The Ayotzinapa Case

The Ayotzinapa Case

A Cartography of Violence

In collaboration with Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez (Centro Prodh), Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense (EAAF), and Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC) for the families of the victims.



On the night of 26-27 September 2014, students from the Rural Normal School of Ayotzinapa were attacked in the town of Iguala, Guerrero, by local police in collusion with criminal organisations. Numerous other branches of the Mexican security apparatus either participated in or witnessed the events, including state and federal police and the military. Six people were murdered – including three students – forty wounded, and 43 students were forcibly disappeared.

The whereabouts of the students remains unknown, and their status as ‘disappeared’ persists to this day. Instead of attempting to solve this historic crime, the Mexican state has failed the victims, and the rest of Mexican society, by constructing a fraudulent and inconsistent narrative of the events of that night.

Forensic Architecture was commissioned by and worked in collaboration with the Equipo Argentino de Antropologia Forense (EAAF) and Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez (Centro Prodh) to conceive of an interactive cartographic platform to map out and examine the different narratives of this event. The project aims to reconstruct, for the first time, the entirety of the known events that took place that night in and around Iguala and to provide a forensic tool for researchers to further the investigation.

The data on which the platform is based draws from publicly available investigations, videos, media stories, photographs and phone logs. We transposed the accounts presented across these sources into thousands of data points, each of which has been located in space and time and plotted within the platform in order to map the incidents and the complex relationships between them. This demonstrates, in a clear graphic and cartographic form, the level of collusion and coordination between state agencies and organised crime throughout the night.

The project thus reveals a cartography of violence spanning from the street corner level to the entire state of Guerrero. It describes an act of violence that is no longer a singular event but a prolonged act, which persists to this day in the continued absence of the 43 students.

It also seeks to demonstrate the ways in which collective civil society initiatives, undertaking independent investigations using innovative analytical tools, could help investigate complex crimes and confront criminal impunity and the failures of Mexican law enforcement.

In particular, it reaffirms our commitment to heal the open wound of the Ayotzinapa case and to work until the truth of the night is clarified, and the students’ whereabouts are known.

In addition to the platform, this project will be exhibited as part of Forensic Architecture: Towards an Investigative Aesthetics from 9 September 2017 – 7 January 2018 at the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC). 

Forensic Architecture Team

Eyal Weizman (Principal Investigator)

Stefan Laxness (Project Coordinator)

Nadia Méndez

Franc Camps Febrer

Irving Huerta

Theo Resnikoff

Belén Rodríguez

Simone Rowat

Christina Varvia

Ariel Caine

Nathan Su

Marina Azahua

Nathalie Tjia

Nicholas Masterton

Sarah Nankivell

Robert Trafford

and Anso Studio

Collaborators

Special Thanks

John Gibler

Rosario Güiraldes

Pablo Dominguez

Virginia Vieira

Témoris Grecko

Juan Omar Fierro

Taller cartográfico “Ariles”

Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ)

Other Means

Nestor Camilo Vargas

The surviving Ayotzinapa students and the families of the 43 disappeared for their tireless struggle for truth

Torture and Detention in Cameroon

Torture and Detention in Cameroon

The dark side of the US-backed war against Boko Haram

For Amnesty International’s report, Cameroon’s Secret Torture Chambers

Since 2014, Cameroon has been at war with Boko Haram, the armed extremist group responsible for thousands of murders and abductions across the Lake Chad Basin.

Trained and supported by U.S and European governments and armed by Israeli private companies, the Cameroonian security forces are acting with increasing impunity against civilians in the country’s impoverished Far North region.

Amnesty International has collected evidence of over a hundred cases of illegal detention, torture and extra-judicial killing of Cameroonian citizens falsely accused of supporting or being a member of Boko Haram, at around twenty sites across the country.

Using testimony and information supplied by Amnesty International, Forensic Architecture reconstructed two of these facilities – a regional military headquarters, and an occupied school – in order to confirm and illustrate the conditions of incarceration and torture described by former detainees.

At the two sites, detainees were kept in degrading and inhumane conditions in dark, crowded, airless cells. All were fed poorly, and most were tortured routinely. Dozens of detainees report witnessing deaths at the hands of Cameroon’s elite military unit, the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR), or the Cameroonian intelligence agency, the DGRE.

Forensic Architecture’s research also uncovered the presence of U.S. personnel – military and private contractors – at one of the sites. Using satellite imagery, open-source material, and images gathered from social media, Forensic Architecture demonstrated the proximity of those personnel to sites of incarceration and torture, raising troubling questions for continued American support of Cameroon’s security forces.

A companion article, co-authored with U.S. news website The Intercept, explores some of the further material uncovered in the course of our investigation which did not fall within the remit of the video.


Forensic Architecture team

Eyal Weizman (Principle Investigator)

Omar Ferwati (Project Coordinator)

Robert Trafford

Simone Rowat

Nicolas Gourault

Nicholas Masterton

Sarah Nankivell

Christina Varvia

Ground Truth

Ground Truth

Testimonies of dispossession, destruction, and return in the Naqab/Negev



Ground Truth is an ongoing project that aims to provide historical and juridical evidence on behalf of communities in the illegalised Palestinian Bedouin villages in the northern threshold of the Negev/Naqab desert, Israel. While forced physical displacement and illegalisation render these communities non-existent on maps and aerial imaging, state-led land works and afforestation transform and erase their land and material cultural remains. The project aims to document and collate disparate legal, historical, and material evidence for the continuity of the sedentary presence of the Bedouin population on this land, as well as traces of their repeated displacement and destruction by government forces.

