The unsung heroes in Kurdistan, Somaliland, and Kosovo are working diligently to preserve their rich cultural heritage despite decades of conflict threatening their stories. In these regions, individuals risk their lives to safeguard these stories, recognizing that preserving records is essential in maintaining identity and countering efforts to erase people and their history in times of conflict and war.

  • In Kurdistan, Seddiq and Rafiq have dedicated over 20 years to building an archive named Zheen, collecting artifacts that narrate the turbulent history of the Kurds. The act of archiving serves as a peaceful war to ensure their people’s history isn’t lost. Through initiatives like Zheen, a repository for thousands of historical documents and artifacts, the voices and stories of Kurdish figures, including trailblazers like Nahida, are brought to the forefront, emphasizing the value of shared human experiences and the universal significance of cultural heritage.
  • In Somaliland, Hafsa Omer, a young archivist at the Hargeysa Cultural Center in Somaliland, immerses herself in the rich tapestry of her nation’s past through the rediscovery and preservation of old cassette tapes filled with songs, poems, and dramas. Through these tapes, she connects with a heritage overshadowed by conflict and loss, finding solace and inspiration in the voices of ancestors and loved ones. Amidst the remnants of a bygone era, Hafsa unearths stories of love, resilience, and familial bonds that offer a poignant reminder of the enduring spirit of the Somali people and the power of preserving cultural heritage.
  • In Kosovo, Nehat Krasniqi, a devoted librarian from Kosovo, embarked on a mission to preserve and revitalize the Albanian cultural heritage, collecting manuscripts reflecting Kosovo’s identity despite political turmoil and war. Despite facing challenges such as the destruction of valuable texts during the conflict, Krasniqi’s perseverance led him to discover precious artifacts that survived the devastation. His dedication to salvaging history serves as a poignant reminder of the enduring importance of cultural preservation amidst adversity.

Below is an article published by National Geographic

When a people’s stories are at risk, who steps in to save them?

Kurdistan, Somaliland, and Kosovo have rich histories, but decades of conflict jeopardize their preservation. These unsung heroes persevere to save their cultural heritage.

Unsung Heroes Safeguarding Cultural Heritage In Kurdistan, Somaliland, Kosovo
A snapshot of relatives serving as peshmerga soldiers on Mount Karox was among the last things Faruk Sadri, a Kurdish midwife, grabbed as she fled Saddam Hussein’s 1988 attack on her village.

By Nina Strochlic

Photographs by Diana Markosian and Emily Garthwaite

Seddiq Salih had a favor to ask. It was dusk, and we were standing in his family’s small orchard on the outskirts of Slemani, a city known as the cultural capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.

I’d been granted a meeting later that night with a secretive elder sheikh rumored to possess one of the finest collections of Kurdish manuscripts. Seddiq, a mild-mannered 65-year-old with a permanent smile, now looked serious. “Ask him: ‘You have collected so many manuscripts, why not give some to Zheen?’ ”


Zheen, which means “life” in Kurdish, is the name of an archive that Seddiq and his brother Rafiq have spent more than two decades building. An assemblage of books, manuscripts, newspapers, letters, diaries, and other documents dating back to the 19th century, it presents the twisting saga of the Kurds, often described as one of the world’s largest ethnic groups without a state. Collecting these artifacts is a calling that has taken the brothers across the parts of Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq that compose greater Kurdistan—a mountainous region where up to 35 million people of different religions and customs identify themselves as Kurdish.

The Kurds’ story zigzags from life in the mountains overlooking Mesopotamia, to medieval conquests led by the famous warrior Saladin, to betrayal after World War I when the Allied powers denied them a state of their own, to the bloody campaign in 1988 by then president Saddam Hussein to wipe them out in Iraq. It’s a history that has made them cautious and distrustful. It has also infused the Salih brothers with a sense of mission. The Kurds may be without a state, but if Seddiq and Rafiq persevere, their people won’t be without a richly documented story.

