Quite by chance I caught this programme in BBC 4’s Storyville slot last Monday and I am so glad I did. It told a gripping story. partly reconstructed by actors, partly told by the people involved.
When the young Dr Mustafa Jahic was made Director of the Gazi Husrev-Beg Library in Sarajevo he thought he was the happiest man on earth to be in charge of this amazing collection of 10,000 hand-written books and wonderful Islamic illuminated manuscripts hundreds of years old. He had no idea that he would risk death many times over to protect them. When the seige of Sarajevo began in 1992, the city was under bombardment from shells and its citizens risked being shot by snipers when they went out to try to find food and water. Jahic feared for the safety of the library and his fear was justified: the library at the University of Sarajevo was shelled and destroyed by fire. He decided to move the contents of the library to a safer place and the books were moved box by box, actually carried through the streets of the city by of a devoted band of helpers. When they were forced to break cover, death from a sniper’s bullet could have come at any moment. Those helpers including the library’s cleaner and the nightwatchman who had come to Sarajevo from the Congo: he could have chosen to flee but his devotion to the library was such that he stayed. The books were moved not once but twice: the second time into the basement of the fire station. Even so Dr Jahic was not satisfied and the story of how a microfilm equipment was smuggled into the beseiged city was worth a programme all of its own. When the seige ended he had brought the whole collection safely through the war – except for one item. Days before the war started he had allowed Professor Lamija at the university to take home a manuscript of the history of Bosnia for translation. Warned by her Serbian neighbour in the middle of the night that she was on a death-list she fled and returned to her flat after the war to find it had been wrecked by Serbian soldiers. Her favourite dress was riddled with bullet holes. Almost nothing remained intact. And yet in a heap of books she found the manuscript. The very next day she returned it to the library. When the Director saw it he cried.
This wonderful programme is still available on BBC iPlayer if you want to catch it.