Omarska Detention Camp – 20th Anniversary of the Closure
Tragic events of 1992 took place 12 years before ArcelorMittal – a mining and steel company became a major investor in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The company now employs more than 3,000 people at the Zenica mine, and further 800 in Prijedor in Republika Srpska. As a major employer and one of the country’s top exporters, the company has an important part to play in the present and the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
This year on August 6, 2012 marked the 20th anniversary of the closure of the Omarska detention camp. Hundreds of former inmates released balloons with names of missing persons into the air during a ceremony marking its closure, commemorating around 3227 individuals who were reported missing and at least that number who are believed to have been killed in the camp which housed approximately 5,000 people during the 1992 Bosnian war.
The biggest tragedy continues to be for those who are still alive. The dead can not feel the pain anymore, but the issue that continues to arise due to the lack of respect shown to the survivors, their families and the families of those killed during the existence of the camp. Since ArcelorMittal – a well renown British mining company purchase in 2004, little has been done to build a monument or sign showing that the place of their business was once the concentration camp.
It all started in 1992 when Bosnian Serb forces ran concentration camps in the Prijedor area. Prisoners were Bosnian Muslims and Croats, children, women and men. Roughly 5,000 people, according to the ICTY, were held at these camps. Omarska was the biggest. It was closed down after a British TV news team discovered it and filmed starving prisoners – footage that shocked the world. After that, some prisoners were exchanged, some were released and many were just moved to other camps and detention centers. Most never survived.
Most of the places around Prijedor which were turned into camps for non-Serbs during the war, were part of the Ljubija mining complex. Until 2004 these places were half-abandoned, until mining company AcelorMittal bought 51 percent of the complex from the Bosnian Serb Republic.
Mittal began exploiting the mines immediately, even though it was well established that the bodies of more than 1,000 people who were killed in camps were still missing. There was also the huge possibility they were, and some still are, scattered around the property now owned by AcelorMittal.
Today the company employs many local people - employees are mostly Serbs. Mittal has done little or nothing to mark the places of mass killings and imprisonment. Its biggest achievement is that it agreed to allow commemoration at the locations of the killings. Only on the day the camps were established and the day they were closed down. Later on, Mittal promised there would be no restrictions to access by the public. The company also promised not to use the so-called White House, one of the buildings inside the Omarska mine that was notorious for the worst horrors that took place inside the camp.
Radovan Karadzic, former Bosnian Serb leader, on trial in The Hague, is accused of crimes at Omarska. In October, one of the protected witnesses talked about Omarska saying how her days used to start “with counting dead people who were thrown out in the front of the White House”.
Despite the many promises, a group of German students was stopped at the gate entrance and banned from entering the complex. When asked about memorials on the property, Mittal said it was a matter for the local community and that it would do what the locals wanted. AcelorMittal is only doing business there, and according to them only own the complex, while the land is still owned by the local community.
Local leaders from the Prijedor area are not keen to talk about the past or the future in terms of any memorial sites. The reasons are obvious, because nobody wants to be reminded of their shameful past. Nevertheless, former inmates are still hoping that something will be resolved and this place will one day be marked as a memorial.
Starting the process that would lead, eventually, to the establishment of the memorial. A memorial of this type should serve to interpret the meaning of the memories through time, with the goal of uniting people and not making them even more distant. But this shows how the war in this area is still going on – only different means are being used. Arguments about memorials in Bosnia are often used as tools to create new ethnic divides.
Thanks in large part to The Advocacy Project for providing pictures from the 20th anniversary of the closure of Omarska detention camp.