At the heart of the project are a community-led photographic dossier and a 3DGiS platform that utilises contemporary and historical images to map the presence and remnants of the Bedouin’s inhabitation. This first iteration of the project centres on the case of the Al-Araqib village, which has been demolished over 116 times over the past 60 years. A second phase of the project would wish to expand the work into more unrecognised villages where establishing proof of continuity of presence would be helpful.

Through a collaborative process of DIY aerial photography with Public Lab, Zochrot, and the local families of al-Araqib, a kind of ‘civic satellite’ is formed. We use kites and balloons equipped with simple cameras to form a methodology through which aerial and ground views can be gathered across multiple expeditions. These are assembled through photogrammetry into stacked geo-referenced 3D point-cloud photo terrains. Photographs, taken by residents and activists, document not only expulsion and destruction but also their ongoing life and resistance. These photographs, along with other media, data, and testimony, attest to an inflicted violence by connecting the history of this local land struggle to larger-scale and longer-term environmental transformations and to the conflicts that such changes have provoked.

Forensic Architecture team

  • Eyal Weizman (Principle Investigator)
  • Ariel Caine (Project Coordinator)

Collaborators

  • Debbie Farber / Zochrot
  • Umar al-Ghubari / Zochrot
  • Nuri al-Uqbi
  • Aziz al-Turi
  • Sayakh al-Turi / Al Araqib
  • Hagit Keysar / Public Lab
  • Princeton University Conflict Shoreline Course
  • Forensic Architecture MA (MAFA) at the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths

Collaborating Organisations

3D model: Stone house of Ibn Bari
3D model: Well of Sh’chade Abu Siam (no. 2)



Unrecognised Forum

In January 2016, together with the al-‘Araqı¯b Popular Committee, other Bedouin organizations and the anticolonial organization Zochrot, Foren­sic Architecture took part in building and assembling an alternative civil forum entitled Ground Truth, curated by Debby Farber with Aziz al-Tu¯ri and Nu¯ri al-‘Uqbi. It was an improvised institution in a temporary struc­ture we built outside the al-Tu¯ri cemetery. It involved testimonies and the collection of documents, and it also included the closing session of the Truth Commission on Nakba in the Naqab, a long-term project by Zochrot.

Ground Truth took place on 1 and 2 January 2016, because we hoped the New Year would give us a little breathing space, a stay on the forum’s inevitable demolition.

Speakers at the Ground Truth/Truth Commission on Nakba in the Naqab forum include: Saya¯h al-Tu¯ri, Nu¯ri al-‘Uqbi, Aziz al-Tu¯ri, Dr. Safa Abu-Rabia, Nu¯ri al-‘Uqbi, Ranad Shaqirat (RIWAQ) and Umar al-Ghubari, Debby Farber, Nura Resh and Erella Shadmi, Oren Yiftachel and Miki Kratsman.

The forum included the collection and photography of documents and the creation of an online archive.


Video by: Alina Schmuch & Jan Kiesswetter

Ecocide in Indonesia

Ecocide in Indonesia

Providing evidence to local and international bodies for universal                                     jurisdiction cases in relation to environmental crime.

Undertaken in collaboration with FIBGAR (Baltasar Garzón and Manuel Vergara)



 

Environmental Violence

Throughout the past century, states as well as supra- and intra-state organisations have conceptualised cases of mass casualties under a more “familiar” framework of human on human violence—war, political repression, violations of human rights, war crimes, sometimes even crimes against humanity and genocide. However, as the sources of contemporary calamities are increasingly likely to be a result of environmental destruction and climate change, a new set of categories and tools must be developed to describe forms of destruction that are indirect, diffused and distributed in time and space.

The environment—whether built, natural, or the entanglement of the two—is not a neutral background against which violence unfolds. Its destruction is also not always the unintended “collateral damage” of attacks aimed at other things. Rather, environmental destruction or degradation over an extended timescale can often be the means by which belligerents pursue their aims. Though environmental violence is different than warfare, it is also entangled with it in multiple ways; it is often both the consequence of conflict and a contributing factor in the spread and aggravation of state violence.

Ecocide

“Ecocide is the extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been or will be severely diminished.”

(Polly Higins’s proposal for the Rome Statute)

Indonesia

In 2015, fires in the Indonesian territories Kalimantan and Sumatra consumed over 21,000 square kilometers of forest and peat lands. Fumes from about 130,000 local sources combined into a massive cloud, a few hundred kilometers long and a few kilometers thick. It contained more carbon, methane, ammonium and cyanide than those produced by the entire annual emissions of the German, British or Japanese industries.

As the acrid cloud drifted north and westwards, it engulfed a zone that extended from Indonesia to Malaysia, Singapore, southern Thailand, and Vietnam. Scientists estimated this resulted in more than 100,000 premature deaths and that the fires might push the world beyond 2ºC of warming and well into the unpredictable calamities zone faster than expected.

The cloud can be understood as the harbinger of a new international crime of ecocide, one likely to become more relevant in the years to come.


Source: Airs Sounders, Aqua Satellite, NASA, January-December 2015, edited by Forensic Architecture.

The Peat

Some of the roots of the Indonesian forest fires can be traced to the political repression and mass killings undertaken by the Indonesian government since 1965 when local and multinational companies collaborated with the armed forces to seize vast tracts of land from local and indigenous populations and then employed them in exploitative conditions.

