Print options

July 05, 2012

South Sudan Archivists Battle Rats, Termites, Time

by Hannah McNeish

JUBA, South Sudan — As South Sudan approaches its first anniversary as a nation next week, officials are working on creating an archive to begin defining the nation’s history of struggle for independence.

In a steaming hot tent in South Sudan’s capital, papers that have survived rats, termites and almost five decades of civil war burst out of overstuffed sacks and litter the floor between mountains of files that contain a new nation’s entire history.

Archivist Yusef Fulgensio Onyalla heads a team tasked with turning these documents and shards of paper into archives.  They cover everything from maps and constitutions to cases of suspected witchcraft and the magazine subscriptions of former British rulers.

He is determined to preserve the history of South Sudan.  The country split from the north last July after almost 50 years of civil war that killed some two million people and forced the population to fight or flee.

“These documents are very important for us to write South Sudan’s history.  Before the war, we were taught all Sudan’s history, but there is nothing specific about South Sudan,” said Onayalla.

In 2007, two years after a peace deal ended the war, Onyalla led a team to rescue hidden documents found in places like dank basements and damaged by bats, cockroaches and rain.

What was salvageable is now housed in a large white tent -- donated by the U.S government -- and sitting next to one of the capital Juba’s busiest streets.  It was meant to be a temporary storage place, but these historical documents continue to suffer because of a lack of funding and the political will to go through them.

“A lot of deterioration happened like you can see here.  There were some files here and some termites attacked them and then we brought the spray to kill the termites and we lost a lot of important documents,” Onyalla noted. "Where termites once munched, nesting rats are now shredding."

It is a race against time before creatures and climate swallow South Sudan’s past.
These papers are becoming increasingly important, as the new nation battles Sudan about unresolved issues of disputed territory and oil-rich borders that, in its first year of statehood, briefly took the new nation back to war.

Onyalla says that maps have been found this year that show the boundaries of southern districts -- documents that the government hopes might help it win its case about land claims at arbitration if talks with Khartoum don’t succeed.

Thomas Becu, who returned from Uganda in 2006 and started archiving, thinks that it is vital for the South Sudanese to learn about their own history to build a national identity from the rubble of bloodshed, poverty and separation.

"It is my hope to see that it's really well preserved and really well recovered.  I think it will benefit not only the South Sudanese and the whole world to know, this new nation, where it belongs to, and what are their internal problems, maybe before independence," said Becu. "And after independence also."

Nicki Kindersley is one of three advanced history students from U.S. and British universities on a six-week project to try to clear the tent.  She rifles through these forgotten, crumbling documents to discover history on a daily basis.

“This is an incredible chance to do a national archive project and it's just such a shame that it stops and starts, and you start seeing some of the fabulous info that’s in there, but then you worry that some of it will be lost,” Kindersley stated.

One of the aims of the project is also to try and encourage the fledgling government -- starting from scratch to create basic institutions and a legal framework -- to pass legislation on record keeping.

Kindersley says this would grant archivists access to military and local government records from the war and central government records from 2005 to make sure that South Sudan’s history does not disappear again. “Otherwise, we risk having the same problem as we did during the early 1980s where we have lots of different centers with papers, that if anything goes wrong will be firewood, basically,” she said.

Until then, archivists sweat it out for hours a day, digging through reams of history, scanning and boxing it to ensure that South Sudan can understand its past before dictating its future.