The New York Times just broke a story by investigative journalist Rukmini Callimachi titled “The ISIS files” exploring the way in which records kept by ISIS in Mosul reveal its efforts to build bureaucracy. ISIS demanded that Iraqi government workers continue to report to their offices. This allowed ISIS to take over existing state infrastructure, instead of having to invent it from the ground up.
As an archivist and records manager, I tend to read investigative journalism about caches of documents with an eye for the details that often aren’t revealed until several paragraphs in – if at all. Details like, how did the journalist get access to the records? Where are the records now? Were the records mostly intact, or just partial remainders from a larger series that might have been destroyed or removed? Are we talking paper or electronic, or both? What kind of authenticity measures were used to establish provenance? There is a brief exhibit of some of the documents the Times studied, and you can view them here.
Unfortunately, the Times story is light on these details, but there is one particularly revealing paragraph. Callimachi searched many government buildings for any documents she could find:
Because the buildings were near the front lines, Iraqi security forces nearly always accompanied our team. They led the way and gave permission to take the documents. In time, the troops escorting us became our sources and they, in turn, shared what they found, augmenting our cache by hundreds of records.
Callimachi devotes several paragraphs in her story to non-Sunni residents around Mosul (Shia Muslims and Christians) whose property was seized in order to be redistributed to ISIS soldiers and their families. Many of the files contained survey plats and other notes about the property. She writes:
Folder after folder, 273 in all, identified plots of land owned by farmers who belonged to one of the faiths banned by the group. Each yellow sleeve contained the handwritten request of a Sunni applying to confiscate the property.
ISIS-controlled state offices also issued vital records:
Babies born under the caliphate’s black flag were issued birth certificates on ISIS stationery.
I admittedly don’t know the first thing about the Iraqi legal system, but it seems to me that these records will be critical to those individuals whose land was seized by ISIS, or individuals who need access to vital records documenting the time and location of their birth.
Indeed, the question of “what to do with the state records left behind by former regimes?” has been deeply explored in the archival literature, especially within the last several years (Caswell, 2011; Cox, 2010; Cox, 2011; Cox, 2014; Montgomery, 2012; Montgomery, 2014; Montgomery, 2015), and there are also protocols for proper handling of cultural materials in warzones. Interestingly, one commenter suggested that the Times deposit these records at a US special collections for researchers to use. While I don’t expect journalists to be familiar with the work of archivists on the legal and ethical issues of sensitive records, I am very concerned that these records are maintained in such a way that they prioritize the victims’ human rights first and foremost – a need that is potentially (though not necessarily) at odds with the interests of journalists and researchers.
(Update: I had left a brief comment on the New York Times website re: my concern from an archivist perspective, and looks like it’s getting picked up via Twitter. I’m no longer on twitter, but I’d appreciate if someone could DM the journalists on my behalf and connect us!)