The fire took place mainly in dried peat lands made up of thousands of years old decomposed organic matter. In their undisturbed, swamped state, peat lands are fire-resistant, but decades of canal digging by large agribusiness operators drained and dried the peat to prepare it for the monoculture plantation of palm oil making it extremely flammable. Peat can smoulder underground for weeks and creep in great depth many kilometres from source.

The Fire

In 2015 the Indonesian government declared a state of emergency and started using air-dropped water and cloud-seeding to produce artificial rain in a desperate attempt to extinguish the fire.


Credit: Walhi 2015, edited by Forensic Architecture

Forensic Architecture team

  • Eyal Weizman (Principle Investigator)
  • Samaneh Moafi (Project Coordinator)
  • Jason Men
  • Christina Varvia
  • Nichola Czyz
  • Nabil Ahmed
  • Paulo Tavares

Collaborators

  • Baltasár Garzon / FIBGAR
  • Manuel Vergara / FIBGAR
  • Mauricio Corbalán
  • Pío Torroja / M7Red

MSF Supported Hospital

MSF SUPPORTED HOSPITAL

Attack on MSF supported hospital in al-Hamidiah, Idlib, Syria

15 February 2016


On the morning of the 15th of February 2016, an MSF supported hospital in al-Hamidiah, a small village located south of Ma’arat al-Numan, Idlib Province, was hit by in two separate attacks. Each attack consisted of a number of strikes within a few minutes of one another.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the MSF supported hospital, MSF publicly claimed that the strike on the hospital was ‘very likely’ carried out by Russian or Syrian forces. Their claim was met with denial from both Russian and Syrian governments, with the Syrian UN envoy talking about the “so called MSF hospital operating without permission” and Russia denying any responsibility. The controversy caused by MSF’s claims and the denial of the perpetrators highlighted the urgency to conduct a private investigations into these events. It is in this context that FA was commissioned by MSF to determine the perpetrators of the attack, which killed 25 people.

This work is part of a new collaboration between MSF and Forensic Architecture that aims to develop the independent capacity to investigate and report on hospital strikes worldwide.

Although multiple videos and photos claimed to capture the attack, FA was faced with a bipartite challenge. On one hand, both Russian and Syrian regime planes were carrying out air raids in the area of Ma’arat Al Numan on multiple medical facilities throughout the day; on the other hand, the media attention given to the attack on the MSF supported hospital meant most footage uploaded via news agencies and social media fell under the blanket term of ‘attack on MSF hospital’, even though the footage in question had not captured the attack on the MSF supported facility.

In order to determine which material captured which attack, FA cross-referenced testimony provided by MSF from people on the ground who witnessed the attack first hand, as well as publicly available testimony from the Free Syrian Army Observatory against spatial and temporal details found in the videos. These methods included image triangulation to locate the scene, shadow analysis to corroborate the time of recording, and observing clues as to the characteristics of the fighter planes involved. In doing so, it was possible to produce a clear timeline and map of the different attacks that occurred that day. The balance of probability resulting from this analysis tilted towards the attack on the MSF supported hospital being carried out by the Russian air force, while the attack on the other hospital later that day was more likely to have been carried out by the Syrian regime.

Furthermore, the report illustrates a coordinated strategy involving the systematic targeting of medical facilities, leaving Ma’arat al-Numan and its surroundings critically deprived of much needed medical infrastructure.

Forensic Architecture team

  • Eyal Weizman
  • Christina Varvia

Collaborating Organizations

 

 

Umm al-Hiran

Umm al-Hiran

Northern Negev, 18 January 2017

Forensic Architecture collaborated with ActiveStills to investigate the killing of a Bedouin man, Yaqub Musa Abu al-Qi’an, and of a policeman, Erez Levi, on January 18, 2017 in the illegalised Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the northern Negev. 

Shortly before dawn January 18, a large police force raided the village in order to prepare for the demolition of several houses. This demolition was part of a plan to remove the entire village in order to clear the area for the building of a new settlement for Jews only. The police said Abu al-Qi’an was involved in a terrorist attack and suggested he had “links to DAESH”. Local residents and activists said the policemen shot Abu al-Qi’an without provocation and that, following this shooting, Abu al-Qi’an lost control of his car which drove over the policemen.

To investigate the incident Forensic Architecture synchronised videos shot on the ground by members of ActiveStills with aerial footage released by Israeli police. The video we produced overlaying the voiceover of the ground videos over the aerial police footage. 

Our analysis shows that Abu al-Qi’an’s car was proceeding slowly towards the general direction of the policemen when it was shot 3 times. This was followed by a burst of 4 gunshots. 

4 seconds after the first shot was fired his car changes course and drove towards a group of policemen. 

6 seconds after the first shot the car hits the policemen. 

This is followed by a long burst of fire. The car’s horn is heard continuously sounding, suggesting that the driver might be incapacitated. 

13 seconds after the first shot the car comes to a standstill. 

We can also identify the clear sound of a single gunshot at a time several policemen are seen surrounding the stopped vehicle. This last shot is consistent with what the Israeli security personnel calls “verification of killing” or shooting with the intent to kill already neutralised people.

Ongoing Investigation

Contrary to police claims, al-Qi’an’s headlights were on

“..Almost every element of the story police relayed in the hours after the deadly incident has been repudiated in various media reports and investigations. Now, it seems the police claim that Yaqub Musa Abu al-Qi’an was driving with his lights off, which allegedly made police suspect he was carrying out a vehicular attack, is most likely untrue as well…video shows Abu al-Qi’an’s vehicle, after three shots were fired at it, heading down a slope with its headlights on — before striking any police officers.”

