Fresh battle over Serb death camp
by Ed Vulliamy
A spectral silence hangs over these buildings: a cavernous rust-coloured hangar containing heavy industrial plant and piles of tyres; a deserted complex once used as a canteen, and an empty, smaller building known as the White House.
Underground, there lies a seam of iron ore, which has remained untouched for 12 years since a hurricane of violence blew through this corner of Bosnia. But soon, this place will be teeming again, with the rattle of machinery and the business of its original use as a mine. And the man who has acquired it, who aims to restart the Omarska iron ore mine, is none other than Britain's richest resident, Lakshmi Mittal, who in October became the biggest steel producer in the world.
But there are ghosts here too: this was the site of the infamous concentration camp of Omarska, operated by the Bosnian Serbs for the internment, torture and mass murder of Muslim and Croat prisoners during the summer of 1992. From that once-crammed hangar, men were called for barbaric execution. In that White House, they were slaughtered by the hundred. Above that canteen, women were serially raped. On an L-shaped strip of concrete land in between, an orgy of killing and torture was unleashed.
Now, survivors of the camp, and relatives of the hundreds killed there, are pleading with Mr Mittal not to reconvert the mine without preserving some installations in commemoration of what happened. But their pleas present Mr Mittal with a potential challenge: his partners in a joint venture to restart iron ore extraction at Omarska and other mines are the Bosnian Serb authorities, whom Mr Mittal - by admission of his own staff - does not want to antagonise. Those same Bosnian Serb authorities have shown little sign of admission, let alone commemoration, of what happened in the camp managed by their countrymen.
A second problem concerns the possibility that bodies remain buried - perhaps even in mass graves - within the three mines in the complex acquired by Mr Mittal, of which Omarska is one.
Work has just concluded at one mass grave only two miles from the Omarska site, from which the remains of 420 men murdered in the camp were retrieved. In October 2001, another mass grave containing 353 bodies was found within another mine in the complex bought by Mr Mittal, called Ljubija. ‘There is no doubt whatsoever that there are bodies as yet unfound within the mine of Omarska and its vicinity,’ said Amor Masović, president of the Bosnian government's Commission for Tracing Missing Persons, which exhumes the graves. ‘We are not talking about dozens of bodies here, we are talking about hundreds.’
In three separate petitions and letters to Mr Mittal, survivors this week pleaded for the premises in which prisoners were killed to be preserved and dedicated for commemoration of the dead, and also for the historical record and in pursuit of reconciliation in Bosnia. One comes from groups representing camp survivors and relatives of the dead who have returned to the Kozarac neighbourhood, near Omarska. Sabahudin Garibović, a spokesman for one of those groups, the Association of Camp Inmates, said: ‘It is important to mark the Omarska camp to honour the memory of the Bosniaks and Croats imprisoned and killed there, not only for our future but for the future of Bosnia, for the reconciliation process.’ Another comes from a Bosnian diaspora network based in the UK and a third from a Dutch-based foundation of survivors, addressed to Mr Mittal at his company headquarters in Rotterdam. ‘You own a place with a legacy,’ it submits. ‘Although you are not responsible for what happened there, we hope you will look compassionately upon our request so that the past will not be forgotten.’
Mr Mittal made his fortune by buying tired steelworks in the developing world and former communist countries, and turning them round. In late October, he overtook the billionaire owner of Chelsea FC, Roman Abramovich, to become Britain's richest resident. He did this by concluding a $4.5bn (about £2.35bn) takeover of the US International Steel Group, making his group the first truly global steel empire. Meanwhile, the tycoon oversaw a refinancing of his companies to bring about a vast new entity, Mittal Steel, of which Mr Mittal personally owns 88%. ‘These transactions dramatically change the landscape of the steel industry,’ he said at the time. ‘He's the modern Carnegie,’ said Robert Jones, editor at the Metal Bulletin trade journal. ‘He is the industry's biggest risk-taker, and it has paid off spectacularly so far. He has changed the face of the steel industry.’
Now, Mr Mittal wants to restart mining at Omarska, one of three mines in the Ljubija complex, all of which fall within the jurisdiction of the hardline nationalist Republika Srpska (Serbian Republic) statelet within Bosnia. A 51% controlling share in the mining complex was bought by Mr Mittal on 30 April this year, 49% remaining with the RZR Ljubija company, owned by Republika Srpska itself. Mr Mittal committed to invest $40m in order to develop the mines, in an area badly needing employment. (This year the billionaire also bought a majority share in the steelworks formerly supplied by Omarska's ore, at Zenica, on the other side of Bosnia's ethnic divide, in the Muslim-Croat Federation.)
‘It is only logical,’ said Mr Masović, ‘to ask whether concentration camps should be turned into iron ore mines, car parks, shopping centres and so on. They should at least mark Omarska as the place where thousands suffered and hundreds died’. Mr Garibović said: ‘The ball is now in Mr Mittal's court. Will he be the one who will make the concession and let us symbolically mark the place where the atrocities took place?’
Mr Mittal has limited his response to the Guardian to a brief statement. It reads: ‘We are willing to listen carefully to any requests that they may have. We are a significant investor in the area, having acquired both iron ore and steelmaking facilities, and are committed to ensuring a prosperous future for the region.’ Meanwhile, though, another Mittal Steel source familiar with the case told the Guardian: ‘We are in a very difficult situation. The area is largely populated by Serbs; these are the people we are currently dealing with, and we do not want to do anything to antagonise them’.
Satko Mujagić, of the Dutch-based survivors' foundation, said: ‘We want the Serbs who do not know everything that happened to know. That way, we can move forward as communities.’ But Bosnian Serb authorities have consistently argued that stories of atrocities in Omarska are unfounded, or else refuse to discuss them. Security guards at the mine told the Guardian: ‘There was no camp here. It was all Muslim lies’. The director of the Ljubija mining enterprise, Ranko Cvijić, did not return the Guardian's calls. Nor did the Bosnian Serb official overseeing privatisation, Zoran Došan, whose assistant said inquiries about atrocities were ‘not relevant’.
However, the horrors of Omarska are well documented, not least by judges' rulings in successive trials at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. In 2002, the Bosnian Serb president, Biljana Plavšić, submitted a rare plea of guilty to an indictment describing atrocities in Omarska as part of a wholesale programme of persecution. A year earlier, an entire trial was devoted to Omarska and two other camps, resulting in the conviction of four men. In their findings of fact, the judges said: ‘The chamber is convinced that hundreds of detainees were killed or disappeared in the Omarska camp between May and August’ 1992. They described a hellish place in which ‘extreme brutality was systematic’, where ‘dead bodies were left to fester for days at a time and a terrible stench and fear pervaded the camp’. The judges found ‘a regular stream of murders, torture and other forms of physical and mental violence’ and ‘unbearable conditions [which] appear to have driven the detainees insane’. Killings were usually by shooting, beating or cutting of throats, although on one night of frenzied killing, prisoners were incinerated on a pyre of burning tyres. On another occasion, ‘the corpses were so numerous, they covered some 50 or 70 metres’.
‘What matters,’ said Edin Kararić, a survivor of the camp who now lives in Watford, Hertfordshire, and works as a tanker driver, ‘is that the memory of what happened in Omarska not be allowed to disappear. That there must be something to say 'this happened', and this was the place. Something to which we can go each year, to show the children, lay flowers. Something that future generations can learn from, so that it does not happen again’.
This feature article appeared in The Guardian (London), 2 December 2004