very special. You have to take decisions at every moment. You improvise,” he says.

In a brave act of collective personal defiance and self-sacrifice, the library staff risked their lives to rescue over 10,000 precious books and manuscripts while the Bosnian War raged around them.

“It would have been better to die together with the books than to live without them,” says Abbas Lutumba Husein, who was the night-watchman at the time.

The others agree.

“The books are as important as people,” Dudo says. “They are the most important things in the city of Sarajevo.”

Jahic, director of Gazi Husrev-bey library walks past an old book displayed in Sarajevo
Mustafa Jahic walks past an old book displayed in Sarajevo, January 16, 2014 [Dado Ruvic/REUTERS]