Video contradicts more police claims in Umm el-Hiran killing by John Brown, +972  Published February 1, 2017

In an Al Jazeera news report broadcast the day after the incident, we noticed a short video segment which we believed to show Yaqub Abu al-Qi’an’s car in the first moments of the incident. There is a flashlight pointed at the car and its headlights are on. Abu al-Qi’an’s car does not seem to be moving at an irregular pace.



“…Later that day, police released a video clip filmed from a police helicopter overhead. “In the film, you can see the terrorist standing on the side of the road with the lights of his car off, and the minute he notices the team of [police] he accelerates at them and hits them,” said the police. But in the film, shot with a thermal camera, it is not possible to see whether the lights of al-Kiyan’s Jeep are off or not. Erdan repeated the police’s claim, saying it proved al-Kiyan’s intentions to run over the police officers.”

Killing of Bedouin Driver: New Video Contradicts Claim by Israeli Police by Almog Ben Zikri, Haaretz Feb 03, 2017

Reenactment

20 March 2017

Arguing the Truth

13 July 2017

This video documents Forensic Architecture’s and Activestills’ immediate investigation of this case — showing that the policemen shot Abu al-Qi’an without provocation – and its involvement in the media campaign to expose the lies of the police.

Guatemala: Operacion Sofia

GUATEMALA: OPERACION SOFIA

Environmental violence and genocide in the Ixil Triangle

The violence inflicted by Guatemalan state security forces — both military and military-organized civil militias — on the Ixil Maya people in the El Quiché region of West Guatemala (1978–84) amounted, according to Guatemala’s Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) to “acts of genocide.” But genocide is not always only the killing of people, for it also includes “environmental violence”: the destruction of the natural and built environment as part of a military strategy.

This investigation attempts to read the environment not just as the location of conflict, but as the means by which it unfolds. This research formed a report produced on behalf of the prosecution in the case of genocide committed against the Ixil people. Our research was included in a series of trials taking place in Guatemala, including the retrial of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt in the National Court of Guatemala and in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Forensic Architecture team

  • Eyal Weizman (Principal Investigator)
  • Paulo Tavares (research & coordination)
  • Daniel Fernández-Pascual (research)
  • Hannah Meszaros Martin (research)
  • Maya Cueva Franco (research)

SITU Research team

  • Bradley Samuels (Managing Partner)
  • Akshay Mehra (research)
  • Charles Perrault (research)

Collaborating Organisations

  • CALDH – Centro para la Acción Legal en Derechos Humanos (Rodrigo Salvadó and Edwin Cannil)
  • ODHAG – Oficina de Derechos Huamanos del Arzobispado de Guatemala (Raul Najera and Ana Carolina)

Interactive Platform

Forensic Architecture’s research on environmental violence was designed to complement other studies of the conflict. In order to demonstrate the multifaceted nature of environmental violence, our research was presented in the form of a web-based interactive cartography produced in collaboration with SITU Research. The platform is able to establish the spatial and temporal relation between otherwise separate pieces of evidence.


The Mineral Geology of Genocide


Guatemala Investigation: The Mineral Geology of Genocide (part II). Forensic Architecture and SITU Research. Realisation by Steffen Kraemer.

Animated composite mapping


The transformation of the Ixil area between 1979 and 1986. Topographic model with a projected sequence of composite maps demonstrating how deforestation, pattern of massacres, destruction of native villages, and construction of new “model villages” transformed the area between 1979 and 1986. Visualization: Forensic Architecture and SITU Research.
NDVI map

Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) analysis of the Ixil territory for satellite images taken in 1979 and 1986, the years that bracket the genocide. Green indicates heavy vegetation and red signifies little vegetation. Visualisation: Forensic Architecture and SITU Research.

Map depicting the density of massacres registered by the UN-backed Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) during the thirty-six years of civil war. The zone of greatest intensity overlaps with the ancestral territory of the Ixil Maya. Visualization: Forensic Architecture and SITU Research.

Map depicting the density of massacres registered by the UN-backed Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) during the thirty-six years of civil war. The zone of greatest intensity overlaps with the ancestral territory of the Ixil Maya.
Visualisation: Forensic Architecture and SITU Research.

Taken over by wild grass, this partially cleared plot of land was formerly occupied by a wooden house. On the left side of the image an avocado tree can be identified, a signifier of the plot’s former occupants. Village of Xolcuay, Ixil territory, 2013. Photo: Paulo Tavares.

Taken over by wild grass, this partially cleared plot of land was formerly occupied by a wooden house. On the left side of the image an avocado tree can be identified, a signifier of the plot’s former occupants.
Village of Xolcuay, Ixil territory, 2013.
Photo: Paulo Tavares.

Aerial image of the model village of Acul in which survivors of the massacres were concentrated, circa 1984. Source: Magazine of the Guatemalan army, Polos de Desarrolo y Servicios, 1984.

Aerial image of the model village of Acul in which survivors of the massacres were concentrated, circa 1984.
Source: Magazine of the Guatemalan army, Polos de Desarrolo y Servicios, 1984.

Map identifying the location of unmarked graves⎯in which victims of the civil war were buried⎯uncovered by the Fundación de Atropología Forense de Guatemala (FAFG) at a cemetery in the city of Escuintla, southern central Guatemala. Photo: Forensic Architecture.

Map identifying the location of unmarked graves⎯in which victims of the civil war were buried⎯uncovered by the Fundación de Atropología Forense de Guatemala (FAFG) at a cemetery in the city of Escuintla, southern central Guatemala. Photo: Paulo Tavares and Eyal Weizman.

Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) analysis of the Ixil territory for satellite images taken in 1979 and 1986, the years that bracket the genocide. Green indicates heavy vegetation and red signifies little vegetation. Two trends are noticeable: increased deforestation in the areas surrounding the major towns (the destruction of the forest went hand in hand with the destruction of villages); and an increase in vegetation cover in the northern areas, possibly signaling abandoned fields taken over by the wilderness. Visualization: Forensic Architecture and SITU Research.

Two trends are noticeable: increased deforestation in the areas surrounding the major towns (the destruction of the forest went hand in hand with the destruction of villages); and an increase in vegetation cover in the northern areas, possibly signalling abandoned fields taken over by the wilderness.

Housing density in the “Ixil Triangle.” Mayan villages were dispersed in the arable valleys between the mountain slopes. In this image the yellow dots mark the location of individual houses in 1964, before the campaign began. The red squares mark the location of new settlements and model villages into which all dispersed households were concentrated. This territorial reorganization employed by the Guatemalan military sought to concentrate the Ixil population into urbanized zones, radically altering their way of life. Visualization: Forensic Architecture and SITU Research.

Housing density in the “Ixil Triangle.” Mayan villages were dispersed in the arable valleys between the mountain slopes. In this image the yellow dots mark the location of individual houses in 1964, before the campaign began. The red squares mark the location of new settlements and model villages into which all dispersed households were concentrated. This territorial reorganisation employed by the Guatemalan military sought to concentrate the Ixil population into urbanised zones, radically altering their way of life.
Visualisation: Forensic Architecture and SITU Research.

Ruins at the village of Pexla Grande, Ixil territory, 2013. Photo: Paulo Tavares.

Ruins at the village of Pexla Grande, Ixil territory, 2013.
Photo: Paulo Tavares.

The DNA identification room at Laboratorio Clyde Snow, Guatemala City, November 2011. Photo: Paulo Tavares, Eyal Weizman.

The DNA identification room at Laboratorio Clyde Snow, Guatemala City, November 2011.
Photo: Paulo Tavares, Eyal Weizman.

Excavation of clandestine graves at the cemetery in Escuintla, Guatemala. Photo: Paulo Tavares and Eyal Weizman.

Excavation of clandestine graves at the cemetery in Escuintla, Guatemala.
Photo: Paulo Tavares and Eyal Weizman.

 

Living Death Camps

LIVING DEATH CAMPS

Staro Sajmište / Omarska, former Yugoslavia

Living Death Camps describes the condition of two former concentration camps located in the territory of ex-Yugoslavia: the World War II-era camp of Staro Sajmište, and the camp of Omarska, dating from the Yugoslav war. Both are presently inhabited and used for other purposes.

Living Death Camps names a collaborative project that seeks to investigate the complex material and political issues currently unfolding around these two sites, and to understand the politics of commemoration in which each of them is embroiled.

Each of these sites has a complex and singular history, which we have undertaken to expose in our research. It is by addressing the specificity of each site that we sought to understand and intervene in the respective transformation of each place into a post-conflict site of commemoration. Starting from the acknowledgment that these two former death camps are presently inhabited and used, that they are places upon which the lives of many depend, we argued that it is a necessity for each of these sites to develop a project of commemoration that would remain responsive to the demands of ongoing life.

In an attempt to engage with this need and the difficult questions surrounding it, our research turned to some of the methods of contemporary archaeology. Our forensics have surveyed and explored the multiplicity of events registered in the materiality of each site, without an a priori focus on the historical layer that the death camp has left behind. The material entanglement of historical layers in each site forms the ground upon which a call for a simultaneous attention to its present and pasts can be made.

An inverted symmetry emerges from the research we have conducted in each of the two sites. In both cases our research culminated in the assembly of a public forum, however in Staro Sajmište we opposed plans for commemoration that involved the eviction of its current residents, while in Omarska we demanded that the local community be granted the right to commemorate the tragic events that took place on the site, which is today occupied by a commercial mine in operation.

Forensic Architecture Team

  • Eyal Weizman (Principal Investigator)
  • Susan Schuppli (research and coordination – Omarska)
  • Francesco Sebregondi (research and coordination – Staro Sajmište)
  • Steffen Krämer (videography & video editing)
  • Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss (research – Staro Sajmište)

In Partnership With

  • Grupa Spomenik
  • Working Group Four Faces of Omarska
  • Caroline Sturdy Colls, Centre of Archaeology at Staffordshire University
  • ScanLAB Projects

Press

“Burden of Proof” by Tom Holert, Artforum March 2013

“A memorial in exile in London’s Olympics: orbits of responsibility,” Susan Schuppli, openDemocracy July 2012



Staro Sajmište: The Inverted Horizon

Staro Sajmište, or the Old Fairground, was built in 1938 on the outskirts of Belgrade to host international exhibitions and to present the Kingdom of Yugoslavia as a modern, industrialised, and technologically advanced nation. During World War II, following the German invasion of 1941, the fairground was transformed by the occupying Nazis into a death camp, where Jews, Roma, and political opponents were detained and killed. After the war, the remaining structures of the Sajmište complex became the residence of several generations of people—particularly those from the most vulnerable sections of society—and included artists’ studios, workshops, small industries, and homes for a Roma community. Due to the urban expansion of Belgrade over the past sixty years, Staro Sajmište is now at the centre of the city.

