Human Rights Team in Africa

Libraries Update: September 1, 2009

Kelleher, Sangwand, and Hamilton in Kigali

Lunh at Afrika Bite in Kigali (L to R: Amy Hamilton, Christian Kelleher, T-Kay Sangwand)
Lunch at Afrika Bite in Kigali (L to R: Amy Hamilton, Christian Kelleher, T-Kay Sangwand)

UT Libraries’ Human Rights Documentation Initiative project manager Christian Kelleher, human rights archivist T-Kay Sangwand, and undergraduate research assistant Amy Hamilton spent two full weeks this August in Kigali, Rwanda, in support of UT Libraries’ partnership with the Kigali Memorial Centre documenting the Rwandan Genocide.

The team presented a video software package (getting credit for the great work done by human rights project team members Aaron Choate, Jessica Fishman, Ladd Hanson, Anna Lamphear, Jennifer Lee, Amy Rushing, and Kevin Wood using Glifos Social Media software) a total of 17 times to various parties, including the U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda, the director of the National Museum of Rwanda, the executive secretary of the National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide, and the president of national genocide survivors organization Ibuka.

The purpose of the visit was to train the Rwandan partners to contribute content to the collection, and to build a broad base of support for the development of a world-class national genocide archive with UT Libraries as a key partner.

A presentation at a national conference on genocide research and documentation even earned Kelleher and Sangwand spots on the Rwandan national news. During the stay Sangwand also moonlighted as guest DJ spinning international hip-hop on Rwanda’s Contact FM radio.”

Working with the Free Burma Rangers, Summer 2009

Photo credit: Free Burma Rangers
Photo credit: Free Burma Rangers

Prepared by: Nicholas Rejack
with assistance from Christian Kelleher and T-Kay Sangwand

In the summer of 2009 I traveled from Austin to the offices of the Free Burma Rangers (FBR) in Southeast Asia equipped with a video deck, two Apple MacBook Pro laptops and twelve 500 gigabyte hard drives. Over the following six weeks, I conducted real-time transfers from miniDV video cassettes to the laptops running Final Cut Pro. The footage I captured documents a wide range of activity – ranger training, including rappelling down steep river cliffs and shooting rifles, joyful children’s programs with song and dance, surgery on landmine victims and the seriously ill, combat with the Burmese army, testimony from survivors, and scenes of jungle villagers in hiding.

Free Burma Rangers is a multi-ethnic, multilingual humanitarian group providing relief to refugees and documenting the human rights conditions in Burma. FBR trains rangers to enter the ethnic regions such as the Shan and Karen states to aid their people with food, medical support, education, hope, love, and defense, if needed. Over 52 full-time relief teams, each consisting of four to five men and women, operate in eight different ethnic states within Burma. The FBR office overflows with digital videotapes, CDs and hard drives filled with photos that are in dire need of organization and cataloging.

Out of FBR’s massive collection that consists of over 900 hour long tapes, I collected video from 172 different tapes, which amounts to 2 terabytes or nearly one week of video. The video transfer process required constant monitoring for quality control as the videos are often shut on rough conditions by non-professional videographers. Over the six week period, I had the opportunity to meet the founder of FBR and work with an excellent and devoted team who were often in and out of the offices either on training missions or going inside Burma. In addition, members of the international press, such as the BBC, and freelance documentarians frequently visited the office, often requesting my assistance with technical questions. Members of the international media expressed great interest in accessing FBR’s collected material to inform the world of the humanitarian crisis in Burma.

After returning to Austin I have continued to work on this project as a Graduate Research Assistant with the University of Texas Libraries Human Rights Documentation Initiative. One of my current tasks includes cleaning up the raw footage to create archival quality video files through QuickTime. Translation, editing, metadata collection and cataloging remain, in addition to incorporating more of FBR’s vast store of material.

Using the information found in FBR field reports, I will apply descriptive metadata to the videos and create interactive maps for access through the Glifos software. The material will be available online, initially for FBR use and eventually for public access. By partnering with FBR to preserve and provide access to their files, the UT Libraries will be able to aid in FBR’s programming and operations as well as serve as a resource for future human rights research. The files preserved at UT could potentially serve as evidence in prosecution of human rights violators.

A repressive military regime in Burma ensures that the outside world does not hear much news from this nation. In 2009 however Burma was in the news with increasing frequency, as the Nobel Peace Laureate and democracy advocate Aung Sang Suu Kyi, confined to house arrest for 14 of the past 20 years, was sentenced to another 18 months in August by the military government. Only two years after a widespread democracy protest, largely led by thousands of Buddhist monks, and one year after Cyclone Nargis devastated the region, leaving tens of thousands dead, the people of this ethnically diverse nation await 2010 elections, the first in nearly 20 years. Far from the capital of Rangoon, ethnic groups such as the Karen and Shan suffer as internally displaced persons (or IDPs in human rights terminology) in their own country as they flee from attacks by the Burmese army.

An FBR report from September 18, 2009 quoted the words of recently deceased Karen ranger, Di Gay Htoo,  “…when you tell the story of my people, please do not just talk about all the bad things that happen to us and our suffering by the Burma Army.” Through UT and FBR’s archival partnership, with the support of the Bridgeway Foundation, the courage, strength, and struggles of the people of Burma will also be known.

Nicholas Rejack is a second-year student in the University of Texas at Austin School of Information focusing on archives and digitization issues, specifically audio and video. He is a graduate of McGill University (B.A. Linguistics, 2007) and has worked at National Instruments, the Harry Ransom Center and the Coates Library at Trinity University. In addition to a strong technical background, he maintains active interests in travel and experimental music.