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South Sudan preserves past to forge a proud future
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Feb 8, 2011 - 6:26:08 AM

South Sudan preserves past to forge a proud future

JUBA, Sudan Yellowing papers, nibbled by termites and dumped on piles waist high, crowd the sweltering-hot giant tent: the raw documents that make up the history of the world?s newest nation to be.

As south Sudan prepares for full independence, due on July 9 after last month's referendum that saw almost 99 percent of the mostly African Christian south vote to break from historical domination by the Arab-Muslim north, work is going on to preserve its past.

"It is a major task, but it is so important to preserve these documents before it is too late," said archivist Youssef Fulgensio Onyalla, tasked with heading the rescue work by the southern government.

Jumbled scraps of papers in Arabic and English lie alongside political assessments from the 1920s, traditional shields and spears, and century-old hand-drawn maps of regions newly explored by British colonial administrators: a muddled treasure trove for historians piecing together the past of a long-troubled land.

"Our work to sort and catalogue all the files here is a priority for the history of southern Sudan," Onyalla added. "It is exciting to think what could be here for us to find."

A chipped and dusty portrait of former president Gaafar Nimeiri stares out over a librarian?s nightmare of random bundled documents, from the mundane to the precious.

Ongoing negotiations to fix the new international frontier -- cutting through lucrative oil fields that lie between the former enemies in north and south -- are based on colonial era maps, and archivists keep a keen eye out for any that may help.

"If there are any documents we find about the border between the north and south, we put them carefully aside," said Onyalla, who leads a team making digital copies of all the papers.

South Sudan was left in ruins by a devastating 22-year civil war between the Khartoum government and southern rebels, the latest round of fighting in five decades of conflict.

With rebel forces besieging Juba, a government garrison town, items such as colonial documents were accorded low priority.

"Some were moved outside, others in areas that were flooded, and many were damaged or destroyed," said Onyalla, gently turning papers crackling in the heat.

Experts estimate there are up to 20,000 documents from the early 19th century up to the 1980s - spanning the colonial era, the early years of independence and the start of the latest conflict.

"Preserving our heritage means we are preserving our history," said Gabriel Changson Chang, the south?s culture and heritage minister.

"We want to make those documents available for generations to come, as a source of research material and also as a source of tracing our roots or our history."

A temporary tent was erected in 2007 to store the documents.

"The documents are safe from the rain here in the tent, but by late morning the sun makes it too hot to be in here for long," said Onyalla, mopping the sweat from his brow.

"We are working as fast as we can to scan the documents with the digital copiers."

The south has longer-term dreams of constructing a proper archive building.

"This stuff is not just a bunch of papers -- it is the memory of the new country of South Sudan," said John Ryle, director of the Rift Valley Institute, a research organisation supporting the work digitizing the documents.

"In documentary terms it is really all they?ve got."

The archives are viewed not simply as a historical resource, but as a record of the blood sacrifice upon which Africa's youngest nation will forge its identity.

"One of the few things that nearly all southern Sudanese have in common is the experience of oppression and exploitation," added Ryle, who is also professor of anthropology at Bard College in New York.

"These things are documented in this archive -- it is for that reason why it is so extremely important."

The fledgling nation will be born as one of the least developed regions on the planet, in dire need of hospitals, schools and new roads.

But creating the nation requires more than building projects, experts say.

"Nation-building is not primarily about roads and infrastructure," Ryle said. "It is about creating a national identity out of very disparate sets of ethnic identities."

That sense of nation-building will be crucial to ensure a peaceful future of the south, warns Jok Madut Jok, a southern Sudanese academic.

"The euphoria of independence will be accompanied by challenges of building a new nation, a project that will have to go beyond the usual temptation in new states to focus on material, infrastructural development, and delivery of basic social services.

"As a new state, south Sudan also needs to become a nation," added Jok, a history professor at Loyola Marymount University in California.

In the humid tent, a tattered poster issued in the years following a 1972 peace agreement -- allowing for a decade break in the long years of war -- recalls a time when, like now, the south dreamed of a more peaceful future.

"Tourism is Yourism -- a paradise of wildlife conservation," it reads, complete with drawings of the animals that roam the south?s vast wilderness regions -- elephants, antelopes and giraffes.

"We?d like to issue it again," said Onyalla. "It could bring visitors back to the south."

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