Recently, another transformation of the site was announced. In light of the City of Belgrade’s project to establish a Holocaust memorial in Staro Sajmište, which would necessitate the eviction of some or all the current residents (the first evictions of residents began in the summer 2013), we attempted to highlight what we saw as an unacceptable contradiction: a Holocaust memorial cannot be built on a forcefully cleared ground without immediately compromising its purpose. In order for such a claim to be articulated and heard, it needed to be made on a material basis.

Forensic archaeologist Dr. Caroline Sturdy Colls has, in recent years, developed a methodology of investigation that she refers to as “non-invasive.” This involves using a range of complementary techniques, but it largely relies upon the sensing technology of Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR). This device transmits radar pulses into the ground to a depth of up to fifteen meters, and detects minute differences in the densities of the subsurface by recording the reflected signal. In the fuzzy three-dimensional model of the subsoil it produces, one can identify buried objects, voids and cracks, and other disturbances in the soil structure. Sturdy Colls uses this method to map and digitally explore the subterranean strata of historic sites, in particular those shaped by a history of violence. We approached her in the spring of 2012 to work on an extensive survey of Staro Sajmište, putting her in collaboration with ScanLAB Projects, a London-based practice that specialises in large-scale 3D data capture. A singular image of the site at Staro Sajmište, above and below ground, has emerged from this collaboration.

Our survey has resulted in a report titled An Archaeological Assessment of the Area of the Former Judenlager and Anhaltlager at Staro Sajmište, Belgrade, Serbia, which analyses the different structures, additions, and alterations that have accumulated on the site’s thick ground. The report sought to unpack the history of the site as a process of ongoing transformation; it searched for historical and material continuities as well as ruptures. In this approach, all layers of the site, including and in particular those composed of its recent and present daily use, are regarded as archaeologically significant. Above all, the report demonstrates that Staro Sajmište’s multiple historical layers are inextricably entangled and mutually dependent.

On October 5, 2013, we convened a public forum inside one of Staro Sajmište’s most infamous structures—the former German pavilion, which had served as accommodation for the camp’s inmates during World War II. There we publicly presented our archaeological report, which served to provoke an open discussion about the future of the site.

The report confirms a counterintuitive fact: Staro Sajmište stands today thanks to its ongoing inhabitation, which has sustained it for the past sixty years. As Sturdy Colls put it in her presentation of the report: “The role of the people who have been living here since the war should be duly acknowledged. Because in actual fact, the people who have lived in these buildings have played a role in preserving them. Many of these buildings wouldn’t be here if people hadn’t lived in them.”

Not only did the residents of the site prevent its structures from degenerating into rubble—as happens after the long-term inoccupation of a building—but their number and distribution over the entire site has successfully hindered the realisation of several redevelopment plans during the post-World War II period—which could have meant the destruction of the historical buildings to make room for a denser or more profitable urban quarter. Based on these findings, our claim—which we publicly put forward on the occasion of the public forum—was the following: rather than evict the people living and working in Staro Sajmište, the City of Belgrade has a duty towards them and surely must include them as an active party in any future plan for commemoration.

The first transformation of Staro Sajmište from an exhibition ground into a concentration camp demonstrates a strange continuity between the two very different functions of the same compound—both made use of the same geometry of vision of pavilions around a central tower. The second transformation from a camp into a living neighbourhood illustrates a concept that philosopher Giorgio Agamben describes as “profanation”— “restoring into common use” of those things that have been excluded, separated, bounded, put out of access and touch. Today’s plans for returning the site to its original function—thereby completing a circuit that leads from a fairground through a concentration camp to a museum—would imply the re-sanctification of the site in the meaning of its exclusion from daily life. “Everything today can become a Museum,” Agamben writes, “because this term simply designates the exhibition of an impossibility of using, of dwelling, of experiencing.”

An appropriate commemorative project for Staro Sajmište would include a plan to rehabilitate its homes and modernise its collective infrastructure, in order to support its potential as a common space. The concept of a living death camp would demand that any commemoration plan should see to the improvement of the living conditions of the communities that have turned this place into a neighbourhood, and that have kept its material history alive.

Aerial image of the newly built fairground with Belgrade in the background, 1937. The panoptic structure of the camp is clearly identifiable. Image: courtesy of the Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade.

Aerial image of the newly built fairground with Belgrade in the background, 1937. The panoptic structure of the camp is clearly identifiable.
Image: courtesy of the Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade.

FA2 - 2-semlin 1941

Semlin camp, circa 1941. Originally constructed as ticket booths for the fairground, the buildings in the foreground later became the gatehouses of the camp, photo circa 1941. Image: courtesy of the Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade.

German Pavilion in the fairground, 1937. Image: courtesy of the Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade.

German Pavilion in the fairground, 1937.
Image: courtesy of the Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade.

Aerial photograph of the Semlin camp in 1944, showing the bomb craters of the Allied raids over Belgrade. Image: courtesy of Jovan Byford.

Aerial photograph of the Semlin camp in 1944, showing the bomb craters of the Allied raids over Belgrade.
Image: courtesy of Jovan Byford.

The Central Tower in its current state (2012). Image: Forensic Architecture.

The Central Tower in its current state (2012).
Image: Forensic Architecture.

Interior of mechanical workshop occupying the former German Pavilion, 2012. 3D-Laser Scan data. Image: ScanLAB Projects / Forensic Architecture.

Interior of mechanical workshop occupying the former German Pavilion, 2012. 3D-Laser Scan data.
Image: ScanLAB Projects / Forensic Architecture.

