South Sudan archivists launch battle against termites, rats, time
Surrounded by walls of boxes, researchers scan and catalogue the crumbling, mildewed pages, some nibbled by rats, which make up the national archives of the one-year-old republic of South Sudan.
During the five decades of civil war, an extreme climate and an assortment of animals have eaten away at the archives, some of which are still piled up in a giant city centre tent -- unbearably hot and humid even in early morning.
"We cannot leave our history to be destroyed by termites, rats and water -- we have to rescue these documents," said archivist Youssef Fulgensio Onyalla.
He shudders at the memory of discovering documents largely ravaged by rain, cockroaches and rats in the basement of a school in 2007, two years after a peace deal ended one of Africa's longest civil wars.
"We broke the windows and left it open for three days for ventilation," but the smell and dust was so strong that the team got sick and two people were hospitalized, he said.
Ever since, Onyalla has feared for these documents like an anxious parent.
"The moment I saw those papers in that condition, I knew I had to take care of them, protect and preserve them for the future," he said, carefully touching the boxes of yellowing papers.
"This is quite literally the national history... from 1903 right the way up to the 1990s -- almost 100 years of South Sudanese history that's been rotting in a tent", said Nicki Kindersley, a history student at Britain's Durham University, one of three foreigners helping to clear out the tent.
"So far we've reached 2,300 boxes of information, we're probably going to reach around 6,000 -- it's an absolutely amazing treasure trove of information", she said.
The finds include original political party constitutions, lists of the first Southern political parties and minutes of the court cases of the 1955 mutineers who sparked South Sudan's first civil war.
"We've never seen everyone's names and all the details of what happened before," said Kindersley.
There are also insights into the lives of former British colonists as they muddle through tasks like legislating against suspected witchcraft in the Zande people in the steamy jungles close to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"In a scene reminiscent of the witches in Macbeth, the sergeant major surprised three Zande at night... murmuring incantations over a cauldron," one colonial commissioner wrote in a report.
The restoration project was originally funded to find maps showing Southern districts drawn up around Sudan's 1956 independence, to help solve outstanding issues of borders, contested territory and the sharing of oil wealth following South Sudan's split from the north.
"These are going to be useful when we go for arbitration over the territories", said Pagan Amum, South Sudan's top negotiator and secretary-general of its ruling SPLM party.
But the benefits are in fact even wider.
Archivists also hope historical records of internal conflicts over borders, cattle and grazing land will help resolve modern-day violence of the same type that kills thousands every year.
As people flock back to South Sudan following the years of war, these documents may also help to prove land ownership.
Onyalla's family won an age-old claim after he stumbled across 1955 information about his grandfather's inheritance from a leper cousin.
Jok Madut Jok, an academic and undersecretary of the Ministry of Culture, says the country is producing its first history textbook for high school thanks largely to the archives.
"I think it will really help students in the South to know about their own history," said Thomas Becu, who knew nothing about his country apart from fighting until 2006, when he returned from Uganda and began work in the archive.
After a war that sent people abroad or to the bush, Jok says it is vital to teach people their past to form a national identity.
"You have to imbue your citizens with a sense of contribution, pride and loyalty to their country, and that can only come when their story features in history," he said.
Studying past policy failures should also stop the government repeating them, he said.
But politicians have yet to take much interest in the archives, or submit records from 2005 onwards.
Norway has donated a museum for the archives that should be built by 2014, but unless legislation is passed to pull in documents from army archives and government, the past will remain unclear.
Meanwhile, Onyalla is salvaging every last scrap.
"When the tent is closed I go around it, and if I see a piece of paper like this," he said, showing a stamp-sized space between his thumb and forefinger, "if it has some writing on it, I put it in my pocket and keep it."