Shadow of London “Orbit” in Bosnia: Steel, Blood, and the Suppression of Memory

By Refik Hodzic*

As ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steel company, invests 19.2 million pounds of steel to construct a monument marking London’s Olympic Games, a disturbing story is emerging about the refusal to memorialize a former concentration camp in Bosnia it owns today. Not only is ArcelorMittal unwilling to provide even a fraction of the cost of the London “Orbit” to commemorate the suffering of Bosnians in the notorious Omarska camp, but it has recently started denying victims access to the site.

Omarska, an iron ore mine outside Prijedor in northwestern Bosnia, was used by Bosnian Serbs to detain and torture more than 5,000 Bosnians in the summer of 1992. The images of emaciated inmates broadcasted to the world by a group of British journalists shocked the international public, bringing back the memories of Nazi concentration camps. The evidence of torture and killings of detainees at Omarska, collected by a UN commission of experts, led to the establishment of the first international war crimes court since Nuremberg and Tokyo, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

The site of the concentration camp, together with a complex of other ore mines and facilities around Prijedor (some of which included locations of mass graves where the bodies of murdered Omarska inmates were dumped by Serb authorities) was purchased by Mittal in 2004. The rich mine was a logical purchase following the earlier acquisition of the huge steelworks in central Bosnia. The harrowing past of the site meant little for the magnate—the promise of sizeable profits completely overshadowed the symbolism of the place.

Worried, by possible negative publicity, however, Mittal reached an agreement with camp survivors that certain buildings at the Omarska complex would remain untouched and accessible to victims and their families. The agreement was followed by a promise that a memorial would be built on the site and financed by Mittal. This was in 2005.

Since then, Mittal (now ArcelorMittal) reneged on its commitment to finance the building of the memorial. In line with the views of Marko Pavic, the Serb mayor of Prijedor, who still denies that Omarska was anything more than “a transit and interrogation center,” Mittal representatives have “suspended” the Omarska memorial project.

In February 2006 Mittal issued a statement saying that the suspension of the Omarska memorial project was temporary. However, not only has the company frozen the development of the memorial to which it had committed, but in the last several weeks it has gone one step further—it started denying access to the site to victims citing “safety concerns.”

The new policy was enforced as recently as last week, when a delegation of former detainees, Serbian peace activists, and researchers from Goldsmiths University of London sought to visit the site. An April 12 letter, signed by the director of the mine, told them that if they wanted remembrance, they would have to wait until August 6, the day marking the closure of the Omarska camp. This would be the one day of the year when visits would be possible.

Eyal Weizman, director of the Goldsmiths Centre for Research Architecture, was shocked by Mittal’s refusal. “I believe it completely unacceptable that places like Omarska camp are privatized and that victims and scholars aren’t allowed to visit them,” said Weizman with former camp inmates by his side. They stood silent and helpless, having now repeatedly been denied entrance to the place of their ordeal.

Memorials help victims achieve acknowledgment of their suffering by the wider community, and as such represent one of the key elements of any society’s effort to overcome legacies of massive human rights abuses. In a profound way they belong to survivors—indeed to all of our tortured humanity—at least as much as, in circumstances like these, they belong in the investment portfolio of a steel magnate.

Debate about the recent past in Bosnia and Herzegovina is difficult; narratives of the causes of conflict, nature of crimes and even numbers of victims still contested. Victims are struggling to have their voices heard by political leaders, who often engage in outright denial or manipulation of the past for political gains. The recent reactions from Republika Srpska to the anniversary of the siege of Sarajevo, which sought to challenge the notion that there was a siege at all, best illustrate this.

As if the reckoning with the troubled past was not hard enough for the fragile Bosnian society, we now have a private corporation denying victims the right to the memory of one of the most painful and notorious crimes committed during the conflict. This is a disturbing and alarming development, especially as it comes from a company whose steel Orbit towers over London proclaiming a supposed message of corporate responsibility. At some point, even ArcelorMittal must recognize that all the steel in the world will not obscure the truth of victims’ dignity and the appalling conduct of his company in the communities that make its profits and, consequently, London’s Orbit possible.

Refik Hodzic is a journalist, filmmaker and justice activist from Bosnia and Herzegovina, currently working as director of communications at the International Center for Transitional Justice.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Anne Roberts.