As we lingered in the cold night air, I was surprised by Seddiq’s request. He and Sheikh Mohammed Ali Qaradaghi had known each other for more than 20 years. He explained that the sheikh never allowed anyone to see his full collection. It was said to hold hundreds of documents spanning 400 years, and Seddiq was fixated on what it might contain. A diary recording critical political events, a lost masterpiece of poetry, a secret diplomatic letter?

In the business of archiving, every lead offers the tantalizing promise of a fresh piece of the collective story. And the Kurds’ story, Seddiq said, had been suppressed for generations. “This work we do is a war. A very peaceful war,” he told me.

“Please ask him.”

Unsung Heroes Safeguarding Cultural Heritage In Kurdistan, Somaliland, Kosovo
Mam Ali stands atop Peris Mountain in northern Iraq. The mountains have long been home to Kurds who still fight for a nation of their own. A Kurdish archive seeks to preserve stories like his.

Like a detective, an archivist collects evidence to create a full picture of events. Imagine trying to tell the history of the United States from only the British point of view. And think how our understanding of history would change if Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the writings of Che Guevara, or the speeches of Nelson Mandela had been lost. The story gains context and nuance with each infusion from its myriad communities: the creation stories of the First Australians, the paintings of Frida Kahlo, the music of Aretha Franklin.

Most developed countries have sprawling, well-funded repositories. Even small developing nations such as Guinea-Bissau and Palau maintain modest national archives. But what about groups like the Kurds who fall between the cracks of officially recognized nations, people living in places shattered by conflict, whose culture and history are excluded from the prevailing narrative?

Their history often ends up shoved into bags and boxes and tucked away in attics. My grandparents fled Poland after the Holocaust, and growing up, I’d marveled at the line on their visa application where a U.S. immigration official had marked their nationality as “without.” The only documented evidence of their lives as Jews in Poland, and our family’s centuries in Europe, was a clutch of documents we kept in a yellowing suitcase: a temporary Polish passport, identity cards from the concentration camps, a handful of photographs.

For years, I’ve searched for the ways “stateless” people seek to reclaim their stories after displacement and destruction. In the young nation of South Sudan, I followed archivists who had gathered rotting documents from basements in an attempt to build a national identity. In refugee camps and on migrant trails, I asked the displaced what they’d brought from home.

For many, these items are a means of maintaining their identity when officially they may not have one. And sometimes, everyday civilians, under extraordinary conditions, risk their lives to save them. In Kurdistan, Kosovo, and Somaliland—regions still struggling for their nationhood—I found these people.

The stories they are holding close, or attempting to piece back together, are not static, said Anne Gilliland, a professor at UCLA who studies the role of archives and memory in war zones, frozen conflicts, and unrecognized states. They’re alive. And in war they’re often targets. “Obliterating a record is a way of obliterating people,” Gilliland told me.

That puts the people who save them on the front lines of a quiet but crucial battle over history and memory.


Wearing a long white robe and prayer cap, Sheikh Mohammed Ali Qaradaghi ushered me into his home in a well-to-do Slemani neighborhood. He fingered a string of amber prayer beads as he described his more than 20 years as a consultant for the Iraqi House of Manuscripts in Baghdad. During those years, he’d learned of historical Kurdish documents held by antique dealers and private estates. He began to buy them for himself, ensuring they wouldn’t be lost or taken out of the country. Later, Saddam’s regime jailed him as a Kurdish activist, using his collection as evidence of his guilt.

