Dealing with the past, contd.

The BBC is reporting that Mittal Steel, the world's largest steelmaker, is abandoning plans to set up a memorial at the Omarska mine it recently bought, after the plans met with opposition from locals.

Omarska, a concentration camp during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia, was the site of some of the most horrific crimes committed by the Bosnian Serbs in their drive to "cleanse" the territories they had occupied of non-Serbs.

Mittal only agreed to erect the memorial after robust lobbying from activists of all ethnic backgrounds. It has evidently concluded that the goodwill of locals is more important than what people across Bosnia (or indeed abroad) might think.

Unfortunately, the attitude of people in Omarska is fairly typical for the mindset that still prevails in Republika Srpska. A vox pop on last night's main evening news on Bosnian TV included someone from Banja Luka who qualified the topic of Grbavica, a Bosnian movie on wartime rape that just won the Golden Bear at the Berlin film festival, as "tendentious." (Yes, the topic, not the specific treatment it gets in the movie. Even mentioning it is tendentious, apparently.)


András said...

Mittal's pandering to local "sensitivities" goes beyond suspending plans for the memorial to the victims of the Omarska concentration camp. In order to curry favor with the local Serb nationalist authorities, Mittal has agreed to give Serbs preference in hiring for the jobs created by the reopening of the Omarska mines. Muslim and Croat workers at the mines (all of whom were sacked in 1992 on ethnic grounds) may be rehired at some future date (ca. 2009), when ore production at the Omarska-Ljubija complex is projected to expand, according to Mittal's representative Willie Smit.

For more on the international steel giant's commitment to help protect the achievements of "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia's Republika Srpska, see Erich Rathfelder, "Versöhnung nach Regeln des Kapitals," taz Die Tageszeitung (Berlin) 22.12.2005, online at

Further details in Amnesty International's recent report on ethnic apartheid in hiring in Bosnia (26 January 2006)

Eric Gordy said...

Toby, thanks for writing on this -- I meant to, but have instead given the day over to grading student papers.

The sentence that really caught my attention in the BBC story was this one: "in recent weeks more extreme voices on all sides have begun to oppose the plans." This seems to get at the fundamental problem with memorials and memorialization. First, there is the implication, usually something short of true, that memory takes the form of consensus. Second, there is the treatment of memory as private property (to be exchanged for value, held back, deployed for advantage...) by any number of interested parties.

These seem to be issues with implications that go beyond the relationship between Mittal and local political players -- they are raised in another context by the David Irving case which has developed in an interesting direction today, for example.

Steve Albert said...

I think it a shame that the mine was reopened in the first place. The most fitting memorial would have been to leave Omarska itself as a monument to the crimes that were committed there.

T K Vogel said...

Thanks, Andras, for adding important aspects to my somewhat one-dimensional post. Same to Eric -- another affair I would mention in this context are the attacks on Mirsad Tokaca, a Sarajevo researcher who is doing a tally of war victims, by the Mothers of Srebrenica. They're criticizing him for no specific reason but simply for deflating some of the exaggerated claims (not on Srebrenica, mind you) that have been used by careless reporters and politicians. Apparently they believe that he's somehow out to hurt Bosnia's genocide lawsuit against Serbia at the ICJ.

Owen said...

Isabelle Wesselingh's article on the subject of the Omarska Memorial in Bosnia Report is at http://www.bosnia.org.uk/bosrep/report_format.cfm?articleid=3023&reportid=169

and the Omarska Memorial Debate web page with a link to the Online Petition is at

András said...

On the subject of memory and memorialization and conflicting ways of remembering and honoring the past on contested territory, I highly recommend Susan Slyomovics's award-winning book The Object of Memory, first published in 1998 and still in print.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for bringing attention to the BBC story, which is being disputed through their editorial process on the basis of sourcing and accuracy.

Mittal appointed mediators to find a "solution" to survivors' cals for a memorial at the site of the former camp. The mediators turned what should have been a memorial project (i.e. survivors and families of the dead have primacy) into a reconciliation project, which as you know is, though desirable, probably premature in that particular part of RS given current levels of denial.

The view of many people, myself included, was that first the survivors have a right to commemorate, and then hopefully this can contribute to a process of truth and reconciliation. I should add that whilst of course there is no consensus between the RS authorities and returnees, there is almost universal agreement among "the victims" (for want of a better phrase) that the memorial should be centred around the infamous white house but should ideally involve other buildings as well. It is surely not a matter of dispute that they have a right to commemoration, within reasonable limits such as not expressing collective guilt or demonising the whole Bosnian Serb community.

As far as I know, Mittal has realised that (a) the mediation process to date has not consulted widely enough, nor followed a professional process with any degree of transparency; and (b) the local Serb authorities may not play along voluntarily. As a result they are taking stock and thinking about the process going forward.

