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Red Cross world war archive recognized by UNESCO

Her husband had been "missing in action" for almost two months when Italian, Anna Lisa Sisa turned in desperation to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva to try to trace him. The Great War was being fought out across Europe and Anderio Sisa from Orvieto had been in action on the Austro-Italian front with the 1st Grenadier Regiment when he "disappeared" on September 24, 1917.

Sisa was just one of the many thousands to use the service provided by the humanitarian organization during and since the war. The many letters are now stored amidst the vast archives containing 6 million index cards relating to the records of 2 million prisoners-of-war from 44 different states and their colonies.

On Thursday the archives of the International Prisoners-of-War Agency 1914-1918 will be formally recognized by the United Nations heritage agency, UNESCO, for the Memory of the World Register. The archive will join cultural treasures such as the original manuscript of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the literary estate of German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

For the ICRC, the recognition is of major significance in appreciating its work over many years.

On August 21, 1914, the ICRC set up its Prisoners-of-War agency in Geneva to restore contact between people separated by war, including prisoners-of-war.

Seven million soldiers were taken prisoner, mainly from Europe, but also the Middle East, the Far East and Africa. While the ICRC has information on 2 million of them in its collection in Geneva, it is still actively involved in trying to obtain information on millions more.

Red Cross archivist Claire Bonnelie said: "The Red Cross in Geneva was responsible for the records covering the Franco-Belgian front and for French, Belgian and British prisoners we have almost all the details."

However, responsibility for Russian and German prisoners was handed to the Danish Red Cross. For many Italians on the Austro- Italian front, it was left to the Red Cross agencies in the two countries. In the past two years, the ICRC has appealed in writing for further information to the Danish, Russian, German and the Austrian Red Cross organizations but has received no reply.

The recognition by UNESCO comes at a time when the ICRC is carefully considering the future of the archives. Some of the documentation suffered water damage after being stored in an old school in Geneva from the end of the war until 1948.

The ICRC has also been criticized for its failure to give direct public access to the records. At the moment information from the 90 plus-year-old records, some of which are extremely delicate, is available on written request only, for a fee of between 80 to 320 Swiss francs (71 to 284 dollars).

However, as well as attempting to restore damaged papers for the first time, another major process has begun which could result in the papers being accessible on the internet.

"We have a fairly ambitious, new project," said Bonnelie. "The idea is to digitize the lists and this could provide information on an interactive site on the internet."

The ICRC has been in discussion with genealogy groups with an interest in helping to get the records online using volunteers to process the millions of names. If it goes ahead, it is hoped the files could be available in this way by 2014, the centenary of the Great War.

"We really want to provide this information," said Bonnelie. "There is no longer a confidentiality issue as 60 years have elapsed so we can share the records but it is simply a matter of the material condition. Not everyone can come and consult the papers personally."

And there is still substantial interest. More than 90 years after the Armistice, 200 people a year are still trying to obtain information, mainly for reasons of research into personal family history.
For Anna Lisa Sisa, her request in November 1917 produced a positive response. An inquiry to the Austrian Red Cross had no record of Anderio, but three months after she sent her letter to Geneva, the German Red Cross traced her husband to Quedlinburg camp in Germany in February 1918.

DPA 2007