On October 8 an international coalition of NGOs and leading activists on the right to truth and memorialization submitted a letter to the mayor of Prijedor, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, demanding steps be taken to publicly memorialize non-Serb victims of the area’s early 1990s atrocities. Prijedor holds an especially infamous place in the history of the Bosnian war, being the site of the Bosnian Serb-led 1992 ethnic cleansing campaign in which approximately 3,000 civilians were killed or are still missing. The area surrounding Prijedor also housed the Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje detention camps, where torture, mass rape, and execution of non-Serb civilians took place.
The letter, entitled “Prijedor Administration Must Acknowledge and Memorialize the City’s Non-Serb Victims” addresses the record of Mayor Marko Pavic, who has prohibited the erection of memorials to non-Serb victims in Prijedor’s urban areas, claiming they would increase inter-ethnic tension. Meanwhile there exist at least 60 monuments to Serb combatants, with polarizing inscriptions for those who “courageously died for the fatherland of Republika Srpska” or fighting in the “Serbian defensive-liberation war.” As the letter states, “It is only through the acknowledgment of past oppression and suffering that progress toward building civic trust and lasting reconciliation can be achieved”, yet this ‘memorial war’ has only contributed to a culture of denial for the atrocities of the 1990s. The letter comes after the recent discovery of another mass grave at Tomasica, a town near Prijedor, in which forensic experts have so far found close to 250 bodies believed to be Bosnian Muslim and Croat victims of the 1992 ethnic cleansing.
Efforts have been especially contentious over the creation of a memorial site at Omarska, the most notorious of Prijedor’s camps. Omarska is located on the site of an iron ore mine which Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steel company, purchased in 1994. Despite agreements to finance the building of the memorial and to allow visitors free access, ArcelorMittal has since indefinitely suspended the Omarska memorial project and limited all visitation to a single day, August 6, the day marking the closure of the camp.
The letter is signed by international truth and memory specialists including the International Center for Transitional Justice’s David Tolbert, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez, and the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience’s Elizabeth Silkes. It has three demands:
- Initiate the building of a memorial to non-Serb victims in Prijedor, designed and built in consultation with victims and survivors.
- Allow the construction of a memorial to the victims of the Omarska detention camp, designed and built in consultation with victims and survivors, and in cooperation with Arcelor Mittal, the corporation that currently owns the site.
- Encourage accurate, constructive, and peaceful public education about the events of 1992-1995, and to withdraw any measure that targets victims’ associations and human rights activists in Prijedor for exercising their freedom of expression.
This letter highlights a major challenge to memorialization in Bosnia and Herzegovina today, where majority ethnic groups in particular areas hold a monopoly on the creation of memorials, with little inclusion of other narratives or commemoration of suffering that cuts across ethnic divisions. It also brings out questions regarding who should drive memory initiatives, and who they are for. Victims groups have been leading the call for memorialization for over a decade, and as the letter specifies, any project moving forward should be “designed and built in consultation with victims and survivors.” Where local efforts to work with the government of Republika Srpska and the Bosnian central government have failed, international allies have stepped in to exert pressure on Prijedor’s leadership. But should this letter succeed, the implementation of its recommendations will fall back to the responsibility of local actors. Genuine participation will be required from victims and survivors who also share their communities with Bosnian Serbs; “accurate, constructive, and peaceful public education” about the Bosnian War will be a serious undertaking to execute in this divided place, and will require cooperation on all sides if it is to be done meaningfully. The hope is that this exercise will create more space for resolution, not less.
The impetus on memorials is not to promote reconciliation, but to provide a site of remembrance for a particular group; however, nor should memorials make peacebuilding or reconciliation efforts significantly more difficult. Keeping this tension in mind will be a challenge for future memorialization efforts in Prijedor, as it will be across the whole of the former Yugoslavia.
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