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Bosnians Call For Renaming of ArcelorMittal Orbit As 'Omarska Memorial in Exile'

By Kevin Blowe

At a press conference this afternoon, which I was fortunate enough to attend, survivors of a Bosnian concentration camp called for the renaming of the ArcelorMittal Orbit – the Olympic Park's twisted Meccano structure, sometimes known as The Tower of Piffle – as a 'memorial in exile' to Bosniaks and Croats from Prijedor who suffered and died at the camp at the Omarska mining complex.

Bosnian Genocide (1992), Penny Marshall, ITN, 6 August 1992 shakes hand with Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak) prisoner Fikret Alic: photo source: http://bosniagenocide.wordpress.comBosnian Genocide (1992), Penny Marshall, ITN, 6 August 1992 shakes hand with Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak) prisoner Fikret Alic: photo source: http://bosniagenocide.wordpress.comOmarska was one of many camps set up in northern Bosnia-Herzegovina by Bosnian Serb forces, in an area that the Dayton Agreement later declared as part of Republika Srpska (the details of this Agreement I know very well: it was the subject of my Masters thesis). During the spring and summer of 1992, approximately 3334 non-Serb inmates were held in appalling and brutal conditions, tortured and killed. In the region, 2916 men, 262 women and 11 children are still missing. In early August 1992, reporters Ed Vulliamy, Ian Williams and ITN's Penny Marshall (shaking hands, right, with Bosnian Muslim prisoner Fikret Alic at the Trnopolje concentration camp) gained access to Omarska and their coverage helped to force the United Nations to investigate war crimes committed in the conflict. Following international condemnation, the camp was closed less than a month later.

In 2004, the complex was taken over by the India steel conglomerate ArcelorMittal and the resumption of mining operations halted exhumations of mass graves by forensic investigators, who had unearthed hundreds of remains of war crimes victims from mass grave sites in the area. On 1 December 2005, the company announced at a press conference in Banja Luka that it would build and finance a Memorial Centre at the site. However, in the seven years that have followed, ArcelorMittal has failed to deliver that promise.

The infamous 'White House' at Omarska: photo source: 'A Memorial In Exile'The infamous 'White House' at Omarska: photo source: 'A Memorial In Exile'

In February 2006 it said that it is ‘temporarily suspending’ the Omarska memorial project and until May 2011, war crimes victims were denied access to the site – restrictions that returned in 2012. In a press release in May this year, the company appeared to relent on access but added that “the question of a memorial needs to be decided in consensus with all parties” and that it is “not taking sides in this debate”. Such consensus in the face of genocide seems impossible when the current Mayor of Prijedor, Marko Pavic, says any memorial in Omarska would undermine relations between different ethnic groups and continues to deny that the camp was anything other than an "investigation centre."

A year ago ArcelorMittal proudly announced that the 2200 tonnes of steel used in the construction of the Orbit would contain “symbolic quantities from every continent in the world where the Company has operations, reflecting the spirit of the Olympic Games”. Strangely, its operation in Bosnia-Herzegovina was completely missing from its press release. However, in April this year the Director of ArcelorMittal Prijedor, Mladen Jela?a, confirmed to Professor Eyal Weizman of Goldsmiths, University of London and artist Milica Tomic of the Monument Group, Belgrade, that iron ore mined at Omarska had been used in the Obrit's fabrication.

For this reason, the war crimes survivors who spoke movingly at today's press conference – Satko Mujagic, Rezak Hukanovic and Kemal Pervanic – argue that in the absence of their promised memorial, London’s ArcelorMittal Orbit is tragically intertwined with the history of war crimes in Bosnia, as the bones of more victims are mixed in with the iron ore. It must therefore be reclaimed: no longer called the Orbit but the 'Omarska Memorial in Exile'.

Two camp survivors: Satko Mujagic reads an account of his horrific experiences while poet Rezak Hukanovic listensTwo camp survivors: Satko Mujagic reads an account of his horrific experiences while poet Rezak Hukanovic listens. Photo: Martin Slavin

Susan Schuppli of Goldsmiths Centre for Research Architecture said at today's event:

As the largest steel producer in the world, ArcelorMittal can surely use their considerable influence to overturn the local politics of denial and actively participate in healing the fractured communities out of which their very fortunes are generated. Yet they insist on not taking sides. Not taking sides in an area where persecution and injustice continue – is not neutrality but taking a political position by default.

Moments of remembrance: Survivors and supporters bring their displaced grief to the Orbit.Moments of remembrance: Survivors and supporters bring their displaced grief to the Orbit. Photo : Martin Slavin

By doing to, ArcelorMittal is colluding in the covering up of war crimes. As an Indian multi-national (albeit one registered in Luxembourg) and one of the emerging global capitalist players, the company has attracted less criticism than many of its Western counterparts, despite accusations that it created a "state within a state" in Liberia and condemnation of its environmental record. However, those who spoke today described the public art it has sponsored in the Olympic Park this summer as “a monument of shame, not a monument to the Olympic spirit”. They continue to call on ArcelorMittal to preserve structures like the infamous 'White House', where detainees received particularly savage treatment at the mining complex, and to resume its memorial project at Omarska. Until then, the Orbit will remain a 'memorial in exile', the only public commemoration to the people from Prijedor who died in the worst genocide in Europe since 1945.

For more information on today's campaign launch, see A Memorial in Exile.

Crossposted from blowe.org.uk 01/07/2012. Additional photographs: Martin Slavin.


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