Unsung Heroes Safeguarding Cultural Heritage In Kurdistan, Somaliland, Kosovo

Unsung Heroes Safeguarding Cultural Heritage In Kurdistan, Somaliland, Kosovo
Matthew W. Chwastyk, NGM Staff
Sources: CIA World Factbook; UN World Population Prospects;
Kurdistan Regional Government; Yerevan Saeed, American University

As Seddiq had predicted, the sheikh was reluctant to say how many manuscripts he had. He agreed to show me just one book. It had a handmade brown cover and was filled with pages of handwritten Kurdish script and colorful flourishes. “It’s a kashkul,” he said, describing a scrapbook of favorite poems, scriptures, and vignettes from Kurdish literature. This one had belonged to a Kurdish writer a century ago. In other kashkuls the sheikh had found unpublished poems from Nali and Salim, beloved Kurdish poets.

I took this moment to pose Seddiq’s question: Why not donate some of his collection to Zheen? The sheikh was known to be generous with scholars, often lending manuscripts to be studied and copied. But the originals lived with him. Shouldn’t this unique book be in a Kurdish national archive?

His son, Amjad, spoke up: “We want a national archive to be under government authority, not a party, not a person. Once that’s in place, he’d be happy to give his collection.”

Later, when I relayed the sheikh’s answer, Seddiq wasn’t surprised. Persuading scholars to part with their collections has been difficult, in part because Seddiq isn’t a professional historian—he’s a retired geologist. He launched Zheen as a side project after U.S.-led coalition forces halted Saddam’s crackdown on the Kurds in 1991. As an autonomous Kurdish government within Iraq took shape, Seddiq began to feel that while the Kurds were no longer at risk of being erased, their history was.

In the late 1990s, he and his brother started collecting books written by Kurdish historians and literary figures. They tracked down old issues of Kurdish periodicals, including an edition of Zheen, an early Kurdish-language magazine published from 1918 to 1919 and the name they took for their project.

Unsung Heroes Safeguarding Cultural Heritage In Kurdistan, Somaliland, Kosovo
Photographer Emily Garthwaite found these images (above and right) in an antique shop in Hewler, Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital. “They were in a box,” she said. “Their subjects’ identities and stories are now lost.”

“Because Kurds weren’t independent, other people wrote their history for them,” Seddiq said, referring to Ottoman, British, and Iraqi chronicles. “The Kurdish voice is missing. That’s what we’re looking for.”

Eventually, the local government donated a four-story building in downtown Slemani. The regional government provides funding for 14 staff members’ small salaries.

Among the treasures on Zheen’s shelves are 1,300 original manuscripts and hundreds of rare books, including a later copy of the first known book published about Kurdish history, Sharafnama, written in Persian in 1597.

Over time Zheen has dedicated rooms to the private collections of various intellectuals and politicians and digitized documents from the British colonial period. To date, it has amassed an archive containing more than 72,000 books, nearly 2,000 Kurdish magazines and newspapers, thousands of photographs, and hours and hours of audio and video recordings.

And they’re continually searching for more. They appeal to the families of historical figures and scour markets and the internet.

Unsung Heroes Safeguarding Cultural Heritage In Kurdistan, Somaliland, Kosovo
Garthwaite decorated the images with herbs and flowers from the region. Kurds are known as mountain people, she noted. “This seemed like a way to honor them and at least restore a bit of their story.”

One September morning I accompanied Seddiq to meet the daughter of Rafiq Hilmi, a Kurdish historian, poet, and political activist who served as a translator for British colonial leaders during the early 20th century.

At a well-appointed home, she greeted us wearing all black, her white hair pinned in an elegant loop against the nape of her neck. Seddiq introduced us and told me that her name, ironically, was Zheen, the same as the archive. “We named ourselves after you,” he teased her.

Shenah Abdullah, an anthropologist who works at the Kurdistan Institution in Slemani, accompanied us. Four years ago, she and Seddiq had come to discuss acquiring Zheen’s father’s papers, and Shenah noticed other boxes tucked into a corner. Their contents sketched the remarkable life of Zheen’s older sister Nahida, a trailblazing world traveler and writer who had died a few years earlier.

