domingo, 19 de abril de 2009

National Archive continues the fight to preserve Saharawi history

Like a turret guarding a medieval fortress, the National Archive of Information of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) sits atop a hill in the Saharawi administrative camp of Rabouni. Here in the Archive, an electronic battle is waged to preserve the history of the Saharawi people as the Polisario Front (the leaders of the Saharawi movement for independence) stages a diplomatic war to secure their future.

The original Archive was opened in 1984, within the SADR Ministry of Information s compound. The building, however, was too dark, crowded and permeable to protect the documents, tapes and books within from the elements.

"It was a catastrophe," says Saleh, the current director of the National Archive. "We lost a bunch of material to the rain, the heat and the humidity."

In 2005, however, the Austrian Development Cooperation (GEZA) provided the Saharawis with a generous donation to construct a new facility at the Archive s present location. The new building touts weather-proof construction, photo and negative scanners, audio conversion equipment, central air conditioning, and a central server connected to ten PCs with satellite Internet.

"This new space is incredible," says Ayshetu, who has worked in the Documents Department at the Archive for four years. "It is much better for the documents and much better for the workers. We no longer fear that all of our work will be destroyed by bad weather. In the rains of 2006, we lost a ton of documents."

The National Archive consists of five different departments – Photography, Documents, Sound Recordings, Audiovisual and Administration – each of which is run by a handful of individuals dedicated to making digital versions of materials to better preserve them.

For example, in the Sound Recordings Department, every radio broadcast over the past several decades has been filed and saved in condensed format on a central sever. In this way, information concerning the history of the Saharawis is preserved and easily accessible.

Hundreds of pictures worth millions of words
Mulay Mehdy, who has been working in the Photography Department since 2005, is in charge of ensuring that the plethora of photos taken since the early 1970s are digitalized, and thus preserved.

"We have lots of negatives from the 70s and 80s," boasts Mehdy. "We have pictures of everything: women s organizations, the military, political meetings, etc. I don t know how many negatives and photos we actually have, but there must be thousands."

Since its foundation in the early 1970s, the Polisario Front has been especially careful to preserve the photographic history of its movement. Working through its Department of Photography, Polisario paid for and collected photos of political events, military endeavors and the everyday lives of the Saharawis. It then registered and archived these photos.

"Our job is to digitalize all these," said Mehdy, as he pulled out a huge, white binder full of hundreds of negatives. "The climate here in the camps is terrible for the preservation of pictures, so we want to make them all digital."

Mehdy then demonstrated the digitalization process. Using a scanner that reads both negatives and photos – also donated by GEZA – he scans a strip of negatives onto his PC. He then cuts and edits the pictures one at a time, using advanced photo-editing software. The pictures are then separated into folders based on their content, and a description is added to the photo if the specifics of the subject matter are known. All of these electronic files are then saved on the computer s hard disk and a central server in the Archive.

"Some of the pictures were taken in extreme situations," admits Meheli, showing a photo of a group of soldiers preparing for an attack, "so the photographer couldn t write down where or when the picture was taken."

History through the written word
In the Documents Department, written materials are preserved, filed and digitalized, when possible. The department includes Saharawi newspapers, magazines, speeches and political documents.

Ayshetu s work within the Documents Department is currently dedicated to cataloging the digital versions of the various Saharawi magazines and periodicals, including May 20th, March 8th (a magazine published by the National Union of Saharawi Women) and Free Sahara. The now-digitalized magazines date back to 1973 and are preserved in Arabic, Spanish and French.

"The physical documents, particularly the magazines, are a new window to the past, especially for the youth who go to study in Algeria, and return here to do research on our past," says Ayshetu.

Against the odds
In the most developed countries in the world, preserving the documented history of a nation can be a challenge. Here in the Saharawi refugee camps, it is a near impossibility.

"It is an extremely difficult challenge," admits Saleh. "The Saharawis are a nomadic people. They are not using to documenting things, much less saving those documents. We are trying hard to change that mentality."

"Even here in the Archive," adds Ayshetu, "there are workers who don t know how to take care of the documents. So you can imagine about the average Saharawi."

To encourage Saharawis in the camp and in the territories of the Western Sahara occupied by Morocco, the National Archive has published brochures detailing its activities and outlining the importance of preserving the historical records of the Saharawi people.

"We ve even developed a new program. If somebody does not want to donate their materials to the Archive, they can come and have them digitalized, and then we give them their documents or photos right back," points out Mehdy. "But like I said, it s still a new program, and we haven t gotten a big response yet."

"Nobody brings anything to us," admits Ayshetu. "If we want to save something here in the Archive, we have to go get it ourselves."

Worth its weight in gold
Ever since the 1991 ceasefire between the Polisario Front and the Kingdom of Morocco, the Saharawis have dedicated their time to finding peaceful ways to wage the war for their UN-backed right to self-determination. The National Archive is yet another branch of their dipomatic forces.

"To try to prove that the Western Sahara is theirs, the Moroccans say that the Saharawis are the same as them," says Meheli. "The pictures and documents here at the Archive differentiate the Saharawi people from the Moroccan people."

The National Archive s employees, too, benefit from the work with which they are tasked.

"This work makes me very proud, because I can see how our people have fought against the colonizers for decades," adds Ayshetu.

At the end of the day, however, like every institution in the Saharawi refugee camps, the underlying mission of the National Archive is a political one.

"It s political work," admits Ayshetu. "Everything that Polisario and the Saharawis do, we try to preserve it."

"A nation that has no history is a nation that runs the risk of being marginalized forever," concludes Meheli, as he inspects a photo from 1974 of Il Wali, the founder of the Polisario Front.

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