Plan of Staro Sajmište (the former Semlin death camp) in Belgrade. The survey combined two distinct data-capture technologies: on-site features lying above the ground were recorded via 3D laser scanning, while we searched for buried features using Ground Penetrating Radar. The rectangular surfaces that appear mainly in blue are snapshots of the underground, and the colored elements within them mark disruptions to the soil structure. Image: ScanLAB Projects/Caroline Sturdy Colls/Forensic Architecture, 2013.

Plan of Staro Sajmište (the former Semlin death camp) in Belgrade. The survey combined two distinct data-capture technologies: on-site features lying above the ground were recorded via 3D laser scanning, while we searched for buried features using Ground Penetrating Radar. The rectangular surfaces that appear mainly in blue are snapshots of the underground, and the colored elements within them mark disruptions to the soil structure.
Image: ScanLAB Projects/Caroline Sturdy Colls/Forensic Architecture, 2013.


Survey Area I, 2012. Annotated depth plots of the GPR data viewed in plan. Feature A bisects the survey area from east to west and most likely represents a pipe, probably for sewage. Feature B is a modern path. Feature C is visible from 0.10 m deep and is present as an area of medium reflection until approximately 0.72 m. Strangely, it returns as a low reflection feature at approximately 1.24 m. It seems likely that this feature represents some form of back-filled ditch, but its purpose is unclear. It might also represent a remnant of a historical settlement, predating all other features. Image: Forensic Architecture / Caroline Sturdy Colls.

Survey Area I, 2012. Annotated depth plots of the GPR data viewed in plan. Feature A bisects the survey area from east to west and most likely represents a pipe, probably for sewage. Feature B is a modern path. Feature C is visible from 0.10 m deep and is present as an area of medium reflection until approximately 0.72 m. Strangely, it returns as a low reflection feature at approximately 1.24 m. It seems likely that this feature represents some form of back-filled ditch, but its purpose is unclear. It might also represent a remnant of a historical settlement, predating all other features.
Image: Forensic Architecture / Caroline Sturdy Colls.

Survey Area I, 2012. Depth of GPR data as visualized in GSSI RADAN® software. The elliptical feature C is visible. This strange feature, defiantly located amongst all the other historical layers, complicates the history of the site. Image: Forensic Architecture / Caroline Sturdy Colls.

Survey Area I, 2012. Depth of GPR data as visualized in GSSI RADAN® software. The elliptical feature C is visible. This strange feature, defiantly located amongst all the other historical layers, complicates the history of the site.
Image: Forensic Architecture / Caroline Sturdy Colls.

Omarska: Memorial in Exile

In 2005 ArcelorMittal made a commitment to finance and build a memorial on the grounds of Omarska, the site of the most notorious concentration camp of the Bosnian war. Two decades later, no resolution as to how to commemorate the tragic events that took place on its grounds have been found.

In a chance meeting near the mine, Director of ArcelorMittal, Prijedor Mladen Jelača, proudly confirmed to us that the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the towering symbol of the London 2012 Olympics, was being fabricated with iron ore that came from the Omarska mine. This material link between London and Omarska—between a site where crimes against humanity were committed and another that celebrated that same universal humanity—formed the basis of our collective project. On July 2, 2012, shortly before the opening of the Olympics, we hosted a press conference in the immediate vicinity of the Olympic park. With the participation of survivors from the Omarska and Prijedor camps, we reclaimed the ArcelorMittal Orbit as the Omarska Memorial in exile.

Prijedor is in the region that is referred to, after the Dayton Peace Agreement, as Republika Srpska—an area whose demographics were dramatically affected by the war and where ethnic cleansing was the most intense and successful. Bosnian Muslims we spoke to, who had returned under the agreement, complained of daily harassment and continued discrimination. While ArcelorMittal claims it is fully aware of its responsibilities towards the local community and its employees, the mine’s postwar workforce is comprised almost exclusively of Bosnian Serbs.

ArcelorMittal insists on “not taking sides in this debate without engagement or prior agreement of the local communities and local/international stakeholders concerned.” Not taking sides in an area where persecution and injustice continue is not an act of neutrality but constitutes a political position by default. Not taking sides maintains the impasse of the present and forecloses the possibility of moving forward. Through the Memorial in Exile project, we aimed to raise public awareness of this material amnesia, and to put continued pressure on ArcelorMittal—demanding that it use its enormous influence to facilitate the entrance into public discourse of the history of the Omarska death camp.

Twenty years after it first emerged in the public sphere, the case of Omarska regained considerable public attention through our project. It may be that this contributed to bringing about a significant softening in ArcelorMittal’s policy regarding public access to the site. As a consequence, our team was granted access to the Omarska mine on October 3, 2012 to conduct a detailed photographic and 3D laser-scanning survey of the notorious White House. In 1992, this rather banal-looking one-story pitched-roof house functioned as a place for the torture and execution of inmates. Witnesses who testified in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) described an accumulating pile of bodies rising in a deadly mound beside it. The White House was also the site chosen by ArcelorMittal to build a memorial in a 2005 project that was later abandoned.

3D laser-scanning technology allowed us to capture a millimeter-perfect model of the interior, exterior, and immediate surroundings of the White House. The level of detail it provides allows one to identify features that are hardly visible to the naked eye, such as the footprint of a boot on an interior wall, but also remnants of improvised attempts at commemoration. The capture of this model constitutes a future-oriented archive. Considering the planned cessation of the ICTY’s activities at the end of 2016, the fate of the White House in the coming years is uncertain. Access to such a significant place of mourning for the relatives of the camp’s victims still remains highly restricted today. In the context of the ongoing negotiation of a commemorative project for Omarska, this singular three-dimensional archive has the potential to be mobilised in unexpected ways.