It is to be hoped that they choose to use their pre-eminent position as the majority investor in their joint venture with the mining company to go ahead and facilitate the creation of a reasonable memorial run by survivors and families of the dead. This need not harm the interests of local Serbs or mine workers, indeed arguably it would be a relief as it might stimulate some conversations that have been avoided in the past decade. Also, this concept actually has some support among local Serbs, especially younger people.

It is unlikely a company that has behaved so responsibly in trying to find a solution would go back on its commitment to a memorial. I actually believe they are trying to do the right thing. But the BBC story says it is finished, destroyed by (very BBC, this!) "extremists" on all sides, in a "blow to those who have been promoting the reconciliation process."

Then it alleges: "Many Muslims believe it should not be built until all the victims have been located and only then if the whole mine - which is currently working again - is used for the memorial site."

I have looked at this, and I do not know any Bosnian Muslims who are saying this at all. It is simply inaccurate.

Criticism of a memorial process rushed through with insufficient consultation, and without real ownership by survivors, is not the same as opposition to the project. Reconciliation would be great, but it has to be based on truth and I think it fair to say that survivors and families of the missing pretty much own the truth about what happened inside the buildings of the mine in the summer of '92. That is what the memorial is about.

It is an interesting situation, and one can only hope it works out. The BBC has wide influence (it's story has been carried in several others countries) and should be careful in reporting it.

Eric Gordy said...

Anonymous, thanks for your comment. Can we ask for more detail on the dispute with BBC. And perhaps ask who you are?

Yakima_Gulag said...

Thanks Annonymous, I too linked to the BBC story and I found the assertion that the victims were opposed to a memorial to be putting it mildly, wierd. I too would like more detail on the story, and about what is going on with the BBC.

Anonymous said...

I will contact you both directly if that's OK. It's a sensitive and fluid situation right now.

Anonymous said...

'Mr Anonymous' says:

"Thanks for bringing attention to the BBC story, which is being disputed through their editorial process on the basis of sourcing and accuracy."

I wonder how Mr Anonymous knows this (if indeed it be true)? Could it be that Mr Anonymous is the person who made the original complaint to the BBC and therefore knows that the BBC will double check its stories under such circumstances? And, I understand, did not change a word of the story. Seems Mr anonymous got it wrong. Never mind.

Anonymous obviously fancies himself as a bit of a one man band roadshow. Keep it up L?

Anonymous said...

easy tiger...

The BBC quote I posted above is clearly inaccurate. In my view, it is either made up or passed on third hand. It cannot be the result of Nick's own interviews unless he has discovered an extremist Bosnian Muslim group on another planet that none of us involved in the issue have spoken to.

I doubt Nick will share his interview notes from conversations with the "Many Muslims" who he alleges want the mine closed down, so we can only rely on the BBC to do what they think is best.

I have nothing against Nick Hawton at all - just drawing attention to something I know to be untrue. Yes, I did report it to the Beeb, but I was not the only one AFAIK.

I don't normally hide behind anonymity, but blogger sites are not interoperable with my chosen identity system so I use the lazy option ;-) If you want to talk offline, tell me who you are and I will gladly write to you, and perhaps then you will understand I am certainly not acting alone as you imply.

Cujemo se!

kelime said...

re anonymous: "I actually believe [Mittal Co.] are trying to do the right thing."

Mittal could easily take this matter off its hands by entrusting the notorious White House and a few other parts of the mine complex to a Foundation for the Omarska survivors, who would then have the space to mark or commemorate the crimes done there in 1992. Yes, this would be opposed by the hardline Serbs, but would they be able to stop an enormous commercial company that has a 92% stake in the ownership of the mine? Would they boycott and quit their jobs in a country that has had around 40% permanent unemployment in the last decade? I highly doubt it.

In other words, Mittal could easily try to do the right thing for the survivors. However, it is clear from its previous dealings and attempts to deny the existence of the grave site in the mine that Mittal wants to hush up this matter. And it will do anything - including bow to the Serb hardliners in RS - to keep the production (millions of euros were invested) going, crunching iron and bones and all.

In short, Mittal isn't "trying to do the right thing" here - they're just looking to keep the production going without any regard for the demands of the survivors and their families.

Anonymous said...

Hey - forgive me for being an optimist (newly converted!) and trying to engage constructively with Mittal.

Your interpretation of the facts is of course entirely valid (except perhaps for the 92% ownership stat - I thought they have a 51% shareholding in the JV), but I prefer to give them a chance to work their way through this and make the right decisions.

The point about Serb objections and bluster being overstated is well made. I think they will ultimately see the benefit of working with, not against Mittal assuming the memorial goes ahead.