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maandag 19 november 2007

The National Security Archive and civil war in Guatemala

On his blog, Reading Archives, Richard J. Cox, professor in Library and Information Science at the University of Pittsburgh, School of Information Sciences, talks about an essay concerning the discovery of the archives of the Guatemalan National Police, which documents their role during the civil war (1960-1996), called The Atrocity Files: Deciphering the Archives of Guatemala’s Dirty War.

The author of the article is Kate Doyle, "a Senior Analyst for the National Security Archive in Washington, DC, a non-profit, nongovernmental advocacy group that campaigns for the citizen’s right to know, investigates U.S. national security and foreign policy, and uses the Freedom of Information Act to obtain and publish declassified U.S. documents", who "directs several research projects on U.S. policy in Latin America", including the Guatemala Documentation Project. She tells the story of how the archives were discovered in 2005 and what was done with it afterwards. The Guatemalan government didn't know immediately what to do with it. Support, in the form of funding came from Germany, Holland, Switzerland, and Spain, together with the work of NSA advisors, and consulting from experienced archivist Trudy Peterson. Piece by piece the original structure of the archive is being recreated, so that in the near future they may be researched.

Cox writes that "Doyle’s essay is a stark reminder of the social and political importance of government records." She "makes very clear the importance of such records: “For human-rights investigators the archive was the discovery of a lifetime, the long-abandoned scene of a terrible crime. The effort required to salvage the records and recover the evidence buried in them however, seemed beyond human power. Even more challenging, how could the countless pages be rendered meaningful to the rest of society? Would their opening lead to another symbolic acknowledgement of the brutal past or to a transformation of the country’s history?"

You would wonder why a government would keep track of its crimes. The perpetrators never thought they would get caught, for one. Keeping track of everyone and everything gives a state a certain amount of control over their denizens and documents the importance of certain individuals. Another example of the need of bureaucratic dictatorships to keep the bureaucracy going, can be found in the huge Stasi archives of the former DDR (Germany). The knowledge hidden in these archives can have a kathartic effect on a society. Research will not only point the finger towards guilty parties, it will also acknowledge the secret suffering of those concerned. What has happened can be placed in a historical context, which will help the community to let go of the past. Knowing is understanding.

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