Comment 20 Apr 12

Shadow of London ‘Orbit’ in Bosnia: Mittal Suppresses Memories of Omarska

Refusal of world’s largest steel company to allow victims access to the site of the notorious former camp in Bosnia on ‘safety’ grounds is an outrage.

Refik Hodzic

As ArcellorMittal, the world’s largest steel company, invests 19.2 million pounds in the construction of a monument to mark London’s Olympic Games, a disturbing story is emerging about the refusal to memorialize a former concentration camp in Bosnia it today owns. 

Not only is ArcelorMittal unwilling to provide even a fraction of the cost of the money it is spending in London 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 – International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

In 2004, 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 bought by Mittal.

The rich mine was a logical purchase following its earlier acquisition of the huge steelworks in central Bosnia. The harrowing past of the site meant little for the company – the promise of sizeable profits completely overshadowing the symbolism of the place.

Worried by possible negative publicity, however, Mittal agreed 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 in 2005 that a memorial would be built on the site and financed by Mittal.

But since then, Mittal (now ArcelorMittal) has 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 centre”, Mittal 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 it had committed itself to build, but in the last several weeks it has gone one step further – 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 they would have to wait 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 is 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 been 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 the legacies of massive human rights abuses.

In a profound sense, they belong to survivors, indeed to all torture victims, as much as, in circumstances like these, they belong in the investment portfolio of a steel magnate.

The debate about the recent past in Bosnia and Herzegovina is difficult, as questions about the causes of the conflict, the nature of crimes and even numbers of victims remain contested.

Victims struggle to have their voices heard over those of political leaders, who often engage in outright denial or manipulation of the past for political gains.

The recent reactions of Republika Srpska to the 20th anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo, challenging the notion that there was a siege at all, well illustrate this.

As if the reckoning with the troubled past was not hard enough for Bosnia’s fragile society, a private corporation is now denying people the right to remember the victims of 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, supposedly proclaiming a message of corporate responsibility.

At some point, Mittal must recognize that all the steel in the world will not obscure the truth of the 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.

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