Iron, Death and Memory

 

The Omarska death camp: the main Ljubija iron ore mines building in the background; the ‘White House’, place of rape and torture, in the foreground.

By Maja Lovrenović The iron mines of Ljubija [ly-u-bı-a] are situated in northwestern Bosnia-Herzegovina. In the 1970s, the region was estimated to hold one of the largest reserves of iron ore in the Balkans. During the 1992-1995 war, the local Serb forces employed the mines’ technology to produce ‘ethnic cleansing’: the mines’ facilities were used to lock up, starve, rape, torture and kill the local Bosniaks and Croats. The mining pits and machinery were used to move and bury their bodies. The most notorious of those sites was the Omarska death camp (Thanks to the British journalist Ed Vulliamy, the existence of death camps in northwestern Bosnia was well documented and revealed to the international public, and in particular, to the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. See: ICTY summary indictment of 1995 on the Omarska death camp).

In 2004, the local Serb authorities sold 51% of the Ljubija mines to the world’s largest steel producer Arcelor Mittal, owned by one of the world’s richest men, Mr. Lakshmi Mittal. Soon afterwards, the extraction of iron ore from the pits was restarted, despite the fact that some 1.500 people are still listed as missing and believed to have been buried in secret mass graves across the mines’ complex (For more details, images and maps on the Ljubija mines, see the „Ljubija Mine Scandal“ dossier). In 2005, the survivors of these horrors were given a promise by Arcelor Mittal CEOs that they will be allowed to set up a memorial and commemorate freely at the site of the Omarska death camp. Yet, two days ago, according to Bosnian daily newspaper, the current Arcelor Mittal management denies having ever given such promise.

The global company argues that they do not want to interfere with the local ethnic politics, seemingly ignorant of the fact that their position in the ongoing Omarska death camp memorial debate suits the local Serb authorities in their attempt to eradicate the traces of crimes committed there. Furthermore, the company is also in the spotlight of Amnesty International, for ethnic discrimination in employment at the Ljubija mines.

This new denial of any responsibility for the purchased ‘troubled spot’ (a concept of social scientist Pierre Bourdieu) comes on top of the thwarted memorial negotiation process that took place in 2005-2006, when the company hired ‘Soul of Europe’, an NGO run by the English Anglican priest Donald Reeves, and paid it one hundred thousand euro to mediate the memorial initiative process between the survivors and the local Serb authorities. Attempting to turn the survivors’ quest for memorial into their own project of reconciliation between ethnic-religious groups, ‘Soul of Europe’ insisted on a memorial design that would include religious symbols of the Serb-Orthodox community.

This attempt enraged the survivors and family members of the death camp victims, who were, in turn, portrayed as ‘spoilers’ of the negotiating process both in media (e.g. Radio Netherlands Worldwide) and in the book authored by Rev. Donald Reeves in 2008. Thus botched mediating process opened new wounds and tensions on top of the older ones. Arcelor Mittal fired ‘Soul of Europe’ and since then the NGO had moved from Bosnia-Herzegovina on to Kosovo with the same missionary and ‘reconciliatory’ agenda. Nonetheless, in his book on the ‘Omarska Project’, Rev. Reeves claims to have shown “how it is possible to dismantle nationalism”.

Three years later, Arcelor Mittal grounds its rebuttal of the promise of memorial given to the survivors of the Omarska death camp on quite the opposite claim – that they do not want to interfere with the local ethnic politics. Of finding the bodies of those still listed as missing, nobody even speaks any more, as the extraction of iron ore in the Ljubija mines charts new highs.

Maja Lovrenović completed her Masters at the Department for Social and Cultural Anthropology at the VU. She is currently applying for a PhD position In her research she focuses on memory, violence and historical imagination in postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina.

 

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