The Omarska mine and its surrounding landscape. According to recent geological assessments there are still some 347 metric tons of limonite and carbon-ore reserves in the river valleys of the Sana, Una, and Gomjenica, between the mountains of Kozara and Grmec. Limonite has been mined for more than two thousand years in this region of Bosnia.

The Omarska mine and its surrounding landscape. According to recent geological assessments there are still some 347 metric tons of limonite and carbon-ore reserves in the river valleys of the Sana, Una, and Gomjenica, between the mountains of Kozara and Grmec. Limonite has been mined for more than two thousand years in this region of Bosnia.

IT-99-36: Brdjanin. Picture of the Omarska Camp Model (0400-9592). Exhibit P1128.4. Date: 30 / 10 / 2002. Submitted by the Prosecution at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Image: ICTY Court Records.

IT-99-36: Brdjanin. Picture of the Omarska Camp Model (0400-9592). Exhibit P1128.4. Date: 30 / 10 / 2002. Submitted by the Prosecution at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
Image: ICTY Court Records.

Twenty years after the war crimes committed there, still no space of public commemoration exists. Ground, buildings, and equipment once used for extermination now serve a commercial enterprise run by the world’s largest steel producer.

Twenty years after the war crimes committed there, still no space of public commemoration exists. Ground, buildings, and equipment once used for extermination now serve a commercial enterprise run by the world’s largest steel producer.

ArcelorMittal Orbit, London Olympic Stadium, 2012. Image: Courtesy of ArcelorMittal.

ArcelorMittal Orbit, London Olympic Stadium, 2012. Image: Courtesy of ArcelorMittal. Rising to the soaring height of 114.5 meters and outstripping even the Statue of liberty by two meters, the ArcelorMittal Orbit boasts an impressive compendium of statistics: 1,500 tons of steel, 35,000 bolts, 19,000 liters of paint, 770 visitors per hour and 5,000 per day, vistas stretching 20 miles into the distance, and a overall price tag of £22.7 million, £19.6 million of which was funded by ArcelorMittal.

The facts and figures of the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the showpiece of london’s 2012 Olympics, are tragically intertwined with the history of war crimes that took place on the very grounds from which ArcelorMittal subsequently began to extract not only its soaring global profits, but the very iron ore that the director of ArcelorMittal Prijedor boasts has been used in the construction of the Orbit.

The facts and figures of the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the showpiece of London’s 2012 Olympics, are tragically intertwined with the history of war crimes that took place on the very grounds from which ArcelorMittal subsequently began to extract not only its soaring global profits, but the very iron ore that the director of ArcelorMittal Prijedor boasts has been used in the construction of the Orbit.

Aerial view of Omarska mine. From the Four Faces of Omarska Archive, source unknown.

Aerial view of Omarska mine. From the Four Faces of Omarska Archive, source unknown.

New battle breaks out over Serb death camp, The Guardian, December 2, 2004.

New battle breaks out over Serb death camp, The Guardian, December 2, 2004.

The story that links london to Omarska forcefully came to our attention when a group of us, including survivors of the conentration camp, drove around the perimeter of the Omarska mining complex in April 2012. At a certain point we pulled off to the side of the road where a white building was barely visible in the distance. Anxiety mounted as we lingered to talk and take some pictures, the survivors fearful that this unauthorized stop might make future access to the site even more difficult.

The story that links London to Omarska forcefully came to our attention when a group of us, including survivors of the concentration camp, drove around the perimeter of the Omarska mining complex in April 2012. At a certain point we pulled off to the side of the road where a white building was barely visible in the distance. Anxiety mounted as we lingered to talk and take some pictures, the survivors fearful that this unauthorised stop might make future access to the site even more difficult.

Another series of facts: 3,400 Bosniaks and Croats from Prijedor went missing or were killed during 1992, the summer of the massacre. At least 3,334 were imprisoned in the camp at Omarska, 700 to 800 were exterminated, 37 female detainees were repeatedly raped and tortured, upwards of 150 men singled out daily for execution. One thousand men, women, and children from the Prijedor region are still missing.

Another series of facts: 3,400 Bosniaks and Croats from Prijedor went missing or were killed during 1992, the summer of the massacre. At least 3,334 were imprisoned in the camp at Omarska, 700 to 800 were exterminated, 37 female detainees were repeatedly raped and tortured, upwards of 150 men singled out daily for execution. One thousand men, women, and children from the Prijedor region are still missing.

n the absence of a promised memorial, london’s Olympic landmark, the ArcelorMittal Orbit, was reclaimed as the Omarska Memorial in exile on July 2, 2012. Anirban Gupta Nigam: An act of reclaiming made possible because of the material power of steel to forge a connection between two disparate localities, events, and times. Between two geographies where corporate power, aesthetic practice, and large-scale mining are colliding in interesting and danger- ous ways: the camp in Omarska, and the Olympic Tower in london.

In the absence of a promised memorial, London’s Olympic landmark, the ArcelorMittal Orbit, was reclaimed as the Omarska Memorial in Exile on July 2, 2012. Anirban Gupta Nigam: An act of reclaiming made possible because of the material power of steel to forge a connection between two disparate localities, events, and times. Between two geographies where corporate power, aesthetic practice, and large-scale mining are colliding in interesting and dangerous ways: the camp in Omarska, and the Olympic Tower in London.


 

For a more in-depth account of this project, see the book FORENSIS: The Architecture of Public Truth.