Soon Shenah was immersed in Nahida’s world. Handwritten letters and diaries detailed her love life, newspaper clippings announced her arrival at Clark University in Massachusetts in 1949, and postcards told of friendships from Oregon to Damascus. Though Nahida hadn’t studied anthropology, she wrote prolifically about the food, language, and customs of every place she visited.

Never had Shenah read such a detailed account from a Kurdish woman’s perspective. This archive told a story few people knew. Seddiq agreed, and Nahida’s collection became the first woman’s library added to the Zheen archive.

In the doorway to Zheen Hilmi’s home, Shenah kissed the older woman’s cheeks and squeezed her hands. We were led into a living room, and sat under a wall covered with black-and-white family portraits. Zheen has no children, and these visits were welcome company.

Unsung Heroes Safeguarding Cultural Heritage In Kurdistan, Somaliland, Kosovo
Cousins in Heshtika village in the Zagros Mountains dress up for Ramadan’s end. The historical accomplishments of Kurdish women are starting to come into view in preserved documents.

She ferried platters of flatbread, truffles, and dainty walnut pastries from the kitchen as Seddiq repeated a question he’d asked Zheen many times: Is there anything else she might consider donating?
At first, Zheen claimed there was nothing left. Seddiq politely pressed the question. It was a familiar dance between them.
Finally, much poking around in boxes and bookshelves in the upstairs bedrooms unearthed two new treasures: a marbled notebook filled with her father’s handwritten account of the British Empire’s rule, and a small black diary of Nahida’s.
As an anthropologist, Shenah had grown convinced the heritage they gathered was not just for Kurdistan. It was to draw out the similarities of a global citizenry. To tie a connective string between an Amazonian tribe who sang songs on the hunt and a Kurdish farmer who hummed melodies as he sowed his fields. Or perhaps to show how women’s contributions to history had been hidden in diaries and letters in Kurdistan, in Uganda, in the Soviet Union.
“These records are not just ours,” she said. “They’re the world’s.”


After the sunset prayer on an evening in May, when everyone else had gone, Hafsa Omer placed three cassette tapes on her desk. Her office occupied one side of a small building on the grounds of the Hargeysa Cultural Center, in the capital of Somaliland, which has existed as a self-declared republic since breaking away from Somalia in 1991. Once, the region was called the land of the bards, and its capital was known as the home of literature. With the war’s end, little evidence of that heritage remained.

Unsung Heroes Safeguarding Cultural Heritage In Kurdistan, Somaliland, Kosovo1960: Somaliland and Somalia gain independence

In the late 19th century, Ethiopia, France, Great Britain, and Italy divvied up the Horn of Africa. Foreign rule in British Somaliland and the Italian-controlled trust territory came to an end in 1960 when they merged to form the new Somali Republic.

Unsung Heroes Safeguarding Cultural Heritage In Kurdistan, Somaliland, KosovoPresent Day: Decades of disunity

Somaliland declared itself an independent republic after the Somali government collapsed in 1991. A central government was reestablished in 2012, but Somaliland has chosen to remain separate, despite lacking international recognition.
Unsung Heroes Safeguarding Cultural Heritage In Kurdistan, Somaliland, Kosovo
Matthew W. Chwastyk, NGM Staff.
Sources: CIA World Factbook; United Nations

But now it was quiet. Hafsa liked to work late so she could listen to the cassette tapes cluttering her desk without bothering her colleagues. Her job was to study the handwritten labels, decipher lyrics distorted by crackles and clicks, and determine which old songs, poems, or plays they held.

She started interning at the center after high school, and now worked full-time archiving the thousands of tapes lining the walls. They offered a soundscape of a nation she never knew—when plays premiered at the National Theater, music shops blasted their offerings on every corner, and poets recited verse that criticized the government.

Every time she popped one of the cassettes into the player, a surprise awaited. Tonight she hit PLAY, and out poured a flood of salutations, announced in the old style.

