Darayya in Syria was rendered a ghost town by Asaad’s regime after civic resistance — becoming a town of rubble where a mere 12,000 starving survivors clung on. One of these survivors was Ahmad Muaddamani, who spoke to Delphine Minoui from The Guardian about a remarkable thing that he and his friends did to keep life in Darayya bearable — they built a library. In books, the people left in Darayya found a refuge and an “atmosphere of collective intimacy, as well as a sense of ethics, discipline and, oddly enough, normality” that was shared by both civilians and fighters of the Free Syrian Army alike.

Fearing reprisals from the regime, the organisers decided this library would be kept in the greatest of secrecy. It would have neither name nor sign. It would be an underground space, protected from radar and shells, where avid and novice readers alike could gather. Reading as refuge. A page opening to the world when every door is locked. After scouring the city, Muaddamani and his friends uncovered the basement of an abandoned building at the border of the frontline, not far from the snipers, but largely spared rocket fire. Its inhabitants were gone. The volunteers hurriedly constructed wooden shelves. They found paint to freshen the dusty walls. They reassembled two or three couches. Outside, they piled a few sandbags in front of the windows, and they brought a generator to provide electricity. For days, the book collectors busily dusted, glued, sorted, indexed and organised all these volumes. Now arranged by theme and in alphabetical order on overstuffed shelves, the books found a new, harmonious order.

These young Syrians cohabited with death night and day. Most of them had already lost everything – their homes, their friends, their parents. Amid the chaos, they clung to books as if to life, hoping for a better tomorrow, for a better political system. Driven by their thirst for culture, they were quietly developing an idea of what democracy should be. An idea that challenged the regime’s tyranny and Islamic State’s book burners. Muaddamani and his friends were true soldiers for peace.