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Eritrea sorts war-torn past for archive chest

Surrounded by yellow papers crackling to the touch, archivists painstakingly catalogue documents and photographs that make up the history of a nation — and the vertebrae of Eritrea’s national archive.

It’s a record of one of Africa’s most remarkable rebel armies, documenting the past spirit of optimism that drove their 30-year bitter guerrilla war to liberate Eritrea successfully from arch-foe Ethiopia in 1991.

The Research and Documentation Centre (RDC), a two-storey building in central Asmara, was constructed in the 1930s for Eritrea’s then Italian colonial rulers. However, since independence, it has been working to collect, organise and preserve the many thousands of unique documents of this country’s conflict-ridden history.

”Since Eritrea has a history of successive colonial occupations, it has never had its own national archive for the preservation of its unique cultural heritage,” the RDC’s mission statement reads.

”Thus, the development of the centre is vital to the history of the country. Our identity, culture and heritage derives from such items,” it adds.

The RDC’s deputy director, Kiflom Tesfamariam, also a former fighter, said the collection of material began during the war and involved making three copies of each document in case others were destroyed.

”This is already the de facto national archive,” said Kiflom. ”A historian can easily visualise how the struggle developed from the records.”

Protected in strong rooms with papers dating back to Eritrea’s Italian, British and Ethiopian colonial rulers, close ranks of tall shelves packed with boxes already fill about 1 000 square metres.

In addition, 14 years of radio programmes in six languages — broadcast to inspire and inform rebels fighting a far larger Ethiopian army backed first by the United States, then the Soviet Union — are also being preserved in digital format.

”There are boxes and boxes here of leaflets, declarations, proclamations, meetings and minutes,” Kiflom said, leafing through the original transcript of the rebels’ first-ever radio report, broadcast secretly in 1979. ”Tens of thousands of documents of Eritrea’s history, its economy, and culture — all aspects, in fact.”

Work is also ongoing to locate and gather scattered documents hidden in caves, buried underground or stored abroad during the war for safekeeping.


Memories of the rebel past — and their management in a tightly controlled state that shut all independent media in 2001 — are of acute relevance today.

Few Eritrean families are without at least one relative ”martyred for the cause”. On Asmara’s streets, wounded heroes of the independence war and subsequent bloody 1998-2000 border conflict with Ethiopia on wheelchairs are a constant reminder of Eritrea’s stormy past.

The archives are viewed therefore not simply as a historical resource, but also as a record of the blood sacrifice on which Africa’s youngest nation is forging its identity.

”Passing on history to the new generation and nurturing a strong society is an imperative task,” said Defence Minister General Sebhat Ephrem, quoted in state media earlier this year while addressing thousands of fresh teenage national-service conscripts. ”The new generation should use the heroic exploits of the previous generation in the liberation struggle as a stepping stone for ensuring respect of the nation’s sovereignty and its prosperity.”

Tales of war sacrifices are used to boost patriotism and flagging morale amid the economic and social hardships blamed on a long-running ”no-war, no-peace” border stalemate with Ethiopia.

In a nation where the liberation-era concept of total dedication to the state continues to be drilled into the people, the history protected in the archive has an important daily role.

The archive has already proved vital as a resource in the writing of history textbooks for the young nation.

”There is a great consciousness of history here, but the history was interrupted and distorted by a particularly pernicious colonial past,” said Richard Greenfield, a British academic advising the archive and a former history professor at the now closed Asmara University. ”New history textbooks are being written, but that would not be possible without the work here.”

But while the archives are valued, others instead want to shake off the bloody past and look forward to forging a new life.

”Preserving our history is important, but it is a history full of so much suffering,” said one former fighter, quietly drinking a glass of Asmara gin in a small dark bar. ”Sometimes I think most of us would do better to just look forward to the future.” — AFP



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Peter Martell
Guest Author

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