“I’m sending you a greeting wider than the ocean and sweeter than honey,” it began. “A greeting that comes from the bottom of my heart. A greeting of siblings. The most graceful greeting that someone can send to someone else. I’m greeting you with flowers and wet leaves.”

Before it ended, Hafsa began to cry.

Somaliland’s current borders are based on an 1800s colonial division, which separated a British protectorate from Italian Somaliland. In 1960 the former colonies merged, creating the Somali Republic, but a secession movement brewed in what had been British Somaliland. In the 1980s, war erupted, and President Mohamed Siad Barre’s government in the south launched a genocidal campaign against the Isaaq clan, Somaliland’s majority ethnic group.

Somalis often say that their history was rarely written down. As far back as anyone can trace, Somalis have practiced an oral culture, and the traditions of live storytelling, singing, and reciting drama and poetry have remained a bedrock of their identity. The rise of cheap tape recorders made the cassette a ubiquitous part of Somali culture, and the 1970s and ’80s became a golden era for Somali music.

Unsung Heroes Safeguarding Cultural Heritage In Kurdistan, Somaliland, Kosovo
Dancers from the Halkar Academy pose outside Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. Since 2013, the academy has taught young Somalis traditional dance, music, and poetry to keep the culture alive.

By chance, I heard about an album containing songs from that era, Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa. The producer told me that as civil war ravaged towns and cities, Somalis saved their precious recordings by hiding them, burying them, or smuggling them out of the country.

This led me to the Hargeysa Cultural Center, founded by Jama Musse Jama, a mathematician who’d been living in Italy since the war. When Jama returned home, he marveled at the capital’s new buildings. But he also noted that not one was reserved for the arts. “We built beautiful structures, but we didn’t heal our young people from the trauma we passed on,” he told me. “We didn’t give them something they feel proud of.”

So in 2014 he founded the center for young Somalis to learn about their heritage. And the way to reach their souls, Jama reasoned, was through their ears.

He purchased a trove of 3,568 cassettes from a defunct music studio. In London, a scholar provided 70 recordings of poetry recited by members of Somaliland’s nomadic desert tribes. Jama also received other collections that had been abandoned by their owners or tucked into bags as families fled the fighting. Soon 10,000 more cassettes filled a storage room in his home.

He hoped these tapes could build a bridge to the past—revealing a vibrant Somali culture that younger generations would learn from and take pride in.

Hafsa, born in 2002, had no memory of a culturally flourishing Somaliland. After the war, an imported, stricter form of Islam took hold. Even her mother scolded her for listening to music instead of the Quran.

But at the cultural center, Hafsa entered a different world as she logged freshly digitized tapes, researching their contents and indexing the hundreds of singers, poets, composers, and religious scholars. She noted the songs’ themes: love, lament, debate, patriotism, and dagaalgelin—tunes that encouraged people to fight against oppression. The music of her generation lusted after girls and new cars. But in the old songs she heard stories of love that bloomed during wartime.

Occasionally, she’d insert a cassette and a message would play. These “letter tapes” had come from across the world: Djibouti, Kenya, Italy, and Dubai, everywhere the Somali diaspora had fled.

Unsung Heroes Safeguarding Cultural Heritage In Kurdistan, Somaliland, Kosovo
Hafsa Omer (at left) enjoys playing basketball with her sister, Asma, when not working at the Hargeysa Cultural Center. There she catalogs cassettes containing music, poems, and letters that tell stories of Somaliland, a breakaway republic not recognized by UN member states.

One night, Hafsa’s father went to the cupboard where he kept the family’s passports and retrieved three cassettes to add to the archive. Two contained love songs. The third, recorded on January 25, 1985, was the one that made her cry.

The raspy voice belonged to her beloved aunt Khadija. It sent news to a brother in Dubai: One brother’s farms were doing well, another’s business went bankrupt, another had welcomed a new son, two sisters had gotten divorced. In the background, a baby cried. The tape continued: War seemed imminent. Government soldiers had arrived in their village and forced them to move, even taking their food. “What can we do?” Khadija said. “We don’t know why we have this curse.”

In turn, her sisters and nieces offered their wishes and news, often chastising the brother for not sending updates. “Why didn’t you send us any cassette tapes?” one niece pleaded. They’d give the tape to a neighbor, a policeman who’d make sure it reached Dubai, another sister said. Then Khadija returned. “You can listen to our voices, and we can be your company,” she said.

Khadija died suddenly in 2019, but hearing the familiar voice made Hafsa feel as though her aunt was still with her. She set the tape aside to add to the archive. It belonged with the other voices that told the history of their new nation.


It was a hot June day in 1999 when Nehat Krasniqi returned to Kosovo’s National Library in Pristina. The first things he noticed were the dirty clothes, beer bottles, and military maps that littered the reading rooms. In one of the last chapters of Yugoslavia’s civil war, the Serbian military, backing Kosovo’s ethnic Serbs, attacked ethnic Albanians attempting to create an independent nation. Roughly 13,500 people were dead or missing, the vast majority of them ethnic Albanians. Now the fighting had stopped, and people like Krasniqi were picking up the shattered pieces. Over the past decade, the National Library’s distinctive downtown building—famous for its 99 domes—had at various times been inhabited by refugees and soldiers. As Krasniqi toured the rooms, he had only one question: Did the papers he’d once dedicated his life to saving survive Kosovo’s war?

Unsung Heroes Safeguarding Cultural Heritage In Kurdistan, Somaliland, Kosovo1913: Faltering Empire

The dominant power in the Balkans for 500 years—the Ottoman Empire—was weakening by the early 1900s. Ethnic Albanians along the Adriatic coast declared their independence in 1912; Albanians in the neighboring region of Kosovo fell under Serbia after the Ottoman defeat in the 1912–13 First Balkan War.

Unsung Heroes Safeguarding Cultural Heritage In Kurdistan, Somaliland, KosovoPresent Day: Kosovo emerges

Following the violent breakup of Yugoslavia during the 1990s, Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians fought for independence from Serbia, which backed the minority ethnic Serb population. Kosovo declared independence in 2008, and more than 100 UN members have recognized it. Serbia continues to claim it as a province.
Unsung Heroes Safeguarding Cultural Heritage In Kurdistan, Somaliland, Kosovo
Matthew W. Chwastyk, NGM Staff.
Sources: CIA World Factbook; United Nations

Like all students in Kosovo, Krasniqi had learned about the Roman and Ottoman conquests of the region, followed by the socialist rule of Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia. But during his doctoral research, Krasniqi was surprised to stumble upon numerous manuscripts describing the history from the perspective of Albanian Kosovars—not their conquerors. These finds, he felt, were proof of a thriving intellectual past and the deep roots of Albanian language and culture. It was a story that didn’t appear in Tito’s authorized history.

As a specialist for the National Library, Krasniqi began traveling the country, gathering manuscripts that reflected this Kosovar identity. In towns that had been Ottoman trading posts, he found documents stuffed into attics and basements, coated with mouse droppings and cobwebs. He unearthed poetry and prose written by local authors in Ottoman Turkish, Arabic, and Persian. Once a young woman opened a yogurt container to reveal a 17th-century copy of Cuneus Prophetarum, a Catholic catechism that was among the first books written and printed in the Albanian language.

With hundreds of newly found manuscripts, he established a special collection at the National Library and set about translating and cataloging them. But in 1989, when Serbian president Slobodan Milošević invoked martial law, ethnic Albanians were dismissed from state jobs. Police arrived at the National Library and ordered Krasniqi to train his Serbian replacement.

Ten years later, after a NATO intervention ended the war, Krasniqi finally returned to the garbage-strewn library. He discovered that nearly all its Albanian-language books had been sent to pulping mills. But in his former office, he found his manuscripts in cardboard boxes. They’d been damaged by sun and water, but they’d survived.

Unsung Heroes Safeguarding Cultural Heritage In Kurdistan, Somaliland, Kosovo
Dervishes unfurl a rare scroll at a Sufi tekke, or shrine, in Gjakova, Kosovo. For centuries, tekkes collected writings on a number of subjects— history, science, religion. Many were destroyed during the Kosovo War.

“Milošević wanted to erase huge chunks of our history,” Krasniqi told me, “because that’s how you can make a nation submissive, and keep it enslaved. Knowing your history is a fuel for freedom.”

Determined to find what pieces of Kosovo’s past survived, Krasniqi drove through the charred landscape. Homes and mosques lay in ruins, and the stench of corpses emanated from wells. Old documents were a low priority as people mourned the dead and tried to rebuild, but at each house Krasniqi made the same plea: If you have any old books or manuscripts, let the National Library buy them.

When I visited him in Pristina, Krasniqi, now 65, had retired from the library. Over espresso in a downtown café, he described his years ferreting out manuscripts after the war.

There was one place he couldn’t bear to return to: The city of Gjakova had a renowned tekke, or Sufi temple, which was believed to be a birthplace of Albanian nationalism. Shaped by three brothers who revolutionized Albanian education, literature, and ideology in the 19th century, the Bektashi tekke had served as a center of political activism and religious study.

Unsung Heroes Safeguarding Cultural Heritage In Kurdistan, Somaliland, Kosovo
Bedrije Mekolli, head of special collections at Kosovo’s National Library, holds a German translation of a biography of Gjergj Kastrioti, who led a 15th-century Albanian rebellion against the Ottoman Empire. During the Kosovo War, Serb forces destroyed many of the library’s Albanian-language books.

When Krasniqi visited before the war, he’d been awestruck by the ornately illustrated manuscripts, collections of poetry, and hundreds of codices on topics such as astronomy and medicine handwritten by revered scholars. One of the library’s prized possessions was a copy of poems written by Shams i Tabrizi, the spiritual guide of the 13th-century poet Rumi, translated into Albanian. These were some of the rarest documents Krasniqi had ever seen. Because the dervishes were so secretive, few of the holdings had been studied. “There were manuscripts you couldn’t even measure in gold,” he recalled.

During the war, the tekke was burned, its library reduced to ash. It was, Krasniqi believes, one of Kosovo’s greatest cultural losses. He had been too devastated to return, but now he offered to take me there to help me understand the destruction.

A week later, we stood in the arched entryway of a stucco building. A tall man with a flowing gray beard led us inside the rebuilt Bektashi tekke. Rauf Radonici was a longtime Sufi dervish who served the order. He pointed out photos that showed the tekke’s skeletal postwar remains. He learned it had burned, he said, when he was living in a refugee camp in Albania in 1999. He’d wept so violently that people assumed his family had been killed.

Unsung Heroes Safeguarding Cultural Heritage In Kurdistan, Somaliland, Kosovo
A dervish at the tekke of Sheikh Emin in Gjakova displays one of its oldest manuscripts. Gjakova, an Ottoman trading hub, attracted mystics and scholars from across the empire. They brought manuscripts written in an array of languages and translated them into Albanian. Now these works may shed light on a thriving intellectual past and the roots of the Albanian language.

Krasniqi brought up the precious manuscripts—had they all been destroyed?

“Yes,” Radonici said, his hand over his heart. “That knowledge is lost forever.”

He led us to a small office, and Krasniqi sighed as he scanned the modest collection of modern books. Then something caught his eye. Near the floor, a small stack of paper leaned against a bundle of leather-bound volumes. He gently lifted a page and inspected it closely. “This is very interesting, actually,” he said. It was a handwritten copy of the first prayer in the Quran. Its curled lettering was a rare example of one of Kosovo’s most beautiful styles of religious calligraphy.

These were donations, the dervish explained. After the war, he’d pleaded with the community to rebuild the tekke’s library with whatever they could find.

With reading glasses perched on his nose, Krasniqi crouched to examine a tiny handwritten prayer book from 1816. This might be valuable, he said, passing it to the stunned dervish. He made a pile: fraying Ottoman tax records, religious scripture, and personal letters.

Sweat beaded on Krasniqi’s brow as he scanned the shelves. This was how he’d spent much of his career: looking for lost treasure. He pulled out two small books with elaborate designs. If they’d been better preserved, they could’ve been of huge artistic value, he said. Still, they were important enough to be kept aside.

We went downstairs for coffee, and Krasniqi seemed revived by the joys of discovering something new. For decades, he had fought against the ravages of time and conflict, politics, ignorance, and even the indifference of his own country. But there were still jewels of history to be found, and people who would cherish them.

Unsung Heroes Safeguarding Cultural Heritage In Kurdistan, Somaliland, Kosovo
Ferdonije Qerkezi has preserved her home in Gjakova as a living record of her husband and sons, who were taken by Serbs during the war. She invites visitors to see her boys’ rooms, left undisturbed as a way of testifying to what happened and of keeping her family’s memory alive.

It is, as Seddiq Salih in Kurdistan told me, a peaceful war. He first drew that comparison over tea at an Italian-style café in a newly built development in Slemani.

A sign for the towering gray and white apartment buildings boasted of a “better lifestyle.” Around us, young people smoked hookahs and scrolled through Instagram. In comparison, Seddiq, a man his colleagues nicknamed “the encyclopedia,” might seem like a relic, someone unearthing a bitter past while his nation tries to move on.

Seddiq’s peaceful war was at times against an oppressor, at times against the apathy of his own people. Like Krasniqi in Kosovo and Jama in Somaliland, when he looked over the dotted-line borders of his nation, he saw the Kurds, and his life’s goal of preserving their history, set against greater geopolitical interests. And he knew that at any moment his work could grind to a halt again.

Seddiq used to worry primarily about the archive’s physical safety, but now many of the important manuscripts, books, and magazines have been digitized, and his fears have turned existential. He and his brother are getting older. They don’t drive in the same car or travel abroad at the same time. Their work—persuading a nation, one person at a time, to trust them with its history—is exhausting. Who will dedicate their life to this cause for little money or glory after they’re gone?

I thought back to how weary Seddiq had looked as we left the home of Zheen Hilmi, with two small books to show for nearly four hours of negotiation.

A few days later, at the Zheen library, I’d opened the diary of Nahida’s that her sister had donated. It began on New Year’s Eve, 1960, in Baghdad. Nahida, 32 at the time, was fretting about her father’s strict rules and pining for an ex-boyfriend in Europe. She wrote that she’d confessed to him that she hoped to publish her memoirs—but only after she died. “Everybody will be whispering around me if I do it now,” she told him.

The world hadn’t been ready for her story then. It was as if Nahida had envisioned her notebook landing on a shelf at the Zheen archive one day, and her voice allowing future generations to glimpse a Kurdistan they’d never learned about in history books.

She might be pleased to know it has already done so: As she read Nahida’s writing, the anthropologist Shenah Abdullah found traces of her own story—college in America, a pursuit of anthropology, the feeling of being torn between home and a new life. She was overwhelmed by how history echoes today, more than 60 years later. “It’s almost like they’re knitted together,” she said. “No one ever tells the past without telling the present.”

One of Nina Strochlic’s most recent features for National Geographic took readers on a journey along the Appian Way. To research this month’s story on at-risk archives, she was awarded a grant from the Alicia Patterson Foundation, which funds independent investigative reporting projects.
With her camera, the Moscow-born photographer Diana Markosian has explored the worldwide fascination with the Virgin Mary, searched for her estranged father in post–Soviet Armenia, and, for this issue, documented efforts to preserve history.

This story appears in the June 2024 issue of National Geographic magazine.